Lost in Isolation

The Desperate Need to be Productive in a Suspended World

By Nicole Mattea

Summer 2021 Issue

I used to thrive on a perceived sense of productivity. I had never felt happier than when I was working two jobs, had an internship, and was going to school full time. I was busy seven days of the week and hadn’t had anything even slightly related to a hobby in over two years. I barely had time to think and that’s the way I liked it — constantly moving at full speed. 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that many people felt similarly to me. A set schedule or expectation for life is how most of us function, especially in a capitalist system. In Conspicuous Consumption of Time: When Busyness and Lack of Leisure Time Become a Status Symbol, Silvia Bellezza, Anat Keinan, and Neeru Paharia discuss this idea, stating that:

“positive status inferences in response to long hours of work and lack of leisure time are mediated by the perceptions that busy individuals possess desired human capital characteristics (competence, ambition), leading them to be viewed as scarce and in demand.”

Additionally, with deliberate busyness comes a schedule or set of expectations for one’s daily routine. COVID, the subsequent quarantine, and restrictions that followed have put an effective halt on what we once perceived to be a daily routine or even a “busy” lifestyle. Many have transitioned to working from home or lost their jobs altogether. While some individuals have enjoyed working from home and the newfound freedom that comes with a lack of commute and set schedule of production, many have also felt displaced by the lack of structure and normalcy they had come to expect from their lives, experiencing mental health issues as a result.

Couldn’t you be doing something better with your time?

Mental health has been a huge topic of conversation throughout this pandemic. In the United States, about four in ten adults have admitted to symptoms related to depression and anxiety, a rise from early 2019 when the rate was one in ten. This rise can be attributed to many different COVID-related factors including the stress that comes with adapting to a new home-based lifestyle. Those working from home have reported burnout and worsening mental health conditions, especially when schools have also transitioned to being online, leaving workers to juggle both their work and family simultaneously. In a Hinge Health study, of the 900+ workers in the United States surveyed, 48 percent have reported to having experienced stress, anxiety, or depression since working from home, with 73 percent stating that their mental health symptoms are new or have worsened with COVID-19.

Along with burnout, there has also been a rise in what is deemed “productivity guilt.” Beyond being productive at work, many have reported feeling as though they should be using their time working from home or in quarantine productively — whether it be learning a new skill, writing a book, adopting a workout routine, etc. Productivity is so ingrained in our way of living that even having extra time to breathe and decompress in the light of so much death and fear is perceived as negative to the subconscious. 

A year into this pandemic, I still feel as though I can be doing more, even when the thought of actually doing so gives me mental anguish. I often contemplate getting a second job or returning to college to pursue a Master’s degree — not for any genuine desire to do so but because it would once again lead me to believe I was being productive and doing something worthy with my time and energy. As Vicky Spratt aptly states in No, You Don’t Need To Use Isolation To Write A Novel in Refinery29, “Self-improvement as we experience it in our capitalist society is always about productivity and never about true enlightenment, pleasure or fulfillment.” So, although I recognize that prioritizing what I deem to be “productivity” does not give me or my life more value, my brain continues to struggle to come to terms with what to make of my life without it. I try to do things I genuinely enjoy, like reading books, but find myself unable to truly enjoy them without my anxiety in the background whispering “Couldn’t you be doing something better with your time?”

COVID-19 has led to insurmountable loss, perhaps in more ways than we recognize. Beyond the loss of life, there is also the loss of what we once recognized as our daily life. This loss has both positives and negatives, as the abrupt shutdown of recognized society demonstrated just how much some of us rely on productivity for fulfillment and self-worth. Without an effective and recognized way of coping with this change, many are shown to suffer in terms of their mental health and wellness. It is difficult to say if there is a solution to such a problem, as COVID-related conditions change every day and what we recognize as today’s circumstances and way of life can just as easily shift and change tomorrow. Further, productivity and labor are so ingrained in our society that it would require a deviation from pretty much everything we’ve been told to aspire to. Easier said than done.

Nicole Mattea is a contributing writer to The Documentarian based in Chicago.