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Against Productivity in a Pandemic

Why are we being told—by bosses, by fitness apps, by ourselves—to optimize this “new” time to get things done?

Ian Gavan/Getty Images

Boutique grocery stores have been raided of their oat milks, bars and restaurants have been shuttered or limited to delivery-only service, a growing pool of service and retail workers have lost their jobs, the NBA and MLB seasons have been suspended and delayed, Idris Elba and Tom Hanks have tested positive for the coronavirus. Slowly, and rightfully, the shock and surreality of the pandemic is setting in across the United States.

So life mostly sucks right now, plain and simple. And if you find yourself considering that fact, it’s just as likely that you’ll bump up against some unwelcome reminder that—in the face of historic disruption and uncertainty—you can actually get a lot done in home isolation! Did you know Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was quarantined during the plague? Have you tried baking as a form of corona therapy? How about turning your living room into a home gym using soup cans for hand weights? INBOX: Want 19 easy tips on how to manage anxiety in the time of Covid-19?

This mindset is the natural endpoint of America’s hustle culture—the idea that every nanosecond of our lives must be commodified and pointed toward profit and self-improvement. And in a literal pandemic, as millions of us are trying to practice home isolation while also attending to the needs of our families and communities, the obscenity of pretending that work and “the self” are the only things that matter—or even exist—becomes harder to ignore.

You can see this happening in all kinds of contexts, some of it in the form of smiling mandates from employers about “business as usual” while working from home. Managers at The Wall Street Journal instructed newly remote workers to answer work chat messages “within just a few minutes” and to leave cameras on during videoconference meetings, as if there’s some productivity or accountability benefit to letting your boss see what the shitty couch in your apartment looks like. The “good worker” during a pandemic is the good worker during any other time: always available to management. (“Now is not the time to screen calls.”)

The crux of these kinds of posts and newsletters and articles and mandates from work is rooted in the same misguided mindset: Yes, this pandemic is bad, but how can you improve yourself with all this solitude? And more to the point, how can you continue to prove your worth as a hard worker?

This isn’t a normal time, from the spread of the virus itself to the pathetic response from Congress to the quarantine and long-term economic peril staring down millions of people. Not much of what preceded it was really normal, either, but it’s fair to say that when the world is slowly descending into the unknown, any semblance of familiar routine can be a welcome reprieve: Staying in phone contact with loved ones and friends. Finding time to go for a (socially distant) run. But more work, maybe the single most constant feature of American adulthood, is not the answer. Neither is more needless productivity. This is not a time to optimize or stoically pretend nothing has changed. As Jenny Odell wrote of the drive toward growth in How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, “In the context of health and ecology, things that grow unchecked are often considered parasitic or cancerous. Yet we inhabit a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and the regenerative.”

This is a time to sustain. To find ease where we can in a world rapidly placing us into chaos. “We do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way,” Odell wrote. But we should.

This piece, the one you’re reading right now, took roughly an hour longer for me to write than it normally would have because I am currently sitting in my New York apartment thinking about a million different things: Are all my grandparents properly secluded? Is my extended family taking this seriously enough? Should I rent a car and drive home and get away from the city before it all really goes to hell? Are rental car companies going to be price gouging? When will the money from my canceled vacation return to my account? Did I order enough cat food? Do I have enough food? What will things look like two weeks from now? A year from now?

That is normal, now. That is the experience I am sharing with my friends and cousins and family and neighbors. While I’m still reading emails and scanning my drafts for revisions, my mind is miles away with the people that matter most to me. For those with the privilege and ability to conduct their work from home, the coming weeks should be a time to focus on ourselves, our communities, and our loved ones. It should be a time to do nothing and produce little without the accompanying feeling of guilt or panic caused by a ping from a higher-up that you should be doing more as the rest of your world slowly cranks to a halt.

The work of care, of real meaning, is what we should be concerning ourselves with now. It is not optimized, or “disrupting,” or any of that. It is just essential. Reaching out to offer support to the soon-to-be overworked nurses in our communities, contributing to local funds and efforts to feed and adequately compensate grocery workers, restaurant workers, and others who are working at great risk and may be struggling to put food on the table. We should be offering to make shopping runs for our elders and other at-risk neighbors. This is the essential work that demands our attention now, too.

For all the other stuff? The nonessentials? It will not vanquish your fears and stressors to churn out a spreadsheet any faster than usual. Some of us, the fortunate among us, have a kind of time now that may feel new. It can allow us a second to be true to ourselves and our emotions, or to turn away from ourselves and toward care for others, or both at the same time. You don’t have to write your novel. You don’t have to reorganize your closet. Burying yourself in mindless busywork is not the solution. So, go ahead, turn the video function off when your boss calls.