Gut Instinct is a feeling of intuition, analysis, and reaction to the moments presented in life. Here, it is a column that aims to find a sense of deeper truth and learn from the musings of modern culture.
For every spurt of reading, writing, and messing around in Photoshop, there’s an equal and opposite slump of re-runs and Instagram deep dives that makes my time in quarantine feel like the end of a bag of chips. The distraction of slowing down is like instant gratification that ultimately comes up short, leaving me feeling restless and unfulfilled.
Within the first 48 hours of lockdown, the initial response of the Internet was a dramatic attempt to salvage the normal: overnight, yoga classes were virtual, Zoom became a party (and skyrocketed in value), and musicians went on live streams as celebrity-driven gestures of goodwill. Brands froze for a moment, wondering how to pivot. Yale released a free class on happiness (helpful?). Sourdough starter practically became a super food.
Don’t worry, all this productivity porn seemed to say, everything is fine!
Like many other people I know, my work-from-home mandate initially felt like a temporary experiment. But soon after, I fell into a strange tug-of-war of guilt — first, for how relieved I was to finally have more time, and then, over feeling like I wasn’t actually doing anything worthwhile with that time. Binging episodes of The Office instead of reading or calling a friend felt even easier than before, and though ideas for stories and pitches also seemed to flow easier than ever, my ability to actually write them — or anything at all — became almost nonexistent. I got into cooking… until the novelty of new recipes wore off.
The surge in productivity and calls-to-action quickly became a scramble to salvage businesses and our own individual sanity. After all, what does a generation besieged with burnout do when there is, suddenly and ostensibly, nothing to do? Our cultural death grip on productivity became noticeably claustrophobic when stuck at home, as if we finally felt how suffocating it is to demand constant output.
Peak pandemic, the second wave of response hit when The New York Times released a blunt but necessary piece entitled Stop Trying To Be Productive. Following the initial outburst of attempts to convert all elements of life into digital format, this new mandate was a welcome relief. In the piece, the author, Taylor Lorenz, interviews several anytown USA citizens about things they’d hoped to do with all of their “extra time” during the pandemic. Relatably, all of the goals were ambitious – from home improvement projects to early morning exercises and bullet journaling — anything to fill the space in life that was no longer occupied by work or social obligation. But for the most part, these ambitions remained just that: overwhelming fantasies that inevitably kept people inert, stuck in the same self-fulling cycle of lofty goals and failing to meet them – a pattern that exists with or without a pandemic.
The insistence on filling time with output is, of course, a product of America’s always-on, capitalistic culture, as Lorenz references in a quote by Nick Martin from his piece Against Productivity In A Pandemic for The New Republic. Both authors make the case that the country’s initial reaction to turn our newly-found time into optimization and self-improvement is symptomatic of America’s hustle culture, or our general inability to chill out. Lorenz’s article concludes on a note of cultural compassion and an endorsement of consumer-centric self-care: get some take-out, have some wine, and go easy on yourself. But a culture built on optimization doesn’t turn-off overnight. In fact, the sudden insistence on relaxation feels disingenuous — is it truly relaxation if it requires consuming?
The response to hyper-productivity that both Lorenz and a subsequent wave of pro-self-care articles that followed offers — to get some take-out and to have some wine – are two sides of the same coin. Instead of filling the empty space with productivity, fill it with TV, take-out, online shopping, and skin care. Do away with recipes, side hustles, running, or home improvement, and replace them with the “always-on” culture’s definition of relaxation — consumption. Under the system of hustle and output, a pause on productivity is permissible when it’s not truly a pause; the system collapses if we somehow find a way to take comfort in stillness within ourselves. Even tools designed to facilitate such a moment of reprieve, like meditation and therapy apps, have been monetized versus being freely available (Though some companies like Headspace have offered complimentary subscriptions, the overall trend remains).
Enough time has lapsed in quarantine that my consumption and inaction have maxed out. I’ve completed an online shopping spree, made a loaf of bread, and almost finished the entirety of The Office. There are a lot of days when I try to rally the permission to relax, or to consume without guilt, to justify clicking another episode. And sometimes, it works. Other times, and more frequently, I simply feel like I’ve finished that bag of chips, but I don’t remember actually eating it. Things like TV and take-out no longer feel like they’re filling my cup. Instead they create a vision of myself at the end of the year where I’m left wondering, what did I do with all of that time? Gradually, I’ve lost the feeling of burnout and an air of staleness has settled in.
Grappling with the value of our time, or the new normal, is a bit like staring into a kaleidoscope – instead of a clear, pointed end, thoughts are warped, fragmented, and dizzying. An emphasis on productivity no longer feels reasonable, or even applicable, and consumer-centric self-care is beginning to feel like an even emptier gesture than it did before any of this. We’re then left sitting on a seesaw between two opposite and extreme ends. As new measures and routines roll out, it seems that the world isn’t going back to normal, at least not for a while. And maybe how we define productivity won’t have to be either.