Stop Trying to Be Productive

The internet wants you to believe you aren’t doing enough with all that “extra time” you have now. But staying inside and attending to basic needs is plenty.

By Taylor Lorenz
April 1, 2020

When Dave Kyu, 34, an arts administrator in Philadelphia, realized that he would be working from home for the foreseeable future, he began to fantasize about the projects he could now complete around the house.

“We went and bought all this paint and cabinet hardware and thought we were going to do the kitchen cabinet project we had wanted to do forever,” he said. Two weeks later, he and his wife haven’t touched their supplies. They have two children and demanding jobs. There’s no extra time.

“We realize now it was a silly thought,” Mr. Kyu said. “It’s a lot more stressful than I expected.”

As the coronavirus outbreak has brought life largely indoors, many people are feeling pressure to organize every room in their homesbecome expert home chefs (or bakers), write the next “King Lear” and get in shape. The internet — with its constant stream of how-to headlines and viral challenges — has only reinforced the demand to get things done.

“It’s everywhere,” said Julie Ulstrup, 57, a photographer in Colorado. “It’s in blog posts, it’s on social media, it’s in emails I get from people like, ‘use this time productively!’ As if I usually don’t.”

But in the midst of a global pandemic that has upended nearly every facet of modern life, people are finding it harder and harder to get things done.

“It’s tough enough to be productive in the best of times let alone when we’re in a global crisis,” said Chris Bailey, a productivity consultant and the author of “Hyperfocus: How to Manage Your Attention in a World of Distraction.” “The idea that we have so much time available during the day now is fantastic, but these days it’s the opposite of a luxury. We’re home because we have to be home, and we have much less attention because we’re living through so much.”

After her office announced that it would be going remote, Sara Johnson, 30, who works in philanthropy, created a detailed schedule of all the things she’d do with the extra three hours a day that she would no longer spend commuting. “I sat down last weekend and just felt like I hadn’t been maximizing this time that I have that I don’t usually have on my hands,” she said.

“I set an hour on my cal every day for a home workout. Then I’d be on calls for three hours, then I’d make a homemade breakfast, take a walk at lunchtime, work on something non-screen-related in the evening, cook dinner and go on a run,” she said. So far, she admitted, “none of this has stuck.”

This urge to overachieve, even in times of global crisis, is reflective of America’s always-on work culture. In a recent article for The New Republic, the journalist Nick Martin writes that “this mind-set is the natural endpoint of America’s hustle culture — the idea that every nanosecond of our lives must be commodified and pointed toward profit and self-improvement.” Drew Millard put it more directly in an essay for The Outline: If you are lucky enough to be employed, the only person who cares what you’re doing right now is your boss.

Anne Helen Petersen, a journalist and the author of the forthcoming book “Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” seconded his assertion. “We’re so used to making every moment of ours productive in some capacity,” she said. “Like, I’m on a walk, I should listen to this information podcast that makes me more informed or a better person.”

Dr. Petersen said that the impulse to optimize every minute is especially common in millennials, many of whom are now balancing work and child care at home. “I think for millennials, our brains are particularly broken in terms of productivity,” she said. “Either you give up or feel bad about it all the time.”

Maggie Schuman, 32, is facing that very quandary now that her family is taking part in a Peloton challenge through the workout platform’s app.

“Every day everyone sends around a green check mark, and for some reason, now that I have that in my head of this thing I’m supposed to be doing, I’m not doing it,” Ms. Schuman, a product specialist in California, said. “I feel a bit like a failure.” She also ignored her sister when she tagged her in a push-up challenge on Instagram.

Instead, Ms. Schuman has started a gratitude journal and is working on practicing acceptance. “You’re supposed to be inventing something or coming up with the next big business idea or doing something great that’s going to be worthy of time spent at home,” she said. “I’m trying to be more OK with just being.”

Noelle Kelso, 38, a scientific consultant in Georgia, said that she’s “trying to find productivity in the small moments” but that the recent events have given her perspective.

 “For a lot of Americans, everyone’s job is at stake right now whether you thought you were upper middle class, middle or working class, everyone’s livelihood is at stake,” she said. Right now she is focusing on not allowing her mind to “drift to a place of fear, concern, panic or stress,” she said, and instead encouraging herself to “keep the faith and remain grateful.”

“Putting all this pressure and stress on myself, it’s incredibly counterproductive,” said Ms. Ulstrup. “I’m putting stress on myself during a time that’s already stressful.”

Adam Hasham, 40, a product manager in Washington, said that it’s only a matter of time before more people realize that self-optimization in this time is futile. “I stopped seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said, adding that his optimism about the situation had “gone out the window.”

“It’s like you’re underwater,” Mr. Hasham said.

Dr. Petersen said having compassion during these times is key. “I think that everyone is coping with this differently, and there’s a real tendency to shame people who aren’t coping with it the way you are or have different circumstances,” she said.

Finding small pleasures helps, too. Mr. Bailey offered one suggestion: “Get yourself some Indian food and drink a bottle of wine with your spouse. We’re going through a lot and we all just need to take it easy.”

Taylor Lorenz is a technology reporter in New York covering internet culture. Before joining The Times, she was a technology and culture writer at The Atlantic and The Daily Beast. @taylorlorenz