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Why Productivity Looks Different During the COVID-19 Crisis

Shawna Ayoub Ainslie
Mar 21 · 4 min read

Quarantine has taught me that productivity looks different during a crisis. For example, getting out of bed is productive. Washing the dishes is productive. Thinking about an essay I want to write is productive. Sitting down to write it? Often counter-productive.

Writing means holding still. For a chronically anxious and depressed person, that’s hard enough. During a pandemic? Well, let’s just say it has taken a nearly centrifugal force to separate out the thoughts I am sharing right now. I’m exhausted to the point it’s a fight not to slide back under my comforter and be, you know, comforted. Instead, I’m sitting on my bed in my pajamas typing away because if I don’t, my anxiety about being non-productive will worsen. You see how this is a vicious cycle?

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

In the last week, I’ve seen plenty of “get your novel written now!” and “give yourself a break” posts. I even wrote one of the latter type. At this moment, what I need to say is that it may look like I’m taking a break, but I really am working hard. And I’m not talking about writing these thoughts.

It was work for me to get out of bed this morning. I struggled for over an hour to get out from under my blanket even though I truly needed the bathroom. It was work for me to make coffee. It was work for me to get the dishes done. For both, I was in battle with my brain about how I should go back to sleep. Phone calls have always been work for me and are now necessary multiple times a day. And it was work to get my mental health medications organized for the next week because that was me looking directly into the face of my oft-times enemy.

This isn’t about my brain being nice or not nice to me. This is about my ability to process the daily and often hourly changes in the world while already anxious and depressed. To do that and still function. Yet, as the capitalist world wants it, produce.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Unlike many, I have a job writing during this crisis. I don’t know how long it will last. My impulse is to churn out fluff pieces as quickly as possible. However, I must work within my abilities, not just my opportunities. When I sit down to write, I am still. Every thought I didn’t know I was moving away from crowds my mind. It takes enormous focus to clear a path through thoughts that, should I give myself a week’s “vacation”, will naturally resolve. That’s right. If I take time off, I can be more productive.

Does this personal truth actually shock anyone? In an age where studies show that shortened work weeks, naps at the office and more time off significantly raise the productivity of employees? The difference here is that I am my own boss. From the outside, giving myself time off looks a lot like I’m slacking. Honestly, when I’m working my hardest it looks a lot like slacking, but that’s my process and I have a strong history of getting my tasks done and done well. In other words, it’s nobody’s business but mine how I do my business.

I don’t want to be told to work. I don’t want to be told not to. I don’t need to be told to work or not to. I also don’t need to be told whether or not I am working. I am a grownup who has been self-employed for a solid 12 years. I will get my work done. I am productive. More importantly, I’m the one who gets to decide what those things mean and look like.

It’s Saturday. Pre-pandemic, this was a non-work day for me. I wanted it to be that today as well. You know what? I’m working. Why? Because I have the ability to do it now. I will be “off” for parts of today. I may force myself not to work tomorrow. Most likely I will work when I feel like it because I’m no longer on a 24 hour schedule. And that’s the heart of what’s stressing me out the most. Sure, I can enforce a sleep/wake/work schedule for myself, but the reason my previous 9–5 worked was because the rest of the world was in it with me.

Maybe it’s not just that productivity looks different during a crisis. Perhaps organization looks different during chaos. Regardless, I see myself getting my work done. I know I am productive. I don’t need anyone online or off to tell me whether I am successful or not. I will define that for myself just as I did before COVID-19.

How are you defining success for yourself? Does it look the same or different than it did before the virus?

Shawna Ayoub Ainslie

Written by

I teach blogging, expressive writing for traumatic release and recovery and host generative writing sessions at the Center for Creative Writing.

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