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All over social media, my friends and acquaintances are congratulating themselves on having not just survived 2020, but having flourished. Some of my talented pals have written books; others have got engaged, had babies, and bought houses. Me? I’ve had an interesting time, but I certainly haven’t accomplished all that much. or have I?
Earlier this year, when Covid-19 began to rear its ugly head, the world seemed to become increasingly anxious over the issue of productivity. How on earth were we to churn out as much work as usual, while also evading a potentially life-changing, if not fatal, virus?
Productivity, or lack thereof, has become the be-all and end-all for many people during the pandemic. But in this febrile atmosphere, exacerbated by the cabin fever occasioned from being trapped inside for days on end, the added stress of not being able to escape one’s family or flatmates, and the ever-present whisper of doubt from one’s inner critic, it can be nigh on impossible to get anything done, let alone a full day’s work.
And then, if one does succeed in getting a few hours’ work done, one is bombarded with constant messages about the need to improve oneself in one’s spare time. Ever thought about launching a podcast? Or how about reading the entire bibliography of Charles Dickens? Have you considered getting fit, overhauling your wardrobe, or redecorating your house? What about taking a professional wine tasting course over Zoom?
Think of all the podcasts, online courses, and motivational seminars predicated on the notion of improving oneself. More than half of Amazon’s top 20 best selling non-fiction books fall into the genre of self-help. I’ve lost count of the number of programmes advertised to me about time management, healthy eating, self-actualisation, and eliminating procrastination once and for all. As I write this I am procrastinating writing an essay for Oxford. Such is life. I don’t think I’ll ever change.
Productivity has become something of a religion — nay, cult — in itself. I’m sick of it. I’m sick of constantly feeling inadequate and useless, of feeling like I’ve wasted time by sleeping and resting, even with a chronic illness.
We know that Issac Newton discovered gravity and invented calculus while in quarantine. Boccaccio wrote The Decameron, a collection of novellas framed as stories a bunch of friends tell each other while quarantined inside a villa during the plague, and Shakespeare similarly penned King Lear.
Like many, I had lofty ambitions heading into lockdown. I wanted to finish writing my first collection of essays (in the works since 2015). I had grand ideas of launching my own website, of taking painting commissions, and learning yoga. And for a while, I found that this frantic productivity did help, in that it distracted me from the hellscape beyond the four walls of my bedroom. I was able to escape the immense catastrophe of Covid-19 by focusing on smaller, mundane tasks and domestic catastrophes.
But this burst of activity was not to last, and soon I found myself struggling to even make myself breakfast, or to do anything other than watch Netflix mindlessly.
I worry that in the hustle and bustle of our productivity, we overlook what cannot be easily quantified. How do we measure the productivity of an afternoon spent, socially distanced, with friends at the park? How can a phone call to a loved one on the other side of the globe be plotted on a graph? There is so much to be treasured in life, and not all of it can be defined or checked off a list.
It’s important to remember (as if one could forget) that there is a global pandemic happening. I have no doubt that pandemic-related stress has altered people’s eating and sleeping patterns, and made it far more difficult for them to concentrate. We’ve had to adjust to new ways of living and socialising. And perhaps people have come to realise just how gendered some aspects of productivity can be, from cooking and cleaning to emotional care. So many of these activities have been done historically by women in private for free, and it’s time we recognise how valuable and demanding these domestic duties are.
Perhaps it’s time to rethink how we measure the value of spending time. Perhaps it’s also time to reflect on how relentless self-optimisation can be horrifically draining. A human life isn’t inherently worth less if the person to whom it belongs cannot, or will not, churn out the same amount of work as another human. So be kind to yourself — you may not have written the next bestseller or hiked Kilimanjaro, but you’ve survived 2020. And that’s enough.
■ Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.