Covid-19 and the Productivity Paradox: How to grow in a time of quarantine

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Image by Michael Gaida from Pixabay

Social distancing has become the most potent strategy to deal with the Covid-19 epidemic.  In order to “flatten the curve” and buy more time, citizens around the world have sometimes been ordered, sometimes been asked, and sometimes been forced to remain at home. And while some employees continue to work at home, some cannot. Others,either because they are essential (health care and grocery store workers, for example) or because they simply can’t afford to stay at home or take time off, continue to work in an increasingly dangerous atmosphere. 

Whether or not we have work at home to do, this pandemic is forcing all of us to reconsider how we view work. And more specifically, it is making us reconsider a specific aspect of work, and of life, in the twenty-first century: productivity.

Of course productivity is not a recent term. But it took on particular resonances, peculiar cultural signifiers in the years leading up to this pandemic. I am thinking of all the apps, appliances, TED talks and Apple releases that were about ordering our entire lives to be more productive, not just our 9-5 jobs. The side hustle, gig economy, and the collapse of work/life balance (the notion that we could/should be making money even during our free time). The industries devoted to measuring and quantifying our routines and our habits (so even our relaxation time is measurably productive). 

The gospel of productivity, what some have variously called “workism” or “busyness”, is perhaps at an end. It might have helped some people to better themselves, and to create goals for themselves. Maybe. But it also lead to widespread burnout– the curious mixture of unattainable goals, a lack of focus on the unquantifiable parts of life, a disregard for the needs of community/society at large–all contributed to it. It also affected how we see and value each other, how much effort we put into our relationships and communities outside of work as well.

Now we are having to redefine for ourselves what it means to be productive. We are having to balance our new schedules and work arrangements against the crushing onslaught of anxiety that is the daily news. We are having to learn to work together in isolation, and to connect creatively as we remain in our separate physical and emotional spaces. And of course we have to get things done all the same.

Technology definitely helps, but it was never the savior that everyone thought it would be. It was always just a tool. It still is one now, just a more important tool. My colleagues and I have a long list of things to do and plan–new HSJs, new corporate activities, new rooms, new designs and content– but what has come into clearer focus for me is how much our Nazobako team needs each other, how much we rely on each other. And not just to fill in gaps in our own skill sets, but to support us emotionally and creatively. Our time alone is showing us more and more how lonely we were sometimes making ourselves.

Because of these difficult times, we are starting to see what is really important. We are starting to push back, and to reconstitute what makes life successful and important. And we are emphasizing certain aspects of our life that we have ignored collectively–mental health for example. While we want to be as productive with our time as possible, we also have to acknowledge our pain and grapple honestly with our inner selves. This of course can and should take our time. While many may want to rush to jam every second of our time in quarantine with productive experiences, to “prove” that we used this time wisely, that really isn’t healthy, or productive in the long run, especially over the course of weeks or months.

Sometimes we have to let the stillness sink in. Sometimes we have to pay attention to the silence. What emerges is usually something fresher than what comes from the ceaseless grind. There is a chart going around everywhere on social media. It shows three zones for how to deal with this extraordinary moment: fear, learning, and growth. The items in the growth zone are not necessarily “productive” (although some are). Nor are they exactly quantifiable. Rather, they reflect a momentous shift towards openness and engagement, both with ourselves and with others. It’s not about guilting us into an unattainable goal that we don’t want, but rather about leading us towards a space where we can feel both stable and supportive. 

I hope this provides a new roadmap for how we choose to think about growth and productivity in the future. When this virus finally lifts and we stagger back to our daily lives, will we fall back into the same traps as before? Will we consign our mental, intellectual and creative health to the harsh gospel of productivity? 

So much is so very scary and frightening. And yet there is always learning and there is always the potential for growth, even in the darkest of times. What we are learning about ourselves now has the potential to change the world and to redefine terms like “work”, “value”, and “success”. It has the potential to change us as individuals, more in touch with ourselves, our needs, and our dreams. It has the potential to change us as a society too–more willing to reach out to those in need, more supportive of those outside the norm. We only have to use what we have learned in the stillness and silence to forge new paths ahead. That is the new productivity.

Let’s all try to acknowledge the zone we are in now and try to move forward as much as we can. Let’s try to reach inward as well as outward. Let’s always remember that being grateful for the simple things right now is never a waste of time. And let’s definitely not forget that the only way we can truly come out of this is if we do so together. 

Stay safe, stay home, stay strong, stay connected.

With love,

Lee and the staff at Nazobako/Invite Japan

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