Re-thinking productivity during the pandemic: Forced busyness is toxic; the will to achieve things must be organic

Capitalist culture has created an illusion of productivity by falsely connecting it with happiness. In such a system, if one isn't productive, one doesn't deserve to be content.

Prateek Sharma April 24, 2020 09:46:51 IST
Re-thinking productivity during the pandemic: Forced busyness is toxic; the will to achieve things must be organic

This is the second in a two-part examination of the idea of 'productivity' during the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. Read the first part here.

It is a fact that nationwide lockdowns are essential to fighting the spread of pandemics. But it is also true that the nature of lockdowns is such that they generate strong psychological responses in people. Though mental health has become a part of the public discourse, not enough thought has been given to the many ways in which people are trying to cope with the coronavirus outbreak by making substantial use of their forced stay at home. From celebrities on Instagram to family WhatsApp groups, people have flooded social media feeds with updates about how they're using “all this free time”, often with activities of an indulgent nature.

It is important to acknowledge that such indulgences are rightfully advised and play a crucial role in the overall psychological struggle against the pandemic. Finding a new hobby, taking up an online course, engaging in art forms, cooking, home workouts etc are means through which we can keep ourselves aligned with our mental and physical abilities. This helps us both buffer against feelings of anxiety while also placing us on an eventual path of growth. But over time, these activities are being increasingly viewed through the lens of achievement, driving many people to feel pressured to comply with trends.

Rethinking productivity during the pandemic Forced busyness is toxic the will to achieve things must be organic

Illustration © Namaah K for Firstpost

“I remember drawing up a mental list of things I wanted to do right before the official lockdown ended, since I thought I’d have so much time on my hands — from cleaning up my room, to a weight loss routine. It has been over 20 days, and I haven’t been able to do a single thing,” says Sakshi, an MPhil scholar based in Gwalior. “I am starting to think that I would have found it easier to do all this during a regular work day. I found myself doing more in those times, in comparison to now,” she adds.

Sakshi's confusion isn’t new. If you search for the words 'lockdown', 'positive' and 'productive' on Google, you will find an array of blogs ready to help you maintain a positive outlook amid the chaos, so that you are able to accumulate validation every day based on how much you achieve. These blogs do so by presenting an impressive array of tasks, ranging from learning a new language and finally sorting through a mismanaged wardrobe, to finding new ways to explore intimacy, or even compiling a poetry collection.

“I could sense the pressure from the first week of the lockdown itself, when my friends would talk about their workouts and cooking sessions. We are all trying to get through the days, so this shouldn’t be like a competition,” Sakshi says.

But a competition is what this seems like to many such as Sakshi, because the hype surrounding being productive has convinced people that productivity — something that should be autonomous and subjective — is a criterion that determines positivity and self-betterment. And this is a problem.

The root of enforced productivity

The science is quite simple: we work not just for material gains, but also what these gains mean to us. Every accomplishment stimulates the reward systems in our brain, giving us a feeling of pleasure and motivating us to do more. However, like other sources of human pleasure, this too is bound to cause us harm when it crosses a certain point and becomes subject to rigid regulation.

When Arpita reached her home in Kota before the lockdown was announced, she thought she could put into place a schedule to follow. “It began on a happy and positive note, but I soon began feeling heavy, and later, I barely felt the need to do anything. Every conversation with a friend or a relative came down to a single question: what new thing am I learning today? Followed by the advice to learn to cook or lose weight, as though I'd never have the opportunity to do this in the future,” she says.

Researchers at the University of Chicago coined the term 'idleness aversion' to refer to an acquired fear of staying inactive, which drives people to keep busy and eventually justify that busyness. Though it considers idleness as being harmful, the study warns of a ‘destructive busyness’ in comparison to its constructive variant, where people are free to choose which activity subjectively feels good to them.

When busyness is forced, it arrests a person’s capacity to make authentic meaning out of what they are doing.

Productivity exists at the intersection of mental space and time management, and a worldwide lockdown has resulted in disorientation with regard to both of these factors. On the one hand, it can feel as though there is an excess of time and too little to do, on the other, one can feel as though there is too little time to achieve everything. This is likely to take a toll on mental health, for it creates a situation where the will to do something is no longer a personal choice. Therefore, it carries no emotional appraisal, rather turning into a checklist.

Eventually, those who are unable to reach such expectations pay the price of distress, because it is no more valid to not do anything. As Arpita expresses, “I workout twice a day to remain sane. I want to tell myself that I am doing something, like everyone else, and not merely sitting idle. It’s as though everybody has expectations of themselves as well as others. I’m preparing for the UPSC examination and there’s now a change in my study pattern, since I no longer know if I should be studying for longer hours or shorter. The uncertainty about the lockdown and the pandemic is very confusing.”

Corrupting the tendency to cope

It is safe to say that this lockdown has birthed global ‘peer pressure’, which is neither new nor situational; it is rather a part of a larger puzzle which many experts have long been trying to piece together. Capitalist culture has created an illusion of productivity by falsely connecting it with happiness and the feeling of being a contributing member of the human species. If one isn't productive, one doesn't deserve to be content.

“Most of us, including people rendering care in such times, are trying to make sense of what is going on. There is little or no clarity about whether and when things will go back to normal,” says Devika Kapoor, a psychologist based in Mumbai. “People are trying their best to do things , to create outcomes. This may seem pressurising as it is, but I also feel that we are having a hard time letting go to readjust ourselves to whatever is happening, because being 'useful' or 'productive' is one of the very few familiar scripts we have. In times of uncertainty, it is only natural to hold on to the parts that seem familiar,” she explains.

Devika asserts that at a systemic level, this notion of productivity is toxic and should be re-examined. “Individually, people might want to remain productive because that is the part which seems under control right now. While it is of course okay to want to be productive, the whole thing takes on a toxic form when not being productive really challenges your self-concept.”

Capitalism demands that people remain in the cycle of constant growth through a strict emphasis on productivity through labour. In contrast, according to Daniel E Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology, we are only required to invest in labour that is enough for survival, which makes resting and relaxing equally important aspects of living. “Forced labour of any kind is toxic,” Devika adds, “For example, women are now inadvertently doing more work — housework, their professional work and the added pressure to engage in more activities.”

Internally held beliefs about achievement and success play into the scenario. Devika explains, “We want to be productive and achieve things all the time, and that's a result of capitalism. In some people, this drive may be much higher and compulsive than others. This is because of our own past experiences and how they have shaped our worldview. Unfortunately, these ideas are being challenged tremendously during this time, and that can be very difficult for someone to make meaning of an experience like this.”

The idea of growth within the capitalistic framework spills into the “free time” narrative and replaces the subjective act of coping with a stressful pandemic with an activity chart for a vacation. As a result, more and more people may unknowingly give into the pressure to conform without having the time and space to figure out what form, type and measure of coping is suitable for them. This is why it is important to envision this critical time as that of survival where someone with a diverse routine full of activities and skill-learning feels the same benefits as someone who watches films and naps through the day.

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