Tyrrell: Stop trying to be so productive


Columnist Eileen Tyrrell stresses the importance of taking time to relax instead of being constantly productive.

Eileen Tyrrell

It seems that these days, no virtue is hailed quite as much as productivity. Students brag to each other about how little sleep they got the night before while Silicon Valley pushes new “productivity hacks” like dopamine-fasting and microdosing. CEOs like Elon Musk of Tesla extol the virtues of an 80-hour work week. We all bow to the god of capitalism — even now, during a global crisis. After all, didn’t Shakespeare write King Lear while quarantined? But in doing so, we’re missing out on something much more important — the chance to question whether this ruthless obsession over productivity is making us better or just making us broken.

I know what it’s like to feel like you always must be doing, doing, doing; I would imagine most college students do. With engineering, there is literally always something else I could be studying or working on for school. And now, when I’m all but forced to stay at home, I’ve found myself making lists of all the other things I could do with my newfound free time: I could workout daily and get in shape. I could practice my Spanish skills the way I’ve been wanting to for the past year. I could start, oh god, a side hustle. But four weeks into quarantine, none of those things have happened, and I’m really, really okay with it.

First of all, when you’re given a lot more free time because you’re being forced to stay home due to a global crisis, the key words to focus on are “forced to stay home” and “global crisis.” It’s okay to be less productive than usual. It’s okay to feel more distracted and fatigued than you usually are, because a lot more of your energy is going towards thinking about and worrying about our current situation. We are in a global pandemic. The idea that we should be just as productive, if not more productive, than usual is frankly insane. 

Second, studying and working from home is hard work to begin with. You have less accountability, probably less motivation, more distractions and your oh-so-comfy bed and seasons 6-8 of Game of Thrones waiting for you (I know, I’m late to the party). Working from home has always been difficult, and it is even more so now because — I really cannot stress this enough — we’re in a global crisis. Creating a structured routine and productive work environment is difficult right now, and that is okay. 

To be quite honest, all of these things — being gentle with ourselves when we’re struggling to focus, taking time to be lazy and bored, knowing that it is okay that we can’t actually do everything — why did we stop doing them in the first place? Who decided that the most valuable thing we can be is productive? Because that idea is literally burning out a whole generation of people. The relentless focus on work — it just eats at your soul. My senior year of high school I took AP calculus, and I hated it, but I remember thinking that I had no excuse to not get As on my tests because the resources were there. If I really wanted to succeed, I could do my homework and watch Khan Academy videos late at night and then go in to see my teacher at 7 a.m. before class, never mind that I was also working an after-school job and taking three other AP classes and applying to college. The cut-throat logic of productivity told me that if I couldn’t do all of those things, then my failure to succeed was a personal failure of character. 

But — here’s the key thing — it’s not. That was just a lie society and my privileged upper-middle-class high school was telling me. I’m grateful that I learned the virtue of hard work and self discipline in high school, but now, three years into college, I find myself burned out and struggling because I never also learned that it is okay to rest. That it is okay to just be.

I’m going to use a Game of Thrones metaphor here to summarize all of this (it’s my current obsession, sorry not sorry). Modern society is a wheel that rewards those among us who have the privilege and ruthless determination to get to the top. It crushes everyone else. This pandemic is ripping apart our economy at the seams and showing us that the wheel doesn’t just need to be stopped; the wheel needs to break. We need a different model of how to be and how to find value within ourselves other than by the sum of how much work we can get done.

So, I would encourage all of you to do what needs to be done — and then let yourself rest. Let yourself be bored! It’s good for your brain. Don’t beat yourself up for watching hours of TikToks instead of becoming a fitness god or learning a new computer language. This is an unprecedented moment in our lives; don’t waste it trying to be productive all the time.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a TV show to watch.