18 April 2020
To be or not to be… productive in the quarantine? I chose not to be.
These days the web is full of posts encouraging us to make the most of the lockdown, to approach the pandemic as a chance to improve ourselves, to develop professionally and personally — to be productive
It has been twenty days since the government enforced a strict quarantine and lockdown in my city of Nur-Sultan. I have been spending these days at home, going out for a short walk to the grocery once a week.
I spend my day working at a distance, grading students’ papers, trying to draft chunks of what I hope someday will become an article or at least a part of it. I try to keep up with a routine that more or less reminds me of the normal daily life I had before the lockdown.
Am I being productive? It depends on how you define ‘being productive’ under the current circumstances. If being productive in this context means the completion of the current projects that I never had the time to complete before the quarantine, to produce a series of drafts for future publications, to finish a chapter of a thesis, to sign up for courses available on learning platforms, or to bake at least two cakes a week, then my answer is ‘no,’ I am not being productive. But I sincerely intended to be.
In the first week of the quarantine, I searched for good courses in art, which I got interested in a few months ago. I made a plan to draft a paper proposal for a conference and outline contents of a future article, and to complete at least two books that I borrowed from the library but never finished. I hoped to do spring cleaning and complete other similar tasks. When I was making this plan, I believed that I would follow it and optimize my life during the lockdown. I followed the plan for ten days. My days were structured: I worked online during the day, planned and worked on outlining my paper proposal; in the evenings I read books and attended online language classes. Over the weekend I cleaned the house, and watched educational programs on YouTube. By the eighth day I felt burnt out. The constant demand to be productive during the lockdown and to use this time efficiently exhausted me.
It occurred to me that the idea of being productive neither helped me to cope with the stress of the lockdown, nor did it help me to optimize my time. It added to my stress. However, the moment I slowed down I felt the guilt of not being productive, which I consider an equally—or even more—exhausting feeling than the pressure to be productive.
Do I feel guilty about not being productive right now? No. I finally understood that spending my evenings chatting with my friends and family over skype, watching my favourite movies and spending lazy weekends is not a bad thing to do at all. It doesn’t mean that I’m being unproductive or even counterproductive. Being ‘lazy’ and not feeling guilty about it is a normal state for someone who is faced with considerable stress when confronting circumstances they have never seen before. In the circumstances of a global pandemic, we should try to make our daily lives as comfortable as possible. Instead of forcing ourselves to optimize the lockdown, we should look after ourselves, listen to our bodies and emotions, and avoid the additional stress that the idea of ‘productivity during COVID’ may cause. Because we need to be mentally, emotionally, and psychically fit to weather these difficult times. We need to be strong enough to continue with our lives, our work, our plans, and our relationships that were abruptly disrupted by COVID-19.
I am writing these Diary Notes because I want to. I am happy to share my thoughts with a community of researchers, educators, and learners in the Teach311+COVID-19 project, as well as with the wider society who reads this blog. I have a chance here to reflect on my thoughts, ideas, and feelings in these truly historical times. I find it soothing.
I cannot afford to be drained by negative thoughts and feelings, such as my guilt about spending my days in my comfort zone, undisturbed by a determination for self-development. I have friends to meet, students to teach, travels to make.
I must note though that this post builds on my own experience of trying to be productive. It is not a call for others to quit their efforts to be productive. If it works for you, that is great. I know people who feel comfortable about optimizing the lockdown, and they succeed in this. I find it praiseworthy. This post is rather my reflection on how the pressure of being productive in these times encouraged everywhere can become toxic and damaging to mental and psychical health.
Moreover, I consider that productivity is not the only component of self-improvement. Self-improvement is also about the joy of learning, discovering, and contributing.
In this challenging time, I wish you calm and strength.
Diana Kopbayeva works in the Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies, at Nazarbayev University, Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Newcastle University, UK (2019). Her doctoral project examined the current discourses of the nation in Kazakhstan (2013-2017) and focused on very recent initiatives and state programs, including the new notion of the Eternal Nation (Mangilik El ) that entails the government’s attempt to create a vision of an eternal nation-state where ethnic and civic nationalism co-exist, even as these discourses remain inherently in tension. Her research interests include nationalism, nation-building, discourses of the nation in post-Soviet territory.
The Teach311 + COVID-19 Collective began in 2011 as a joint project of the Forum for the History of Science in Asia and the Society for the History of Technology Asia Network and is currently expanded in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science(Artifacts, Action, Knowledge) and Nanyang Technological University-Singapore.