Don't Pressure Yourself to be Productive Right Now

By Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, Clinical psychologist

April 17, 2020

As we shelter in place, many of us are finding ourselves with more time on our hands than ever before. With all of this “free time”, it can be hard to shake the feeling that you should be accomplishing something. After all, how often have you dreamed of having the time to write that book or overhaul your closet or get that certification to move up at work? Isn’t now the perfect time to pursue those things?

Well, no. At least not for the vast majority of us. Granted, if you’re financially secure, enjoy being alone, have endless interrupted time every day, and possess the emotional equanimity of Buddha, then yes—this is your time to shine. But how many of us exist in that space?

Chances are you’re facing high stress and anxiety every day, missing your loved ones while maybe also craving alone time, worrying about making ends meet, and/or trying to figure out the whole home school thing. Oh, plus there’s a pandemic outside your door, or maybe it’s even touched you or your family personally. To me, those don’t sound like the perfect conditions to launch a bold new undertaking.

This is not like leaving your job and using it as an opportunity to start that business you’ve always dreamed of. It’s more like taking family medical leave to care for a loved one. It’s stressful, disorienting, and there are plenty of things to do every day without the burden of compulsory self-improvement.

If you have more time on your hands now, you might actually be accomplishing less, because it’s quite difficult to be productive without a lot of structure in our lives. When you have to create that structure on your own every day, time on your hands usually becomes time that slips through your fingers.

So, watch out for “shoulds,” like I should be getting more done or I should stop watching Netflix. Ask yourself if those kinds of statements are definitely true. Are you in fact violating a rule of the universe by not being more productive, or by zoning out at times with mindless entertainment? Recognize these “should” statements as stories the mind is telling, not objective judgments of what is true for you. You might try turning them around—for example, “Maybe I should be exactly this productive, given the circumstances,” or “Maybe I should be a bit easier on myself.”

Also, don’t believe other people’s self-congratulating social media posts, now less than ever. The “big accomplishment” you’re seeing in that post might be the only time that person has left the couch that day. And if you’re a parent, for goodness sake don’t compare yourself to non-parents, or to other parents, for that matter. You don’t have to use every amazing resource your kids’ teachers and your fellow parents share with you, either. Keeping little people alive and more-or-less happy through this time is enough.

If you’re determined to make good use of this time, emphasize quality over quantity. Instead of asking yourself how much you can accomplish today, ask what kind of day you want to have. Where do you want to focus your attention? What quality of presence do you want to bring to your work and your relationships? What is one way to show love today?

Maybe this is a good time to grade yourself on a curve. Or better yet, drop grades altogether and make it pass/fail—most universities (including Harvard!) have switched to a pass/fail system for this period, so perhaps you can do the same for yourself. If you make it through this time, you pass. Anything on top of that is extra credit

Because seriously, this has been a bizarre and bewildering time. We’ve faced an extremely dangerous threat to our health together (yet alone). And by all reasonable accounts, we’re preventing the deaths of countless individuals and the total collapse of our healthcare system. You’ve been doing that, and I’ve been doing that, and we’ve done it without the people and things we often turn to for strength and support. Many have even done it without toilet paper.

So, if you’re looking for something to feel productive about, take comfort in this: every day since this began, you’ve been saving lives. By staying home and being willing to do less, you’re helping to flatten the curve, which means that many parents will keep their children, husbands will keep their partners, kids will keep their moms, friends will keep each other, because you are doing your part. You, as much as anyone else. Maybe that’s the best measure of what you’ve been up to. Maybe that’s something to be proud of.  

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