Long Reads

Coronavirus UK: no, you don’t have to be productive during a global pandemic

Are you struggling to muster up the energy to bake some bread and write a book, while simultaneously learning a new language during lockdown? We hear you. If you’re feeling exhausted and overwhelmed during the coronavirus pandemic, you are not alone. Here, one writer explains why it’s more than OK to be unproductive during this unprecedented time.

Day five of isolation: I stare blankly at my screen and read the same sentence for the sixth time. I still don’t know what it says. I look out of the window. Two minutes pass before I realise I’m still looking out of the window. I look back at my keyboard. Words don’t come. I look down at my chest. Still no bra. And with the way things are going, it’s looking less and less likely that I’ll be wearing one again in the next month.

During the first week of the coronavirus lockdown, I was so anxious and stressed that I could barely even read. My concentration vanished into thin air, and took my drive and motivation with it. I was in a catatonic state, completely overwhelmed by constant news alerts of rising death tolls and increasingly strict social-distancing measures. 

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My parents cancelled their visit from the UK to my new home in Copenhagen days before my birthday. My partner had to race through the desert to leave California and return to Europe before Trump’s travel ban came into place, managing to get the airport for the final flight to Copenhagen. My friends were losing their jobs

Waves of clarity would suddenly drown me after hours of denial around what social distancing actually meant. I watched the man in front of me at a supermarket buy seven packets of pasta while I waited to pay for my box of wine. Priorities. 

There’s a merit in giving yourself a break from productivity.

I would start sentences and not know how to finish them. Words failed me, as time and time again I would reach for adjectives that anxiety had pushed out of my brain. As a writer, this was a real problem.

At the same time, my Instagram feed was filling up with memes and quotes telling me to use this time to exercise, make art, meditate, write that novel, finish that project, start yoga, clean up my diet, invest in myself, reinvent myself. Shit, I thought. I can’t even do a global pandemic right. 

I didn’t recognise my own experience, one of anxiety levels so high it was taking me 20 minutes to draft an email, in those smug little squares on social media. As if social distancing wasn’t enough to contend with, I now felt isolated by my failure to turn adversity into art. Where was everyone finding this resolve? It was taking every fibre of my being just to move from my bedroom to my living room for an eight hour work day. I would love to tell you that this involved getting changed out of my pyjamas, but I don’t want to lie.

Capitalism has instilled in us the idea that we’re only valuable as long as we are productive. Combined with the various pressures put on women by a patriarchal system, it shouldn’t be surprising that we’re still striving for excellence in unprecedented circumstances. 

woman-run
“Don’t get me wrong, routines are important. I won’t argue against the merits of a healthy diet and regular exercise for maintaining mental health.”

From imposter syndrome to the good girl complex, women are often the first to criticise themselves and the last to applaud their own achievements. Societal pressure placed on women expects us to navigate our careers, relationships and lives at the highest possible standard. 

According to the World Health Organization, “pressures created by [women’s] multiple roles and gender discrimination” contribute to the global numbers of poor mental health in women. Women are also more likely to experience the negative ramifications of perfectionism, something that has been exacerbated by social media and narrow beauty standards.

The devil works hard, but gendered expectations work harder, and despite a literal pandemic, they aren’t showing any sign of easing up. The stock market might be crashing but it’s business as usual for women. 

Don’t get me wrong, routines are important. I won’t argue against the merits of a healthy diet and regular exercise for maintaining mental health. But there’s also merit in giving yourself a break. If now isn’t the time to do so, when we’re collectively frazzled from an apocalyptic news cycle, then I don’t know when is.

I’ve never been harder on myself than I was in that first week of lockdown. I felt like a failure for not being able to carry on as normal, despite everything being so different. I felt like Alice, sat in a pool of my own tears and totally bereft by so much change, but chastising myself for crying nonetheless. So I want to spread this message far and wide: we don’t have to be productive right now. We can fill these suddenly long days with Netflix if that’s all we can muster. It seems baffling to have to say this but it bears repeating: it’s OK to be affected by a global public health crisis.

coronavirus-lockdown
If stepping outside for a few minutes is all you can manage today, then that's OK.

What works for one person might not work for another, so if you find that painting is your best coping mechanism right now, then that’s great, paint away. If you feel motivated to finish a project you’ve been desperate to find time for, then more power to you. But if lying in bed at the tail-end of a 48-hour YouTube viewing spiral and eating a family-size pack of Doritos is the best you can do right now, then that’s absolutely fine. Munch on, my friend.

These inspirational posts that implicitly call for us to be the best versions of ourselves are failing to acknowledge that sometimes, that version is the one that’s just doing the best they can. Bettering yourself is great, but have you tried being kind to yourself instead?

Whether you’re managing at your normal pace or just dragging yourself along, it doesn’t matter. Just keep putting one slippered foot in front of the other – you’re doing great.

This piece was originally published on 2 April 2020

Images: Unsplash

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