The perils of trying to stay productive in a world of uncertainty and stress

It was inevitable: the rise of the coronavirus always reminded me of the fate of unrequited boredom. We feel the need to be busy, the pressure to constantly be accomplishing things, to avoid idle time.

A colleague noticed it as soon as he entered the fourth week of the quarantine. “I’m working twice as much, I’m producing 1/3 of what I used to, and my income is 20% of what it was,” he told me last week.

The pressure to being productive doesn’t leave room for anything else. No matter how hard we work, we are always playing catch-up. In the time of coronavirus, having free time feels more unattainable than ever.  

Our relationship with productivity is broken– it’s driven by guilt, not pleasure. We feel like underachievers when we can’t do everything we committed to. Instead of enjoying a movie, we feel bad because we are wasting our time.

Guilt, not the coronavirus, is paralyzing us.

Busyness and boredom are the two extremes of the same spectrum. To regain the pleasure of doing things, we must reframe our relationship with spare time.

The Case Against Busyness

Busyness has become a badge of honor and it’s foolish. Being busy makes us feel important and productive. Having free time is not only a rare luxury but also seen as a waste of time.

study found that most parents believe that if children get bored after school, they should enroll them in extracurricular activities. Rather than educating our kids to use time wisely, we are teaching them that being overstretched is a necessary state of being.

The busyness syndrome is killing us, yet most people are not aware of the correlation between job stress and bad health. Working work too much is directly linked to stress, hypertension, and depression.

Being busy is not the same as being productive.

Busy people talk about how busy they are; productive people let results do the talking. Busy people complain about never having enough time; productive people make time for what is essential. Being productive requires valuing our free time, too.

In the time of coronavirus, most of us are working longer hours than before.

Many executives I have talked to in the past few weeks are having more Zoom meetings that they can’t count. They are not more productive, as the colleague I mentioned above. People are just skipping lunch, bio breaks, and reflection time to please their distrustful bosses or demanding colleagues, not to achieve more.

As a culture, we’ve normalized—we even praise—busyness addiction. But, this doesn’t do you any favor, especially during a pandemic.

Ignore motivational gurus telling you that if you don’t come out of this quarantine with a new skill or being more productive, you wasted your time. Do the best you can, don’t let someone else’s expectations make you feel guilty or ashamed.

As organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich, wrote last week, “It is both okay—and completely normal—to feel unmotivated right now. In fact,holding ourselves to a productive pandemic doesn’t just seem impossible; it feels like an act of aggression against ourselves.”

Give yourself permission to lower expectations.

Boredom Is Your Friend, Not Your Enemy

The same way some people are busier than ever, others seem to have endless free time.

Working parents are dealing with homeschooling and entertaining their kids. Everyone’s worried about their finances, keeping their loved ones safe, grieving their stolen memories, and dreading about what lies ahead.

However, many people are also experiencing an almost guilty relief; they have now endless free time to spend with their families. Work-life feels simple despite the complications of working from home, as Johanna Leggatt wrote in The Guardian.

“There is no plane to catch to an industry conference hosted by a peak body that no one has heard of or pointless stand-up meetings to be roped into while wondering how many missed netball matches make you a bad parent. There is messiness now for sure. And for once, our work is elbowing its way into our days rather than the other way around.”

In the times of coronavirus, are you bored or just experiencing boredom?

The difference between the two can determine how you deal with your spare time.

Boredom is a clean slate; feeling bored is a mental state we choose to avoid self-reflection. Boredom is not a lack of stimulation. Ironically, the more distractions and external stimuli we pursue, the more bored we feel.

As Dr. Sandi Mann, the author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom is Good, explains: “The more entertained we are, the more entertainment we need to feel satisfied. The more we fill our world with fast-moving, high-intensity stimulation, the more we get used to that, and the less tolerant we become of lower levels.”

Feeling bored is not about what you do (or not), but about how you do it. Your relationship with your free time can confine you, or set you free.

John Eastwood, director at York University, believes that boredom is a ‘crisis of meaning’ ––an invitation to reflect on how we engage with the world. He debunked the misconception that only boring people get bored. We all experience it, but some can’t deal with it effectively.

Boredom is not the problem; chronic boredom is the issue.

Research shows that continually feeling bored – chronic boredom – has a direct relationship with compulsive behavior. It’s responsible for increased risk of overeating, gambling, alcohol, and drug abuse, among others. Chronic boredom can drive to procrastination, too.

When we feel bored, we blame it on someone else. We believe that boredom requires external stimulation to go away. Something or someone has to save us from feeling bored. However, it’s our relationship with free time that we can’t manage.

The paradox is that we embrace busyness to avoid wasting our time and end becoming bored and achieving nothing. Psychologists used to think that mind-wandering was useless. However, recent studies show that it is an essential and healthy part of our lives.

Boredom can become a conduit to see the light at the end of the tunnel, especially in times of crisis.

Finding balance in the time of coronavirus

Unexpected things can happen when we stop fighting boredom. Avoid the pressure to being always busy.

In times of uncertainty, when we feel anxious and lost, boredom can become our best ally. The brain needs free time – to slow down – to process new information and discover new solutions.

Research by McKinsey shows that when teams slow down, they achieve their objectives more quickly. Decelerating helps people deal more effectively with increased complexity and challenges — and use less energy.

Idle time also allows us to connect the dots––we can make meaning out of unrelated facts when we are not actively thinking. According to Columbia University scientists, ‘aha!’ moments happen below the radar of consciousness; we are not aware when the brain is solving the challenges we are facing now.

The Eureka effect is an accurate reflection of the brain, reaching a decision while we were embracing boredom.

So, in the coming weeks and months, rather than pushing yourself to learn more skills, to Marie Kondo your diet, or to transform your whole life during a quarantine, slow down. Let boredom get the best out of your brain.

In the time of coronavirus, boredom is something to experience rather than to run away from. Your motivation and energy will fluctuate from one day to another––and that’s okay. Don’t feel guilty if one day you do a halfway decent job; set up reasonable expectations.

When you feel tired or bored, do something that doesn’t require much brain activity. Go for a walk (even if it’s inside your home), watch a movie, or do the dishes––let your mind wander with joy, not guilt.

There is indeed power in doing what you can. Lower your expectations, not your sanity. True happiness is not about having more but appreciating what we have. Start by valuing your idle time.

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