Productivity in a Pandemic: How should we use our time in this strange era?

As the lockdown continues, two different approaches have appeared. The first we might term mission productivity. We have all this free time now, we think. We must optimise it, and ourselves. But, actually, things are taking longer than usual because we’re thinking about a million different things: Are all my grandparents properly secluded? Is my extended family taking this seriously enough? When will the money from my cancelled 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?

It turns out that time is not a zero-sum game. Albeit you may be working remotely, so your commute has disappeared; perhaps we spend less time around the biscuit tin in the common room or the work kitchen. But when the world turns upside down, fears and worries infuse our time with their tug. There are the logistics of managing the roof over your head, food, healthcare, looking after vulnerable family or neighbours. For many, time demands are increasing, not diminishing.

And, in the end, life is more than 2 + 2 = 4. The disappearance of moments of connection or humour do not add up to an extra half hour of ‘free time’, tidily re-allocated. Meanwhile, at the heart of many fears and worries are important questions: what might the future hold? How do we want to inhabit it – personally, institutionally, and societally?

And so another approach has taken shape. In her article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Aisha S. Ahmad lays out beautifully ‘Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure.’ Ahmad is assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, and she speaks from first-hand experience of crisis, having conducted fieldwork in war zones across the world.

Ahmad shows how beneath the drive for productivity is an assumption that all this is temporary; that we can ‘buckle down for a short stint until things get back to normal’. We see this as an interruption of ordinary business, a lacuna to be plugged according to the usual rules. We wait for the clock to begin to tick again, as it always has. So we bust a gut to produce, or beat ourselves up because we’re too distressed, exhausted, or beset by small crawling people to do so.

But in times of global crisis, Ahmad writes, ‘All of that is noise – denial and delusion. Denial only serves to delay the essential process of acceptance, which will allow us to reimagine ourselves in this new reality.’ So honour your straitened circumstances, she says. Attribute value to the care you give yourself and your loved ones. Once you have recaptured some sense of security and stability in your circumstances under lockdown, ‘The emotionally and spiritually sane response is to prepare to be forever changed.’ And to undergo change, we need a fundamental shift in how we think about productivity and time.

With this in mind, this week’s suggested practice is a twenty-minute sitting meditation in which you can simply sit, be, and allow your mind to be as it will. We need not ‘achieve’ anything in meditation. There are no targets, and no spreadsheets to track our progress. Mindfulness is only ever about gentle, curious awareness of what is actually here. We don’t need to clear the mind, or become calm; we need simply honour things as they are, moment by moment. So acknowledge your mind’s sense of busyness and urgency, see it clearly, know that it’s understandable, and come back to the breath; note your fears and preoccupations, with gentleness. Listen to sounds, the chatter of your own mind, the landscape of sensation in the body. Attend to what is really here, and in so doing, know that this is not ducking out of reality, but rather turning towards it.

When we turn towards what is real and present, we move forward on solid ground. So this week, begin to make mental space around the edges of your to-do list. Notice when you are lost in mission productivity, and begin to experiment with something a little different.

To finish with Ahmad, ‘Be slow. Let this distract you. Let it change how you think and how you see the world. Because the world is our work.’

20 minute sitting meditation