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.


Illustration © Namaah K for Firstpost

ASIDE FROM the everyday, this time has given me pause to think of larger questions about productivity. I was telling A, a rather well-adjusted friend (comes back home from work at 7 pm, cooks himself dinner, finds the time to read/listen to music) that he falls in the centre of a continuum where one end comprises those of us who can't seem to eat lunch before 4 pm, and the other is populated by people like my friend P, who has structured her life such that she has the time to smell the proverbial flowers (apart from photographing and writing about them).

Managing one's time in this manner is a matter of being both effortful and mindful, and an essential component of self-care. Owing to the standards of productivity we hold ourselves to, which have now become applicable to our personal lives as well, the pursuit of a holistic lifestyle (committing to exercise, trying to keep up with a diet, signing up for dance lessons) looks like it outweighs practising the lifestyle itself; that proving to yourself that you'll catch the sunset every day somehow matters more than actually watching the sunset.

I've also been thinking about the very idea of work and how we make ourselves useful, or rather, how we feel useful – and where the need to be of utility stems from.

For many of us, especially those who fall within the age group of 17 to 40, it appears that our identities are increasingly defined by the jobs we do. We see ourselves only in productivity terms – the hours when we are working vs the hours when we are not. The space to do nothing, or rather do something that is not conventionally useful, shrinks further and further.

IT IS easy to cynically dismiss measures of productivity, but the truth is that we derive both contentment and stability from them. There's a reason why executing a task well and efficiently at work feels so good. It's just alarming that something which can give happiness and a sense of purpose monstrously engulfs our lives.

This has to do with several factors, many of which are out of our control: the need to make a certain amount of money, working in a sector that requires individuals to work long hours, being in a position where you need to be accountable round the clock. Abandoning such jobs is often a matter of privilege. But I won’t be surprised if those of us who have a choice are also voluntarily allowing work to be the centrepiece of our lives.

Modern work culture, rooted as it is in capitalistic notions, has convinced us that off-time is either wasteful or needs regulation. During a pandemic, when our mental and physical faculties are limited, such a way perceiving ourselves can be detrimental. And it plays out in the very space where we would ordinarily relax and let our hair down – our homes. The home as a sanctuary where you can think nothing and do nothing is reduced to the short walk from the living room to the bed, from the desk to the kitchen, from squinting at a laptop to looking outside the window.

At such a juncture, and indeed any point in modern work culture, imagining a new notion of productivity – the kind where we can take on only as much work as we can manage, or engage in pursuits that may not be considered as work (home-making), or finding meaning in tasks that are not perceived as being useful – can seem radical. It necessitates a re-imagining of the ways in which society is structured, thus making it seem even more unattainable. At a personal level, and for those who can afford it (a privilege again), it will involve exorcising our minds of the demand to be constantly useful. But it holds within itself the promise of a more fulfilling, well-lived life.