being productive

What does being productive mean right now?

Most of us around the world are staying home right now, trying to minimize the coronavirus pandemic. Some of us are still working or have transitioned to working from home, some have been laid off and some are working on the frontlines.

And everywhere on social media and internet sites, we’re barraged with social media posts, articles and ads on ways to stay busy and use this time productively. 

Reactions to what I’ve heard called “productivity porn” vary, from:

Encouraged and inspired: Some people are up to the challenge, happy to pack their days full of things to do, challenges to undertake and new things to learn. Carpe diem!

Ambivalent: Others might celebrate what others are doing but are content or laugh at themselves for staying in pyjamas all day or binge-watching TV. Is it wine o’clock? What day is it? 

Pressured: Some folks are feeling defeated, like they’re failing at taking advantage of this time to do incredible things. What’s wrong with me that I can’t do more? Why am I wasting this time?

Exhausted: I want to be doing more but I just can’t bring myself to get to it. Where is everyone finding the energy for this stuff?

How you’re feeling right now could depend on many things, like whether you’re working from home or suddenly out of work, if you have young children or other loved ones to care for or if you’re in a stable and loving relationship with a partner, if you’re trying to get along with a household of people, or alone, if you’re staying home or working on the frontlines and whether your physical and mental health was strong before the lockdown.

In addition to our unique circumstances, our personality styles factor into how we manage through self isolation. We can’t fall into comparing ourselves to others or judging people who respond differently than we do – yet many of us do just that, don’t we?

Productivity isn’t the right measure for us right now

We are in the midst of a pandemic. Being productive is often really challenging for people when times are good, so it’s okay to not be okay during a global crisis.

Be wary of feeling that you have to be more productive, live up to your expectations of what productive used to look like or live up to anyone else’s ideas of what being productive is.

While productivity is a great measure for a machine or a business, is it the right measure for us as people – especially in a crisis? What does it mean to succeed or thrive right now? What if you’re #nailingit if you’re managing only the essentials?

Time is relative

I have heard from many clients that they thought they would have EXTRA time when they weren’t commuting, working regular 9 to 5 workdays or ferrying children to extracurricular activities. Some had ideas of all the new and additional things they would add to their days (especially those of us who love lists and promote the use of them in normal times) – and now we feel like we’ve LOST time.

Extra time is elusive when you’re dealing with uncertainty, adapting to working remotely (or the stress of working on the frontlines) and figuring out this new reality, which has changed everything from schooling kids to getting groceries. Nothing is normal right now.

It’s like when we’re driving to a new destination and the route there seems really long because we don’t know for sure where we’re going, so our senses are heightened and we’re a bit anxious. On the way home it feels very different – shorter – because we know what to expect. 

Similarly, our sense of how long we’ve been in suspended production is not accurate because we haven’t made it through. Just dealing with uncertainty and worry is tiring and distracting. Do you HAVE to take on bonus tasks and extra things if it’s a stress for you? Or is it okay to just pay attention to getting there safely, fed and rested?

Determine for yourself what to value

What if making the most of this time is taking care of ourselves and those we care about? We’ve talked before about how contemporary culture has a fixation on being busy. But being too busy is counterproductive, resulting in burnout and sacrificing personal life for corporate accomplishments.

Given that society has glorified this idea of overworking in recent years, particularly in North America (“How are you?” “Oh, busy!”), it’s not surprising that one response to having to quarantine and stay home has been to fill every second of time with achieving and overachieving. But resting quietly is valuable and necessary – everything has its season.

If your glass is already full, adding even one more drop will be too much. You want to fill it to where it’s comfortable for you. 

What will help you manage could be very different from every other person you care about and that’s okay. Learning to knit could be calming and distract you from worrying about COVID-19. Learning a language or being creative could be a wonderful way to occupy your time if you’re feeling lonely. Or, cuddling with your dog and sipping a cup of tea while you watch the sunrise could be just what you need.

Setting work goals during self isolation

Many of us are still working right now, remotely or as essential workers. We do still have to deliver things for others to be able to do their work. If you’re finding it a challenge to get through what you need to do, this could be helpful:

  • Write out your weekly goals first, then go through the list and remove everything that isn’t actually essential – everything that you think “oh, I should,” leaving only “yes, I must.”  Then break down the steps to help you achieve them.
  • Next, pull out another piece of paper and write down the things you’re thankful for in this pandemic. Pro tip: one of those things might become, “I gave myself permission to rest,” or “I accepted that resting my mind was good for my health.”
  • Finding an accountability partner can be very helpful, especially if you’re new to working from home or feeling overwhelmed. Talk to a friend, or trusted colleague – not the person you’re trying to be like, but someone you trust, someone who gets you and yet will be willing to do what you ask of them – and then ask them to check in on your progress.
  • Review our strategies for staying focused in spite of distractions – especially the Pomodoro Technique, which is simple and very effective (focus for 25 minutes, break for 5 and then repeat until your to-do list is done). Adapt the Pomodoro to your situation. For example, first of all – the 5-minute break has to be a break. Sip a tea and look out the window, put in some earphones and listen to soft music with your eyes closed, do a short meditation, get up and walk around the block.  If you are also caring for others, build in caring for them as part of a 25-minute block NOT as part of a 5-minute break.
  • The other ideas for staying focused will also help if you’re struggling to quiet your mind – or perhaps other humans if you’re working from home.

Changing our ideas of what being productive means right now will help us get through this pandemic – and maybe even improve our approach to work and personal life in years to come. 

Coach’s Questions

Have you felt stressed about being productive during the pandemic? Have your thoughts about productivity changed? What are you going to try this week? What are you doing to let go of this week?