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Productivity fanatics: A society that’s forgotten to press pause

There’s a wonderful irony to the fact that the mediums we turn to so frequently for procrastination are the mediums that shame us the most for doing so. A three-minute scroll through your Twitter feed at the moment is enough to remind you that Isaac Newton’s period of isolation led to his discovery of the theory of gravity, or that William Shakespeare used the plague outbreak of 1606 to pen dazzling works such as King Lear. Your Instagram feed is no better, plastered with cute graphics urging you to ‘Hustle from Home’ and telling you ‘Don’t Count the Days: Make the Days Count!’. Hoping to find some respite, you switch to TikTok, only to be bombarded with hundreds of healthy eating recipes and home workout plans. Having spent the vast majority of the day binge-watching Netflix in bed, you can’t help but feel increasingly aware of the hours and days slipping through your fingers.

This lockdown could be career-defining for a budding writer, revelationary for a researching academic, game-changing for a training athlete… and yet here you are, having spent a month at home with no magnum opus, ground-breaking discovery or personal best to show for it. If you’re anything like myself, this realisation came with a wave of guilt, shame and frustration. But here’s the thing: those feelings are not a result of any failing or intrinsic character flaw on your part, rather they are a toxic by-product of the all-consuming hustle culture that seems to have our entire generation under its thumb. 

We’ve become hooked on the idea that every minute of ‘empty time’ in our lives must be filled with productive activity, that any action not geared toward self-improvement has no value (or even place) in our day-to-day existence. This isn’t even remotely possible to achieve in normal circumstances, and yet as the entire world comes to an enforced standstill, this mindset seems to be tightening its grip more than ever. Whether it’s attending a Zoom meeting whilst working out or learning a new language whilst cooking a healthy dinner, the pressure to ‘get shit done’ is becoming more acute and inescapable by the day. 

I was one of the many who fell into this alluring trap. Stripped of all my usual excuses not to be productive (*cough* the pub *cough*), I initially felt thrilled by the idea of this vast expanse of free time and vowed to use it to do all the things that my social life had ‘held me back’ from doing. I was finally going to lose all the weight I’d gained from eating out every week, take the time to learn Russian, master my favourite Beethoven sonata on the piano, upload to my YouTube channel twice a week, get ahead on my university work… the list went on and on. 

But it turns out that setting that monumental expectation for myself was precisely my biggest mistake. Within days, the sheer number of possibilities had gone from exciting me to crushing me, leaving me overwhelmed to the point of complete inactivity. I was faced with an entirely empty calendar, and yet I am sure that even 8-year-old me was achieving more with her days than I was after a week in lockdown. I found myself paralysed by two very conflicting thoughts, with one voice telling me that ‘I’m never going to have this much free time again, I should use it wisely’, but the other reminding me that  ‘I’m never going to have this much free time again, I should use it to finally relax’. When added to the aforementioned guilt-tripping on my social media, the expectations of my viewers to live up to my reputation as a “Studytuber” and the University’s assumption that the academic year should continue as if nothing had changed, it soon became a very dangerous combination. 

I couldn’t bring myself to do anything other than eat, sleep and complete the most basic tasks. The sense of panic that I had fallen behind everyone else was rising, mingled with guilt that I was whiling away so many hours without any meaningful achievements to show for it. So began a vicious cycle of failed productivity and frustration. 

The situation I found myself in seems to be far from uncommon at the moment – friends and family alike have expressed similar concerns as they try, like myself, to clutch desperately at some sense of normality amidst the confusion by ploughing through their to-do lists. But I soon came to a realisation that changed my perspective entirely: nothing about this situation is normal, so what is the point in attempting to continue as if that were the case? We are not lesser beings for failing to thrive under these conditions. If anything, we should be seeing merely surviving as a remarkable achievement. There is simply no logic in expecting ourselves to be hyper-productive machines in the midst of one of the largest crises we will see in our lifetimes.

That’s not to mention the fact that we live in an age that makes productivity a trying task at the best of times. Yes, Shakespeare may have produced some of his best work whilst shut away in his home, but he didn’t have to navigate a constant barrage of online information about the status of the pandemic or battle the temptation of various online sources of entertainment. The same can be said for Newton: the significant intellectual strides he made in quarantine are impressive, but he didn’t have to worry about responding to hundreds of emails from his professors or sitting an entire term of his Cambridge degree remotely.  

Our frantic desire to avoid ‘wasting time’ points to a dangerously backward way of thinking, and it seems to me that hustle culture has distorted our perception of what constitutes ‘meaningful’ activity beyond recognition. If you manage to come out of this period fluent in a foreign language or well-versed in a new topic, that’s fantastic, but if you come out of this having done nothing more than paying attention to your own needs and the needs of the ones you love most, there should be no shame attached to that. There is no right or wrong way to spend the coming weeks and months, nor should there be any benchmark for what constitutes a ‘successful’ pandemic. 

Personally, I’ve found that setting some manageable goals to work toward has been both helpful and grounding, and so I’ve settled for a degree of ‘productivity’ much lower than my normal levels but enough to offer me some structure. Regardless of how you choose to get through this pandemic, however, it is important to remember that the hustling you see on social media is nothing more than a highlight reel. For every fancy desk set-up and 10k jog you see there will be a Netflix binge and a late-night snacking session that you don’t. Practising compassion, avoiding comparison and not expecting consistency in your levels of motivation will all help to alleviate the sense of guilt that hustle culture has hardwired you to feel. 

If one thing’s for certain, it’s that this crisis has exposed a glaring truth to the light of day: the fact is that our priorities as a society are in urgent need of a reset. Rest, relaxation and socialisation aren’t holding us back, rather they are enriching and essential activities that contribute to our wellbeing just as much as any new skill acquired or piece of knowledge gained. Whilst striving for self-improvement should by no means be frowned upon, it should also not be seen as the only way to lead a meaningful existence. 

Productive or not, no-one should be defined by what they achieve during this period of limbo. It seems that in a society that places so much worth on forward progress, we have forgotten how to press pause.

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