This is the first in a two-part examination of the idea of 'productivity' during the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.
VIKRAM SETH didn't fall for unrealistic measures of productivity. 'Sit, drink your coffee here; your work can wait awhile. You're twenty-six, and still have some life ahead. No need for wit; just talk vacuities, and I'll reciprocate in kind, or laugh at you instead.’
Though the first two lines are instructive, it is the latter two that stay with me. In a bid to make everything 'worthwhile', we forget how soothing conversations about the unimportant things can be.
I posted this poem on Twitter in the middle of a lunch break on a rather busy work-from-home day. The irony of doing so is not lost on me.
The same night, someone asked me if I'm having trouble separating my personal and work lives — a conundrum that those of us working from our dinner tables and bedroom desks during the COVID-19 outbreak are inevitably facing.
'The hours are melting into each other,' I said in response.
It is puzzling enough that we live in times where every action must hold significance, whether that currency is monetary or social or of the 'personal growth' variety. What is puzzling still is that some of us thought that social distancing would give us the opportunity to go after our craft with more zeal — more time to read and research, more opportunities to iron out the wrinkles in phrases and sentences, more incentive to widen the scope of our work. These standards can be both self-imposed as well as a result of how the world, and more specifically, “hustle culture” or motivational speakers, tell us to make the best use of our time.
Instead, I’m planning the most elaborate grocery runs I’ve ever embarked on, endlessly catching up with the news about the pandemic, keeping tabs on the medical needs of two households, and keeping tabs on my own ability to remain afloat. I did not account for the number of hours in a day these tasks would occupy.
What exacerbated this feeling further was the sense that I was getting very little done despite being busy all day.
Household chores and work-related tasks took longer than they normally would. A fellow journalist said she would abandon old to-do lists and make new ones so that she wasn’t forced to look at the tasks she had not finished. I went a step further: I began making to-do lists that featured inconsequential items, just so I could cross them off.
In her iconic BuzzFeed essay about how millennials are the burnout generation, Anne Helen Petersen expertly articulated the very peculiar experience of errand paralysis: the sheer inability to perform tasks that can result from any number of factors, ranging from the perceived difficulty of the task to its boring nature, but primarily rooted in our permanent state of burnout. Right now, my errand paralysis is at an all-time high, in part because I am actually exhausted by the constant, low-level stress many of us seem to be living with.
AND SO I spent the first few days punishing myself for not being able to focus until I realised that this disruption was a widespread experience. Harvard Business Review's piece on how what we're all collectively going through is grief and uncertainty about the future helped immensely to understand that this was a natural consequence of living through a pandemic whose consequences and course we don't fully know.
The full extent of how ingrained notions of being efficient and useful are, became apparent when I realised that most of us needed this wake-up call – this rooted-in-science assurance – to stop punishing ourselves for achieving less.
In a more well-adjusted world, we would lower our expectations of ourselves and reset them, keeping in mind self-empathy and pragmatism.
But our world is dysfunctional at best, and we need to read a tweet about how we’re not working from home but rather "at home during a crisis, trying to work", to stop fuming at ourselves and others.
Another thing that made me take a step back was the people-fatigue. I often tell friends about the ‘people-fatigue’ I feel at the end of a day that involves seemingly endless phone calls, mails, in-person conversations and interactions. It's the feeling that you've spoken to more people than you'd have liked to, and the urge to retreat into yourself, in silence.
It appears that all of us have been on hour-long video calls with friends and family, nearly every day. I'm not one to underestimate the value of such conversation, especially with people I haven't spoken to in months or even years, and more so for people who live by themselves. But I wonder if we're filling up the empty hours with sound now.