If you have been scrolling through the bad and worse news about the coronavirus pandemic on Twitter, you may have seen the viral tweets about how famous artists innovated during quarantines, like when Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” while theatres were shuttered for plague or when Isaac Newton created calculus while social distancing.
These facts are intended to reassure and motivate, but they carry an inherent judgment: You could be making the most of this time; are you rising to the challenge?
Maybe you have felt some version of this judgement from friends and family who are using their time indoors social distancing to exercise more, expand their cooking repertoire or come out of this global pandemic with a new skill like a language or sleek and sanitised arms. Hustle culture never stops, quarantine or not.
I feel pressured to keep hustling despite knowing better. My concentration is shot with each coronavirus pandemic update, which is entirely understandable. I will be typing diligently away on my laptop, then suddenly overtaken with worry for my parents who are doctors seeing sick patients and over 60 years old.
And despite these normal concerns, I still feel twinges of guilt for falling behind on deadlines and promises to pick up a hobby. “Why aren’t I working more quickly, doing more?” thinks the capitalist part of my brain.
“There is a tendency in this country and in Western society and within capitalism to be self-critical, as opposed to being self-compassionate,” said Cynthia Pong, founder of Embrace Change, a coaching business that focuses on helping women of colour to transition in their careers.
“We have crafted a lot of our feelings of self-worth on achievement, accomplishment and being prolific in stuff that we do. If you take that away, there’s a void. And voids are so hard to deal with.”
When I talked with career experts about the self-imposed productivity guilt I feel, they offered me helpful, more compassionate ways of reframing the pressure to stay focused and produce.
“The fact that your attention is all over the place is you being empathetic and responding to what’s happening,” Pong said. “If you weren’t, I might be a little bit concerned … ‘Are you not affected by what’s happening right now?’”
“Best” is a relative term, Pong told me. Doing your best in this time is different from doing your best during non-pandemic times. Recognise that it can look different for each person, and don’t compare and despair over how others are managing hobbies and activities during this crisis.
“If you’re just producing what you need to produce to get through the day, that’s OK,” said Lisa Orbé-Austin, a licensed psychologist who focuses on helping professionals manage their careers. “You want to get to some place where you feel like, ‘This is baseline to me. This feels like how I want to be using the time.’”
If you are feeling unmoored and overwhelmed by this moment, Orbé-Austin recommended meditation and the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise, in which you ground yourself by acknowledging five things you see around you, four things you can touch, three things you hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.
“Before starting this exercise, pay attention to your breathing,” Orbé-Austin said. “Slow, deep, long breaths can help you maintain a sense of calm or help you return to a calmer state.”
Don’t become your own punishing boss.
Recognising when to push through and when to let go and call off the workday is essential to knowing what is a reasonable new pace of productivity for you. Here’s a passage from advice columnist and work-from-home expert Heather Havrilesky’s guide to working remotely that resonated with me:
“Until I learned to be a less punishing boss to myself, I was (ironically) far less productive. Try to keep sticking your schedule overall, but be realistic and merciful towards yourself when you’re struggling emotionally or you just need to mix it up one day.
And don’t carry the guilt from one day to the next. Start with a clean slate and congratulate yourself whenever you accomplish something.”
It helped me realise that I was becoming my own strict enforcer when I shamed myself for getting distracted by emails and for not adjusting quickly enough to my new normal of being suddenly apart from my friends and family.
It is normal for this emergency to take up your focus. Support yourself so you can support others. Pong told me that we can dedicate days to coming to terms with our situation, citing last Friday when she learned that her own speaking engagements were canceled.
“I just had to scrap that day. Granted, I have the privilege to do that. I don’t have to answer to an external boss,” she said. “Sometimes you’ve got to cut your losses. If I had just forged ahead, I probably would’ve turned out mediocre work for the next three days.”
If you do have a boss and are in need of a break, try advocating for a mental health day with your manager, so that you can return to the work with fresher eyes, Pong said.
You get to decide what’s an accomplishment worth celebrating right now.
It also helps to talk to others about your feelings, too. For people feeling pressured to be more creative or productive, Pong recommended seeking support from your friends. “I bet if they talked to other people in their circle, and if people were really honest, they would not be the only person experiencing this … That alone can help this feeling of ‘Oh, what’s wrong with me,’” she said.
As for me, I have come to the freeing realisation that my best work under pandemic stress should not be centered around external achievements others may notice. I may be the only one who congratulates me for calling my family more and remembering to stretch.
I have the privilege of a job I can do from home, and I am grateful for it, but I still need frequent rest from it. Good days for me are when I sleep a little more and worry a little less. Pandemic emergencies are not a good creative restraint for me.
I no longer expect to innovate, and that is one less weight on my shoulders. I find myself retreating to what’s familiar to me for comfort: old recipes, old books, old TV shows. I know how those stories end. Getting through each day is enough for me, and maybe that can be freeing for you to learn, too.