Since the start of quarantine, aside from a general sense of bewilderment and far too many TikTok dances, social media has been abuzz with the idea that now is the time to maximize productivity. According to several “motivational” tweets, a pandemic is a perfect opportunity to write a novel, learn a new language, pick up a guitar, or get in shape. Isaac Newton allegedly discovered calculus during a plague outbreak.
As someone whose brain maxes out on dopamine at the sight of a completed to-do list, I initially believed I had no excuse to be idle during quarantine. It’s a logical narrative. Time is normally in short supply, but now that it’s not, getting things done should be incredibly easy. So, why has quarantine felt like an anxious, infinite loop of mediocre Tuesdays?
Defaulting to productivity isn’t necessarily an issue in and of itself. Wanting to create and stay busy keeps us sane, happy, and human. But quarantine has revealed problems with the “hustle culture” mindset — the desire to make every moment productive — especially when this mindset assumes that your purpose is to produce.
The culturally-embedded phrase “time is money” best encapsulates why so many of us fret about productivity (or lack thereof) during quarantine. I realized recently that I view time in economic terms: as a limited commodity, a constraint under which I must maximize output. I can invest free time in activities that will “better” me, and whenever I pick up a hobby, my mind immediately jumps to ways that I can monetize it. When you think of yourself as a machine, you start evaluating your self-worth by machine standards — by how much you can produce.
This pressure I feel to maximize productivity stems from the idea that my time is not my own in the present, and that I owe it to either society or my future self to keep the cogwheels turning. Working hard now can be rewarded with relaxation later, but what do you do when you have endless tasks, your home is your workspace, and quarantine life offers no clear distinction between “now” and “later”? The need to work hard now will simply last forever if optimizing every moment is the goal.
On top of this pressure, our poor brains must now deal with yearning for what spring quarter could have been, watching people on social media break quarantine to party, expending extra effort to maintain long-distance friendships, and trying to keep ourselves motivated through it all. Isolation from our peers is psychologically taxing, and many students struggle to take tests in distracting environments with unreliable technology.
So when you measure your success as a human being by your level of output and it seems you’re locked in a whirlwind of bad news, what can you do? Instead of approaching every day with an intention to maximize productivity, I argue that we should do our best to prioritize healthy habits, even if they don’t agree with a viral tweet about Isaac Newton. He certainly didn’t have the added stressors of Zoom meetings, dozens of unread emails, or unreliable WiFi to worry about.
I’m having to constantly remind myself that self care is inherently productive. Under current circumstances, it’s easy to neglect activities like changing up your routine, exercising, eating well, and practicing mindfulness; but it’s important to remember that you are a person, not a machine. You truly don’t need to write a memoir or learn how to code right now to be of value. Just bake some banana bread, revisit some old childhood hobbies, and have some compassion for yourself. Life is so much more than checking off boxes on a to-do list, after all.