Sun Mi Clyburn
The unproductive pressure to be productive
We are living in a time of a global emergency. There is very little we can control or predict compared to what we are used to. We are all experiencing various degrees of trauma, which manifests as fight, flight or freeze. This is encoded in the limbic system of our brains and each of us has a different and equally valid code. Being in survival mode means that we are physically incapable of functioning the way we could normally reasonably expect of ourselves (hello, identity crisis). Those of us who have a “fight” survival response will be productive, possibly even more than usual. However placing expectations of productivity on ourselves at this time is, ironically, counterproductive.
Productivity implies KPIs, goal setting and meeting deadlines. Trying to be productive is our way of coping with the fact that life will never be the same again and that’s why it won’t help us much in the long run. We need to approach life, and all the chaos and absurdity that now comes with it, with creativity. Creativity implies working with what you’ve got and enjoying the process. Many of us had plans that have fallen through or our whole lives have fallen apart for one reason or another. We need to turn to creative problem solving, which is an innate human skill that most of us don’t get to utilise in the world of modern conveniences. When you tap into that creativity, you often find that what you end up with is actually better than what you first planned. I don’t say this lightly. It’s a painful transition process and each one of us is at a different stage of it, so in a way we are all walking the same path together and completely alone at the same time.
This is not the time to learn a new skill. This is the time to rediscover what you were passionate about before life got in the way; before your environment said “no, you can’t do that” and laughed at you for considering it. Before the curiosity of the weird and wonderful was extinguished by the practical notion of: “What can I do that will ensure I earn enough money to live a comfortable life?” We need that, because now none of us can say with confidence that we can ensure our livelihood and that of our loved ones. Now more than anything we need to find our passion and will for life again, among all the loss and despair. We need to rediscover and potentially re-evaluate our reasons for getting up in the morning. Trying to be productive is likely going to be an unhelpful distraction from the growth that comes from leaning into your pain. Also, the pressure to be productive doesn’t allow space for compassion and we need a lot of compassion for ourselves and others to get through this difficult period.
That being said, we are all experiencing this pandemic differently. Many of us are not in a good place to slow down. Many of us need the distractions to maintain our sanity. Many of us have to maintain appearances and a sense of stability for our children or other loved ones we are caring for. Many of us have unstable living situations or are physically unsafe. To keep it simple: dump the pressure of productivity. Throw all the “shoulds” out the window. Do what you need to maintain your sanity and your sense of calm today.
Our generation functions in perpetual burnout. We think that’s just the way things are, but in fact we’ve just adapted to what our environment demanded of us and that is the filter through which we tend to view productivity. It’s worthwhile shifting that perspective for a while. What if we viewed R&R (rest and recover) as the most productive thing we can do right now? Filling our cup and making sure it stays as full as possible is always a worthy investment of time and energy. It’s how we ensure we are showing up in life as our best selves.