Carlin’s Conventions, Issue 9

Redefining Productivity

I’ve never done well with idle time. I’m someone who likes to be constantly busy, from taking a full course load to attending two meetings in one lunch period to having multiple after-school activities most weekdays.

For most of my life, sitting completely unoccupied at home has been a foreign concept to me. Even when I don’t have real schoolwork, I feel pressure to be doing something, whether that means reading or planning the week ahead of me. Yes, I do scroll through Instagram and fall down YouTube rabbit holes just like most other teenagers. But often I feel guilty for doing so: for being unproductive, for wasting my time, for expending my energy and brain cells on trivial things.

So when an impromptu week-long break with reduced school work appeared on my schedule, I found myself antsy for some activity. I picked up a book. I went for a few runs. I took my dog for a long walk. I made some progress on my Independent Study, an online computer programming course.

There was a lot of time that week, though, where I felt like I wasn’t doing “enough.” Checking the time often made me feel anxious. It’s 5:30 P.M. already? I’ve wasted my whole day doing nothing! Even though there was information to process, uncertainty to be wrestled with and a “new normal” to adjust to––all of which took, for me, a grossly underestimated amount of time and energy––I chastised myself for not putting these processes on the back burner in favor of fulfilling more “worthwhile” responsibilities.

I’d grown up under the impression that learning “time management” was regarded as a necessity for adolescents––particularly high schoolers. I knew that by the time I entered college, I was supposed to be able to hold myself accountable for completing everything I’d been assigned, to fit each task into my schedule like a jigsaw puzzle.

But somewhere along the way, I’d lost sight of the difference between managing my time well and feeling compelled to always be productive. I would invent tasks for myself––organize my room, read two chapters in my book, watch three TED Talks––not because I wanted or needed to get them done, but because if I didn’t check boxes on my to-do list, I would feel ineffective that day. I’ve always considered my work ethic my biggest strength, but when that discipline kicked into overdrive, it often interfered with my self-compassion.

So when I started seeing news articles and social media posts about cutting oneself slack for unproductivity while in quarantine, I paused. The authors, whether they were psychologists or influencers, had the same message: in a time of extreme volatility, sometimes it is necessary––let alone merely acceptable––to sit with emotions instead of trying to bury them under one’s obligations. In fact, permitting oneself to be unproductive is, in itself, a form of productivity––just as professional athletes take time to recover when they’re injured, taking mental “days off” during a difficult period will ultimately benefit one’s psyche.

Whether or not you experience the same “productivity pressure” that I do, it’s important to practice self-compassion––every day, but particularly in this moment–– and tune in to your emotional needs, even if it feels idle to do so. Navigating an unpredictable period like this one requires a kind of productivity that can’t always be achieved solely by completing school assignments and reorganizing your closet. If you need a Netflix binge or a stress-baking session somewhere in there, go for it.