Magazine July 6, 2020, Issue

The Productivity Pandemic

A phone on a tripod livestreams a performance by National Symphony Orchestra’s Marissa Regni, May 31, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

For those of us lucky enough to have kept our job and our health during the Great Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020, working from home — and, in fact, spending nearly all of our waking hours inside our home — has nevertheless presented challenges of its own.

Not least of these has been finding something to do with all the time we suddenly seem to have on our hands. Within a week, we went from telling our friends, “I’m doing really well, but I’m so busy,” to rolling our eyes and muttering, “Doing okay, I guess, just trying to stay busy.”

As most of us heaved a sigh and resigned ourselves to an indeterminate period spent indoors, the social-media machine of productivity gurus whirred into motion and the self-improvement listicles began pouring in, all revolving around the theme of finding countless, personalized ways to make the most of these unusual times.

“Look on the bright side!” they chirped. “Quarantine is a time for Progress and Growth.” Trapped inside, we now would have no choice but to finally get to all those projects we’d been putting off for ages, to detoxify our odd assortment of cleaning supplies, to start drafting that long-awaited novel, to repaint the spare bedroom once or twice or seven times, to declutter our closets and garages, to learn how to garden without killing half the plants, to finally get in shape and start that diet we swore we’d try in the new year.

Websites big and small, eager for a share of the increased Internet traffic of the homebound masses, immediately got busy capitalizing on our unending boredom and churned out articles on staying entertained and being productive.

“50 Fun Things You Can Do at Home Right Now in Quarantine,” a Thrillist article promised. But Travel + Leisure had them beat with “100+ Fun Things to Do at Home Right Now, from Virtual Tours to Animals Cams and More.” Southern Living offered “15 Outdoor Activities to Keep You Grounded During Quarantine,” and the options suggested that people are getting desperate: Weeding the garden, they averred, “can actually be quite soothing.”

One silver lining of this crisis is that the pandemic didn’t strike in winter, when being confined to our homes would’ve presented an especially dire situation. In my neighborhood, at least, the cool spring days have featured many more people than usual outside riding bikes and walking dogs and playing in the yard with their kids.

But there were articles for that, too, cautioning us on how to venture outside our four walls without wreaking havoc: Just make sure, they directed, that when you take one of your eight daily walks, it is with only one family member, and you wear the facial equivalent of a hazmat suit at all times, stay a healthy twelve feet away from passersby — just to be good and safe — and toss a pointed glare at anyone who might fail to observe these rituals. Gathering with friends in lawn chairs out front might be a nice change of pace, but it’s likely out of the question for anyone whose neighbors have become self-appointed enforcement brigades for the social-distancing regime.

Meanwhile, I have surprised myself with my capacity to cycle through hobbies and projects, picking them up almost faster than I put them down. I spent the obligatory two and a half weeks doing brief workouts from the comfort of my room — four floors above our building’s shuttered gym — facilitated by ten-minute videos and coaches who greet you each morning with the same too-large grin.

Exercising with a view of a lone tree outside my bedroom window got old pretty fast, so I replaced that routine with long walks; these days, ambling a mile around the neighborhood feels like more of a trip than when I used to travel on a plane twice a month. This has given me a chance not only to glimpse and greet neighbors I otherwise never would’ve seen but also to study my surroundings: With the help of an app that identifies flowers, I’ve begun an aggressive campaign to memorize the name of each species of nearby flora, admiring the way they come and go in stages over the course of the season.

Cooking, too, has provided a helpful outlet, as the grocery store has been one of the few sanctioned reasons to journey farther than the local sidewalk. Though I’ve managed plenty of successful new recipes — including my first time roasting a whole chicken — the simple pot of rice was my undoing. (If you’re ever confronted with a similarly disastrous pile of soggy grains, don’t bother with the oven trick. The best solution is some time in a frying pan followed by a good dousing with soy sauce.)

With commuting out of the picture, there’s time for lots of extra reading, an opportunity to train an attention span short-circuited by Twitter to focus for long stretches of time on the same set of ideas — at least, that is, when my neighbors trapped like sardines alongside me have finally ceased their lengthy phone calls on nearby balconies and quieted their yapping dogs.

Watching my friends and neighbors adapt to this odd era has been to see a rather charming display of human resilience, of our ability to make the most of strange and unexpected circumstances. Though staying occupied has been a bit more of a challenge than usual, maybe it has reminded us, too, that it’s okay not to be always so Busy, that a day of less productivity won’t kill us. Most of the time, getting through another day feels like victory enough.

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