There’s always pressure to be more productive, but many of us feel like the coronavirus outbreak has ramped up expectations. Scrolling through social media, you’re likely to see everything from workout challenges to elaborate home-cooked meals. Someone, somewhere has decided that we’re supposed to take this time in self-isolation to learn a new language, clean our whole house, and write a novel because, as we’ve been reminded so many times, Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine from bubonic plague. And if you don’t manage to churn out some masterpiece during quarantine, you’ve wasted this “opportunity” to be productive.
This “make lemonade with lemons” approach might work for some people — in stressful times, staying busy can definitely be an effective coping mechanism. But for others, it’s only causing increased anxiety and depression. You may be thinking that it’s hard enough to make it through the day, so how are you supposed to make sourdough bread from scratch? If you don’t have something to show for your time in quarantine, will everyone think you’re a failure?
To start with, you’re not failing if you’re not in the mood to be incredibly productive. If the laundry list of things you feel like you’re supposed to complete is negatively affecting your mental health, it’s time to take a step back. This is simply because there is no “right way” to quarantine. We need to understand where the pressure is coming from, connect with our feelings and find ways to manage stress rather than add to it. Talkspace therapist Dr. Rachel O’Neill adds that, “We also need to redefine what it means to be productive. Some days, simply waking up and being kind to yourself is a productive use of your time.”
Understanding the Drive to be Productive
Productivity can be an emotional reaction to fear — from tangible fears of losing our job to greater feelings of helplessness in this global pandemic. A study on coronavirus and American workers found that 96% of individuals have significant concerns about the outbreak and its effects on society. Ninety percent are more concerned about their personal health and 85% expect their work to be negatively impacted. We are all going through this catastrophe right now and we’re in it together. If you have similar concerns, you’re certainly not alone.
When we feel this type of helplessness, a natural way to compensate can be to try to regain control wherever we can. This means working harder to prove value to employers, monitoring diet and exercise, or taking on new projects that can provide a sense of accomplishment. O’Neill adds that “for many, there can be a sense of comfort in the ability to feel control over aspects of their life.” tThese “productive outlets” are things we can control, ways to hold onto some sense of our own agency as our stable environment slips away.
Further, establishing goals and routines can help our mental health. Eating healthy food and staying active are recommended ways to manage anxiety and depression. While these controlling coping strategies aren’t “wrong” per say, overly controlling behaviors often stem from mental health related concerns — which may be exacerbated during the stress of this global pandemic.
The true problem with fear-driven productivity is that it can make us feel even worse when we fail. The feeling that we’ve been avoiding comes back in full force. Studies have found links between perfectionism, workaholism, and depression — the need to be perfect at working “productively” can be a distraction from an underlying negative mood. Using only “problem-focused” coping strategies (i.e. performing actions to solve issues) can cause a deficit in “emotion-focused” coping strategies that help us process our feelings.
Feel first, do later
Feelings, especially ones that we label as negative or unpleasant , can feel like uninvited guests. We’d rather just kick them out and go back to business as usual. “For some, productivity can serve as a way to avoid experiencing strong feelings. The problem with this is that, no matter how productive you are, the feelings won’t simply disappear,” notes O’Neill.The problem is, those pesky feelings are still milling around on the front lawn. The minute we’re done with an activity, they’re knocking at the front door again.
Instead, approach your feelings with curiosity. Dr. Gabor Maté calls this “compassionate inquiry” and writes that it can help us explore unconscious dynamics to stop our emotions from ruling our lives. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now? Why might I be feeling this way?” We often need to name our feelings in order to figure out how to attend to them. These guests have important messages and they can guide us to better coping strategies. Journaling, meditation, or speaking to a therapist are all methods for accessing this greater self-awareness.
Mental Health Isn’t One-Size-Fits All
While we’re all experiencing a collective trauma, our responses are highly individualistic. Different people have different levels of stress, resiliency, and social support. For example, age, gender, socio-economic status, and previous exposure to trauma impact the way we process the events surrounding coronavirus. We should try to resist the urge to compare ourselves to others (even though it’s challenging) in the best of times, and especially now. Focus on doing what’s right for you without guilt or self-judgement.
Do you want to spend a day crying in bed? Go for it. Eat junk food and watch TV? Live that dream. Give yourself what you need to make it through the days in self-isolation. Then, keep track of your mood and stay in touch with your feelings. What’s making you feel better? What’s making you feel worse? O’Neill recommends we “approach each day with kindness and embrace the spirit of self-love. Ask yourself, ‘what do I need today to feel okay?’”
You can adjust your self-care activities as you go, introducing new things and phasing out others. If you still feel the pressure to be productive, know that you’re working on the most important project there is: yourself.