The Extremism of Productivity in Quarantine

May 16, 2021

Blog post by Tanushree Handa

COVID-19 has brought about countless changes in everyone’s lives. Regular day-to-day habituality has been interrupted, and we are still figuring out how to adjust. With reduced social obligations and commitments, many of us now have to ask ourselves,

“What do I do with all this free time?”

And the internet has not been shy in offering ideas. The suggestions range from do absolutely nothing to be as productive as possible. Quarantine has further exacerbated a dichotomy that has come to fruition over the past decade or so: the self-care culture versus hustle culture.

Self-care is a buzzword that routinely goes viral. We hear it from companies, our friends –– it’s likely that most of us have even participated in it. Definitions and interpretations vary, but it is essentially any activity to take care of your physical, emotional, and mental health. With COVID-19 severely disrupting all three of these facets, self-care apostles have started to emerge. Some (accurately) contend that quarantine is a difficult time for all, and that productivity should be the last thing on anyone’s mind. You do not have to workout everyday, you do not have to learn a new skill, you do not have to read a multitude of books. Just focus on yourself. And if you are doing absolutely nothing everyday, that is okay.

On the absolute other end of the spectrum, we have the growing dominance of hustle culture. Hustle culture is a fairly new phenomena, characterized by the obsessive need to be constantly occupied. Even hobbies like working out or reading have evolved into mechanisms that promote your development. Hustle culture applauds the intense focus on working, comparing it to success stories akin to Elon Musk and Michelle Obama. Today, technological connectivity has intensified hustle culture even further. With everyone documenting their list of accolades, projects, and achievements, comparisons are easily made. As a result, others constantly feel inferior and that they are not doing enough. Quarantine has added a new layer to this experience. To the avid hustlers of the world, this sudden availability of free time should be regarded as a blessing in disguise. If you don’t seize the opportunity to be productive, you’ll let millions of others pass you by as they gain new skills.

These two extremities have always existed, but quarantine has intensified both sides. We have those whose days are comfortably filled with casual browsing, and those whose lifestyles demand productivity. My question is: why can’t we find a middle ground?

This time is not easy for anyone. Many have experienced terrible losses, and social isolation has had adverse impacts on mental health. Confronting your negative feelings or engaging in self-reflection are two things that could prove to be incredibly helpful and valuable during this time.

When you separate your accomplishments from your identity, what’s left?

Like many other ambitious students, the concept of having an “official” position or role has been instilled in me since childhood. From being the line leader in kindergarten to being the president of a high school club, the pride associated with having a title has always existed. And when I got to high school, that pride turned into something more. A good position meant you were a well-rounded student, and being a well-rounded student meant you would have a good university application. And if you got into a good university, you would eventually graduate with a good job… and so on. So since high school, at the ripe age of 14, I have been hyper aware and conscious of the roles I’ve held throughout my academic career, in hopes that it will all result in an amazing life. But this consciousness very quickly turned dangerous — I could see it within myself and the people around me.

Suddenly, having some accolade or position wasn’t just a boost to your ego, it was an edge you had over other people. It was about supply and demand — there is a limited supply, and if you were one of the few people to be deemed worthy of having a position, you were noticed. As I entered my first year of university, I realized how pervasive this was. When top students come together in the same program, there is competition. Fierce competition. I experienced this when I applied for a slew of positions in my freshman year, only to be rejected from them all. As someone who held President, Vice-President, and other roles akin to this throughout high school, this was a humbling blow to my ego. But it didn’t stop there. As I was appointed club positions in my later years, I had to worry about jobs.

What internships were people getting? How did they get them? What were their grades? How involved were they?

Being stuck in that little business school bubble really distracted us from reality, but most people were convinced that once we graduated, all our club involvement and stress would pay off. Those coveted internships you worked so hard for, the club events you devoted everything to in hopes that it would diversify your resume, the interviews you stayed up all night prepping for. We put ourselves through so much of that stress in the hopes and expectations that we will be rewarded with a comfortable, cushy life. So what do you do when you graduate and suddenly it all disappears? The stress and anxiety, but also the positions and accolades?

You go from having a role tied to your name and frankly your identity, for most of your life, to suddenly having nothing. Maybe a job, but sometimes not even that. All the experiences you had are now just bullet points on your resume. And that’s a jarring feeling. The post-graduation depression is already an unnerving feeling, so that coupled with pandemic anxiety produces a whole mess. With a lot of time on our hands and a whole lot of nothing to do, self-reflection is inevitable. If you remove all your positions, clubs, and accolades that you have collected over the years, do you have an identity left? If you didn’t have a position that explicitly implies ’Hey! Look at me, I’m doing something,’ would you feel like a whole person? Do you base your self-worth off your success? And it is okay if you do… tons of people do.

But ask yourself if that’s the type of person you want to be. Do you take on projects and work and positions to feel and (more significantly) look productive? And when those things are over, do you feel empty, again? Or do you feel gratified and rewarded, content with the learnings and experiences you’ve garnered? Because that’s what life should be filled with — moments that fill you up with happiness, and a sense of purpose.

