The time on our hands: Thoughts on productivity in a pandemic

An interesting trend I noticed in the early days of COVID-19 life in America (March of 2020) was an emphasis on how to use your time. Some were preaching that “we should be using this time to be productive. [Insert author here] wrote their literary masterpiece in social isolation.” I was being told that this lockdown was God’s sign that I should finally tackle that project I’ve been avoiding, or finally start getting in shape; that the pandemic is truly a blessing in disguise since we have so much more free time… right? 

Another, more quiet side of the media I was consuming was telling me the opposite: take this time to do some self-care and self-reflection. Practice mindfulness meditations, journal about how you’re feeling and when this is all over, your spirit will be healthier because of it. 

Neither of these groups, however, considered that we would still be in this mess in February of 2021, and for a good chunk of the foreseeable future. I don’t know about you, but I maxed out my productivity and my rigor for self-care pretty soon after classes were transitioned to a completely online format. I couldn’t bear the thought of doing something productive outside of schoolwork, and being in the moment (the moment being living through a pandemic in the middle of Indiana) wasn’t all that appealing. I was left with one thought: What am I supposed to be doing? I can’t see my friends—or most of my family, for that matter—I can’t loiter in Barnes & Noble, and I can’t go on some Don Draper-esque self-discovery journey to the West Coast because the CDC “knows what’s good for me,” so what gives? 

What did I end up doing? I read The Lord of the Rings. It was fun. I somehow hadn’t seen the movies before, so I decided to read the books before watching Viggo Mortensen kill orcs for ten hours. I enjoyed my time in Middle Earth. They may have been facing potential destruction from Sauron, but at least Sauron isn’t contagious by droplets and Frodo wasn’t wearing a mask to Mount Doom. 

Then I ended up resuming my reading of Kurt Vonnegut. Then I moved on to The Handmaid’s Tale, then Homegoing, then Dune and then I had completely lost myself in the sheer number of books I was burning through. I found myself committed to a fourteen-book epic fantasy series (currently grinding away at book six) and reading Stephen King, who has published, no exaggeration, every book ever. 

As comedian John Mulaney would put it, “That was the beginning of a new relationship with time.” I found hours moving like molasses but weeks speeding by without my notice. The four hours I spent trying to make a dent in a 1,300 page Brandon Sanderson book felt like an eternity, but when I finished the book a week later, it was as if I had only just opened it up for the first time. 

Then, before I could tell what was going on, it was summertime, and I had to go to work. Working gave me the semblance of normalcy and scheduling, but when every week day is as busy as every weekend, time can still feel muddled. I went on runs to know what half an hour felt like, just to remind myself that time isn’t what’s insane, it’s me. 

And now we’re here, in February of 2021. Where did all the time go? It’s been almost a year of this “new normal,” and still none of us know what to do with time that would normally go to, well, being well-adjusted people. When the homework is done, no SNL sketches look funny anymore and the thought of doing anything that isn’t absolutely required seems completely overwhelming, what do we do? There are people telling us how to use our time—either be productive, or really do some self exploration—but it’s not that simple. I used most of my free time reading, which doesn’t really fall into either of those categories. I ran, which is kind of productive, and I worked, which is financially productive but not very personally fulfilling. Other than that, I spent my time wondering how to spend my time, and panicking that I was using it unwisely, especially when it felt like it was moving at incredible speeds (fast or slow). 

My message to you: spend your free time however you want. I know, super helpful, but hear me out. We are constantly told how to use our time, but if we don’t want to do the things we fill our free time with, we will live unhappy, unfulfilling lives. If you want to use your free hour to go work out, do that. If you’d rather sit and read a book, go for it (I would recommend The Lord of the Rings or anything by Vonnegut). If you are dying to be in this moment and practice some mindfulness meditation, open Headspace and go for it. Take care of yourself, listen to what your gut is telling you and not your friend from high school who is in a pyramid scheme now. Seriously, how do we all know people from high school in pyramid schemes? I thought we were smarter than this. 

Everything I’ve said here has been said before. I am not claiming to be a revolutionary thinker, but I have one more piece of advice that may be unsolicited, but that I have found valuable: your mental health, and the way you spend your time, which are inextricably linked, are not only important in their relationship to your productivity. I do not believe that people should take time to do self-care so that their work time is more productive; rather, I think they should engage in self-care because it is important for being a whole person. If meditating freaks you out, don’t do it. If reading is grueling for you, don’t worry about it. Sit and think about something you truly want to do, and do it. 

Be safe, mask up and love the people around you.

Eli ('23) is a senior from Noblesville, Indiana currently working as a Co-Editor-in-Chief for the Anchor. He is a psychology major with minors in classics and writing. In addition to working at the Anchor he is a writing assistant at the Klooster Center for Excellence in Writing and the SARD of Cook Hall. After his time at Hope, he plans to further his education and become a therapist.

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