Productivity is not required during a pandemic


Karen Zhang

I tried to channel my inner Shakespeare during the first month of quarantine.

And I was successful. Sort of.

After picking embroidery back up at the beginning, I haven’t embroidered anything in two weeks. I exercised practically everyday until two weeks ago, and since then, it has been a constant struggle to find motivation and discipline to workout. After three weeks of taking a free Yale class about the brain and cognitive functions, I stopped it.

When I first dropped embroidery, when I stopped taking that class, when I didn’t exercise, I felt a little embarrassed of myself. Why can’t I do this? I’m literally stuck at home and I have nothing better to do. I’m so privileged to even be able to be at home and be able to embroider or take a class in my free time. 

Shakespeare literally wrote King Lear in a plague. This is one of his famous works and houses one of his famous quotes: “When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.” So what am I doing right now? Why can’t I get up and write King Lear too?

Ultimately, it boiled down to one question: why am I not being productive right now when I have the means and times to do so?

The idea of productivity as I have understood it my whole life—doing whatever I can in the most time-efficient way as possible—is ultimately a product of industrial capitalism. In non-industrialized societies, human beings wouldn’t establish strict divisions between their working lives and the rest of their lives. Instead, they were task-oriented, measuring time not by hours, but by how long it takes to complete a task. But in the West, industrialized societies have forced human beings to shift into being time-oriented: to the capitalist, time is money.

Now, more than ever, Americans are taught to treat idleness as a waste of time, wicked and a sign of failure. Today, people work even when they aren’t supposed to. We have become a society in which people feel constant pressure to work and to be productive, even when they shouldn’t be. This culture of productivity has been so normalized, that we don’t even notice it’s not right to beat ourselves down when we aren’t doing something.

We are living through a pandemic. And while I’m blessed to be able to stay at home and to have not lost anyone, that doesn’t mean pandemic is a stressful and traumatic time for all of us—we are grieving for the loss of our predictable future, we are afraid for our parent and grandparents, we are angry and bitter that our time has been stolen away—and it’s okay to feel things that aren’t motivation and productivity.

It’s normal for us to feel afraid and uncertain—we’re in a crisis with so few answers and solutions. Just remember to exercise patience and compassion towards yourself. 

So if it makes you feel better to bake ten loaves of bread a week and learn how to speak fluent Chinese in this quarantine? Do it. But if you can’t find the strength or motivation to write a single word, to draw a single piece of art, that’s fine too. 

Do what you have to do to make it through. You don’t have to write King Lear; just be kind to yourself.