In classic Libran fashion, I have to preface this by saying that balance is key. Too much of a good thing is still a bad thing, so try not to suddenly resign from all your roles and responsibilities in hopes of discovering your identity; instead, take a step back and ask yourself some hard, honest questions about what currently makes you happy, and not just happy to the general public. Think about your identity, and all the things that have contributed to what it is today. Of course, there are a boatload of things I’m missing like gender, ethnicity, and class, but I wanted to specifically discuss our obsession with roles. Maybe this isn’t a universal experience, but maybe you let another area of life overshadow and dominate your identity. Sometimes this is inevitable, but it’s worth addressing how this impacts your sense of self.

We are worth so much more than the positions we have associated ourselves with for so long. The people we’ve touched, the lives we’ve changed and the differences we make are so much more meaningful. It can be hard to distance ourselves from this school of thought, but taking some time to reevaluate your intentions and reasons behind your positions can make a world of difference. This is not something we can accomplish overnight, but I hope that with time we are all able to realize that real fulfillment truly comes from within.

How to cope with the post-graduation slump in a pandemic world

University is undoubtedly one of the most memorable periods in our lives. With first loves and heartbreak, success and failure, parties and mornings after, there’s no questioning why so many of us reflect upon our university experience with such fondness. We breeze through these four years, enjoying our youth and embracing the spontaneity of college living. We look forward to our life beyond graduation – moving out and living with friends, commuting to our fancy corporate jobs, and welcoming true adulthood. University is the beginning of the rest of our lives – so why does it feel so miserable to be graduated? And that too, amid the world’s worst pandemic.

The post-graduation slump is already a very real thing – approaching the precipice of adulthood is a daunting experience. You go from constantly being surrounded by friends, mentors, and professors alike to moving back home and leaving behind your support system. Some may still be looking for jobs, adding to the pre-existing stress and anxiety. Adulthood signifies independence, but it also introduces debt, marriage, mortgages, loans, children, and other themes that were once just faraway ideas for us. But not anymore. So naturally, these feelings of anxiety and depression can start to sink in.

And then along comes a pandemic. Just as we are about to spread our wings and soar off into the real world, the windows are sealed shut and we are confined to our homes for…an indefinite amount of time – with no real end in sight. With no social gatherings, fewer employment opportunities, and an overall decline in mental wellness, this pandemic has further exacerbated the postgrad destitution. So what can you do? How can you ease some of that anxiety and pull yourself out of the slump? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Stay connected

    For many of us, our friends have played such a crucial role in our university experience, so it can feel incredibly isolating to go from constant social interaction to just… nothing. And this feeling is not exclusive to extroverts. No one is exempt from the impacts of social isolation, including depression, poor sleep quality, impaired immunity and more. To help alleviate these feelings, reach out to your friends. I know - it sounds painfully obvious, but just ask them how they are doing. It’s more than likely that they’re feeling the exact same things that you are. Even if you would prefer not to discuss the current state of the world, having someone on video call while you go about your own tasks can be a surprisingly pleasant form of company. From binge-watching Netflix shows together (hello, Bridgerton) to playing games online (goodbye, Among Us), the possibilities are actually endless. Use this time to come up with unique ways to stay in touch with your loved ones – or just stick to the comfortable! Whatever makes you happy.

  2. Look forward, not backwards

    We tend to romanticize the past, looking back with great fondness and nostalgia on past experiences and situations – some of which may have actually been unpleasant. Sure, that time you had to pull an all-nighter to meet a deadline now seems like an exhilaratingly intense situation, but you may be glossing over the stress and anxiety that overwhelmed you for days. It is okay to have loved your university experience, to miss living on campus, to long for the days where you could go out and be a little reckless with no real responsibility. But it is also important to remind yourself that there is still so much of life to look forward to - people to meet, places to travel to, growth to be realized. If you believe that the best part of your life has already passed, you risk setting yourself up for disappointment. Believe that the best of life is still to come, and I promise it will.

  3. Avoid comparing yourself to others

    Throughout school, we have followed a very clear path; a path that everyone around us was also embarking on. We were all measured by the same system, up until graduation. Now, that path has split and everyone has taken their own route. If you see yourself going down the road less travelled, that can be a terrifying feeling. For years, you have done essentially the same thing as your peers – and suddenly you’re left to take on the world alone? Definitely anxiety inducing. But there is also beauty in this. Since there are no objective measures to live by anymore, it confirms that there is actually no right path. The correct job, person, and life plan is the one that you feel is right for you. Others are on their own personal journeys, so comparing yourself to them does not make sense. Even if you feel like you haven’t reached where you want to in life, that is okay. If your first job is your dream job, what are you working towards?

  4. Ask for Support

    It is a tough time. Clouds of hopelessness, isolation, and loneliness surround us everyday. It’s likely that you may be feeling inexplicably emotional some days, and perfectly fine on others. No one knows what the ‘right’ feelings are, so the best thing to do is just let them pass by and ask for support. It is normal to feel anxious about your future but coupled with feeling anxious about the future of the world is another story. It is even okay to feel feelings of grief after graduating – you may feel like you have lost an important part of your life, and had it taken from you without any sort of closure. Talk to your friends and family about these feelings. Most importantly, remember that you are not alone. You are doing amazing, simply by being here and that is an awesome thing.