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  • Michelle Riband

Re-thinking “Productivity” During Lockdown

I have turned into a troll—a hairy, griping subterranean creature plagued by dreary unproductivity. After ten hours of sleep marred by coughing fits, I emerge from the depths of my childhood bed, where I was engulfed for the night by a sea of stuffed animals and floral pillows. Lacking the usual oomph in my stride, I shuffle to the kitchen, groggy and groaning, and make myself breakfast—muesli loaded with nuts and berries. (What happened to the promise of health foods making you healthy?) With lists upon lists of what I could or should be doing during this Corona-induced lockdown, I feel restless and frustrated. Then it starts once again: the raspy, thunderous cough, mounting from the cobweb-filled dungeon of my lungs until I expectorate a ball of viscous, putrid, green phlegm. It foams in the fold of my napkin, mocking me.


I know there’s little I can do except to brace my immune system for the battle ahead. Sleep, hydrate, gargle. Repeat. I am lucky to be in my mid-twenties with no preexisting conditions, hunkering down at my parents’ house until the storm passes. Maniacal Googling tells me it’s likely just a cold (right?), but the threat of COVID-19 adds a menacing air to any bout of bad health right now. My basic insurance plan and lack of a primary care physician spin in my mind as I tabulate my dwindling bank account. It’s been over a month. “This needs to get better ASAP!,” I tell myself impatiently, as I crunch down on yet another Vitamin C + Zinc tablet.

Amidst my congested stupor, I plod about the house in my mom’s blue striped pajamas and dad’s oversized sweaters (I didn’t bring enough clothes). I rarely brush my hair, shave, or put on deodorant. It just doesn’t seem necessary when the only warm body I get to cozy up to is that of my six-year-old retriever. She gives me a well-needed reprieve from social distancing by graciously sharing her unbridled canine affection, fervently licking me as if I were a popsicle on a summer’s day. I have also transitioned to a gluttonous regime of lactose-filled goodness, which involves single-handedly consuming a jumbo-sized Toblerone bar, two chocolate Easter bunnies, and several blocks of mozzarella, brie, and gruyère cheese. If my body isn’t getting better, I may as well nurture my soul!

Cheesy diet in "Re-thinking “Productivity” During Lockdown" by Michelle Riband

But I’m antsy. I feel defective, grasping desperately at some fitter, more clear-headed version of myself. The uncertainty of this apocalyptic global pandemic and its ramifications for my (and everyone’s) future weighs on me. I’m lucky to be in a house with a garden and the support of my loving parents. So many people have it so much worse. This comparison makes me feel guilty, adding to the feeling that I should be doing more. Yet here I am, bemoaning my mucous-filled ineptitude with every attempt to exercise or research online courses leaving me depleted. I feel pressure to “use this time wisely” and “build new skills.” I need to find a job somewhere in the midst of this growing global economic recession. But each day melts into the next: more phlegm, more afternoon naps, more pages of my book, more video chats, more episodes of Outlander. Why can’t I be productive?

I think about the “adult” version of myself that I fantasized about as a teen: a badass, heel-clad corporate exec right off the set of Gossip Girl. A product of my restless ambition and competitive education, this glorified Carrie Bradshaw meets Sheryl Sandberg character epitomizes the modern, post-industrialist woman—empowered, capable, and on top of her shit. But this symbol of perceived perfection and productivity is fraught. In our capitalist society, we try to optimize every minute, linking our self worth to our economic output: How many dollars did I make? How many sales did I close? How many “important” emails did I send? And, by the way, what size are those Lululemon leggings? In the absence of these misguided metrics and with crazy instability gripping the world, we need to focus on more authentic, fulfilling indicators of success.

I don’t know what I will do for the rest of the day or the rest of the week. My plans and myriad of to-do lists are shaky, at best, but that’s okay. Healthy or not, employed or not, quarantined alone or not—we all have to be kinder to ourselves. Embrace self-care in its many forms, even if that doesn’t entail the online yoga classes cluttering your Instagram feed. Focus on the relationships that matter, not your fantasies about fictitious TV show characters. Journaling, catching up with old friends, or picking up that long-forgotten art project are all acceptable ways to spend time right now, even if your Type A alter ego wouldn’t define them as “productive.” Not everything needs to have a definitive purpose or a measurable outcome. There is enough messiness in the world without adding sky-high expectations and self-flagellation to the mix.

And who knows: maybe tomorrow, I will transform from a troll back to a sparkly unicorn—shiny and new with a lot less phlegm and incredible time warping superpowers. Or maybe I’ll just be me and take it one day at a time.

Art projects in "Re-thinking “Productivity” During Lockdown" by Michelle Riband


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