Why You Shouldn’t Feel Pressured to be Productive Right Now

Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed an alarming trend throughout my interactions: a focus on productivity. You might be wondering, why is this a problem? We’re university students, aren’t we supposed to be prioritizing getting our work done and getting our lives together? Yes, in some respects. But in others, everyone is missing the bigger picture.

Let’s talk about comparisons

We are now a couple weeks into our new reality of COVID-19 isolation, and everyone is handling it a little differently. A glance through your social media feed will reveal all kinds of ways to cope. You might have some jealousy-inducing friends who seem to have it all together, completing fifteen-item to-do lists on a daily basis all while cleaning their apartment and finishing their final projects a week early. Scroll a couple posts down and you’ll find just as many friends posting about what “failures” they are for falling face-first into their sixth bowl of ice cream, staying in dirty pyjamas for a week and letting their class work fall to the side.

When you’re in isolation, the tendency to compare yourself to others – and to productivity ideals – is high. Although it’s tempting to fall into the pressure of productivity and get into the grind the way we usually would, we need to realize that this situation is – and must be – a new normal.

Reality check: Things have changed

No one is a stranger to the pressure to be productive. Working hard and producing quality work awards us grades, praise and income. However, this typical work-reward cycle operates under the assumption that life and society are functioning as normal. We are living in an unprecedented time that requires everyone in the world to work together. Staying home, adjusting to a new routine and coping with so many life changes at once all requires mental energy. Yes, in your normal routine, you could devote additional energy to studying. Now, that energy is needed to keep yourself well.

While everyone is scrambling to appear productive during this time, they are missing the fact that this is not working from home. This is living at home during a global pandemic and trying to work within the confines of this situation. It’s scary, it’s unfamiliar and, in some ways, it’s dehumanizing. Think back to the last few times you’ve checked in on your friends. How many of those conversations almost instantly veered to the amount of work you had done, rather than how you were actually feeling? Almost all of mine have. Your purpose is not to output homework. You are a person filled with kindness, love and compassion who deserves to be cared about.

This change is compounded by the fact that students have been displaced from their school (and in many cases, the homes they live in throughout the academic year), which results in an enormous loss of resources. No more library, no gym, no extracurriculars, no unlimited Internet at school. Even more relevant for many are the changes to everyday life, from missing hot meals in the dining hall to the immense social support that comes from seeing your best friends in class every day. These changes are hard for everyone, especially when your former wellness supports –  exercise, therapy sessions, coffee dates with friends – are impossible to have in the same ways you are used to. You cannot be expected to function like a machine when your mental health is hanging by a thread. Your wellness must come above your ability to be productive, always.

Finding the gifts

When fighting back against the pressure of productivity, it is important for us to remember the things that are worth fighting for. This pandemic has shut down society as we knew it, but doing so has opened the doors for us to spend time with the loved ones we live with. Board game nights with family, cooking new meals together with the non-perishables in your cupboard and simple conversations can go a long way toward maintaining your mental health. Similarly, taking a walk outside without the distractions and hubbub of the gym you’re used to may serve as a welcome discovery of a clearer headspace.

Having the time to slow down and reconnect is a hidden blessing of the pandemic that reminds us how much more to life there is than work. This is not to mention the many humanizing activities that can be seen in our own backyard, from cheering for healthcare workers on front porches to writing uplifting messages in sidewalk chalk down the road. We are connecting with one another and restoring our sense of community, because we have no other choice but to support one another. This pandemic is not just impacting one person, it impacts the entire world. If we go back to being work-obsessed and ignorant to one another as a society, we are missing the lessons that this pandemic is teaching us.

Get on top, don’t be one

If you’ve ever seen a top spinning, you’ll know that while it spins rapidly, it doesn’t really move anywhere. A top will veer back and forth without real direction, consumed by perpetual motion. This is the very trap that we fall into when we push too hard to be productive during this time. We are being bombarded with new situations right now, from virtual classes to news headlines, and it is easy to get stuck in a spiral. But we can choose to retake control, not succumb to the busyness and stop spinning.

By taking a step back from productivity pressure and listening to yourself, you can not only replenish your mental health and well-being, you can be an active advocate for your life and intentionally choose the direction in which to go. Encourage your friends to do the same. While we are physically distancing, we do not need to be distant in heart.

You are a human being, not a human doing. This trait, defined by the very name of our species, dictates that you are more than your accomplishments. Your kindness, empathy and love are the driving forces behind who you are, all of which exist outside of your productivity. These are the forces that are making the world turn right now. So be in the world right now, without needing to do. When I ask how you are, really tell me how you are, not how much work you’ve done. You – regardless of your output during a global pandemic – are enough.