As a psychotherapist in New York City for over a decade, I have had countless conversations with patients around productivity; what it means, what it looks like, how to achieve it. However, since we entered a state of quarantine, the expectations around productivity have unexpectedly slapped many of us in the face. We’ve been challenged with having to confront not just our own often unrecognized expectations of ourselves, but also the expectations of others. They rear their unrealistic heads over text and emails and, most unwelcomely, across social media platforms. We see and hear everything from “motivational” quotes, telling us that “this is the time to be our best selves” (whatever that means), to pictures of people juice cleansing, working out daily, and displaying various creative endeavors that they so diligently completed during their time at home. Over and over again my patients enter my now virtual office and share their feelings of inadequacy because they haven’t yet met these newly found expectations of productivity. “I should be losing weight and painting daily and taking classes. I have the time!”
The first misstep is the idea that extended free time automatically creates motivation. This concept supports the assumption that motivation is always just lurking under the surface, and the moment we have time and space to act on it, we should be willing and able participants. We so easily ignore the mental and emotional impact our circumstances generally have on us, let alone during a pandemic, when stress, fear and anxiety are at an all time high. We can try with all our might to push past these emotions, ignore them, act like they aren’t as real or influential as they truly are, but this self-imposed effort only builds those internal walls even higher. All this fancy footwork created to avoid pain only to find out, much to our dismay, that we can’t. Without even realizing it, these walls are the very thing keeping us from being our most productive selves, because without taking the crucial time necessary to feel our emotions, treat ourselves with kindness and practice self-care, we find ourselves locked in a standstill, panting from our effort and inevitably, lacking motivation to do much of anything at all.
But why does this eradicate motivation? Because we’re exhausted! Just like somebody training for a marathon rests, stretches, and hydrates in order to get back out on the road, we too must take breaks and recharge. We have to tend to our emotional pains/needs just like we do to our bodies. Our brain is a muscle that also gets tired. It needs to tap out, zone out, chill. A car can’t run on empty and neither can we. We are only capable of so much, until we too strike empty and need to pull over to fill up the tank. Now, what that looks like may go against everything we think resembles productivity. Sitting and reading a book, listening to music, meditating, or even (gasp!) watching a mindless show on Netflix. These things don’t result in something tangible, or what we tend to associate with being productive. If we don’t have something to show for it, does it even exist? The answer is, YES. Being still, calming the body, quieting the mind, takes effort in ways that many tangible things do not. If we forget how important “passive” activity can be for our “active” productivity, then we are setting ourselves up for real disappointment. This is the time, now more than ever, to lean into the quiet moments, both internally and externally. Life looks different right now, why not start looking at productivity differently too?