(Photo: Carl Heyerdahl/Unsplash)

Ignore the pandemic productivity guilt trap – it’s bullshit anyway

It’s OK if you don’t come out of lockdown with abs.

We are living through the worst global pandemic since the Spanish Flu in 1918 and the beginning of an economic calamity that has already claimed the jobs of millions of workers the world over. Hospitals are full, schools are closed and many countries are in full lockdown. We’re practising physical distancing at the cost of losing contact with our friends, family and other loved ones. People have given birth alone. People have died alone. This is a dark, uncertain, and scary time.

And yet somehow, posts like this are going viral.

There seems to be a pervasive thought that now that we’re working from home, we have several more hours of free time in the day; as if remote work is some kind of collective holiday. This is reinforced by the preexisting misconception that flexible working is somehow not “real” work.

It’s not clear to me why work meetings conducted via Zoom aren’t considered as meaningful or time-consuming as normal meetings, or why access to the kitchen fridge turns a typical workday into a day off. But I’m even more confused by the notion that a shift to remote work opens up the time we are evidently meant to use to develop new skills or start a side hustle. I mean, by this kind of vexed logic, why aren’t we all using our bus rides to learn Spanish with Duolingo? Why are we not doing reverse crunches in the elevator ride up to the office?

This focus on incessant productivity is even more unwise when emphasised during a time of lockdown. It’s misguided to say that all we’re doing is just “working from home” and ignore everything else going on for households during this time. Consider that a lockdown includes not just transitioning to working from home, but also:

– Managing the serious and severe stress of a global pandemic, with a stream of alarming updates from the media

– Caring for children at home, often trying to continue their schooling and manage their own pandemic anxieties

– Keeping track of elderly relatives and others who are vulnerable, making sure they are safe and have enough supplies

– Valiantly trying to keep up our social connections with friends and family through online videos, chats and games

– Adjusting to living our whole lives from home, with all the disruptions to routine and convenience that entails

My best friend has a daily call through the lockdown with extended family. This is a fantastic way to stay connected with loved ones and make sure everyone is doing OK, but it’s rubbish to pretend that this kind of constant social contact doesn’t take a toll (not to mention time).

Also remember that countless people are facing a serious strain on their personal finances. Millions worldwide are already unemployed; millions more are facing pay cuts or fewer shifts. This palpable economic uncertainty would make anyone worried about their ability to keep putting food on the table.

It’s stressful to live through a pandemic! Pretending this additional burden doesn’t exist is unrealistic and unsustainable. It’s wrong to make out that we all have a huge amount of extra time and that we should feel ashamed if we do not use it “productively”.

Why does access to the kitchen fridge turn a typical workday into a day off? (Photo: Getty Images)

It’s in vogue to compare the battle to contain Covid-19 to the 20th century’s world wars. Can you imagine if we asked someone who lived through, say, the Blitz, whether they emerged from the bombing campaign with a six-pack? Similarly, nobody will care how much you weighed through this pandemic or whether you hit a personal best for lockdown crunches.

This is the other side of the productivity guilt trap: the influencer-driven message that we should all be using this time to eat clean and get ripped. Of course, if you’re a true fitness bunny and are finding some solace in the chaos through home workouts, that’s great. There are more online options than ever and it’s great to see people find new ways of doing what makes them happy. Take this committed hula hooper from the UK, for example.

Yes it’s called Live Love Hoop.

Where people go too far is in projecting their own personal fitness goals and aspirations on others. Nobody should be putting pressure on others to drop treats and eat perfectly during a lockdown. At a time of heightened stress and anxiety, it’s not a big deal to have dessert. If you’re going to smash out 800 reps a day, that’s great. But you really don’t need to share it on your feed and “challenge” your friends to match you. I’ve seen countless attempts at the Instagram press-up challenge and it doesn’t exactly get more inspiring each time.

Let’s take some time to spell out what should be common sense. It’s okay to take a break from the gym, and you shouldn’t feel the need to commit to a 30-day plan to “leave lockdown with abs” (this is a real thing). It’s also okay if you want to eat sweet treats, don’t feel like cutting carbs from your diet, and want to cook less time-intensive meals for your (now house-bound) family.

I’m far from the first to point out that contemporary society revolves around an unattainable quest for perfection, especially for younger people exposed to unrealistic images and ideas of what success looks like. One byproduct of this is the slavish cult of productivity, which instructs disciples to maximise every minute of every day and optimise every part of the human experience.

This is a really important context to bear in mind for the next time you see an image on Instagram exhorting you to do a 30-day workout plan, a 30-day plan to develop a side hustle or, worst of all, a 30-day plan to clean every part of your house.

Instead, you should watch Netflix with your kids, have a doughnut if you like, and give yourself a break. We all deserve it.



The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.