Productivity in the age of COVID-19 is overrated

“So, what have you been up to during quarantine?”

Translation: What productive thing have you done? What have you added to your resume? How did you develop your professional interests and set yourself up for future economic success while in lockdown? Have you taken up a virtual internship? A research position? Classes? A new language? Did you successfully unlock your “best self” during a global crisis?

This past summer, I took six classes at UC Berkeley and an additional three classes at my local community college, relearned how to play the piano, established a solid skincare routine, participated in virtual extracurricular activities, meditated every morning and even started journaling. I did everything that was supposed to make me feel like I had my whole life together amid an ongoing pandemic. On the surface, this was the most productive version of myself that I’ve ever been. Internally, though, I felt like I wasn’t doing nearly enough.

Deep down, I knew that no matter what I did, I would never be “productive” enough, because I was unable to assign tangible values to these “self-care” activities. Whenever I would engage in a new hobby or activity, I would evaluate its worthiness by mulling over whether I could profit off of it in the future — would there be any way for me to add this to my LinkedIn profile? Could a personal project possibly turn into a side hustle? How can I use this experience to set myself apart from my peers and leverage my professional development when competing for career opportunities? 

If I was unable to project a satisfactory return of investment for a certain hobby or action, then I would stop in the middle of it, guilting myself into thinking that I was wasting valuable time I could be using more productively. I felt guilty every time my fingers touched the piano keys, picked up my journaling pen or pressed the play button on a YouTube self-help video. Shakespeare allegedly wrote an entire play while in lockdown, and Isaac Newton supposedly invented calculus and discovered gravity while he was in quarantine. Why couldn’t I master a crucial professional skill or build my portfolio, at the very least?

Here’s a possibility. Maybe my incessant obligation to be productive amounts to nothing more than a commercialistic thought bubble that is keeping me from taking the time to process the overwhelming amount of anxiety and exhaustion that comes with living through a multifaceted, global catastrophe. Maybe seeking out humor, joy and fun without any underlying motives isn’t a frivolous extraneity but a manifestation of healing, overcoming, building and living.

At the same time, though, it’s worth acknowledging that my struggle to find balance in my life isn’t something new. Sure, the sheer uncertainty that comes with a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic certainly compounded my ceaseless desperation to regain as much control over my life as I could. But my need to make every fiber of my being serve as an investment for my professional development has been around for much longer than the pandemic. Ever since I was old enough to understand the importance of a resume and elevator pitch, I learned to sell my time, effort and creativity. I developed a running list of my academic and extracurricular accomplishments, tailored my cover letter and practiced articulating life stories that demonstrated specific marketable skills for interviews.

But I became so consumed by this process of defining myself that I ended up losing my sense of who I was. No matter how much I practiced answering interview questions, I always felt at a loss when asked, “What do you do for fun? What do you do in your free time?” Was that supposed to be a trick question? Surely, if you were interviewing me for a position, you wouldn’t be interested in any facet of my personality that isn’t a consumable commodity? Am I allowed to tell you the truth, that my guilty pleasures include learning how to play Taylor Swift songs on the piano and reliving my childhood by watching “Victorious” on Netflix?

When everything goes back to “normal,” can we also normalize having nonprofitable hobbies? I’ve decided to use my free time to solidify my understanding of my individual creativity, expression and thought by doing what makes me happy in the moment, no values or strings attached. I’m trying to listen to myself, not the thoughts that tell me how I’m supposed to be using my time. I’m closing down the extraneous mental tabs and respecting my own humanity without basing its worth on its contribution to a capitalistic system. After all, we don’t all need to be Shakespeare or Newton. I just want to be Jenny.

Contact Jenny Lee at [email protected].