March 27, 2020

With many parts of the world having gone on a lockdown, there are some voices that are urging us to make use of this downtime to be productive. They cite several greats throughout history - William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Edvard Munch - and how they were incredibly productive during times of isolation. I don’t think a strong focus on making the best use of this time is good, or even helpful.

Free Time

The first issue is I don’t think people have as much free time as others might expect. If your work remains unchanged or if you’ve lost your job, any extra time is often very different from holiday free time.

Personally, this has been one of the busiest times of my life. I do software engineering mostly, so working remotely is easily done. Others I know have luckily transitioned quite well from their office based jobs to working at home.

Those who work in jobs which haven’t transitioned to work from home well, or to those who have unfortunately lost their jobs, it’s a completely different story. Assuming your time isn’t filled up with parenting, there will be gaps in your day. But when you’ve lost your job or have an uncertain future, you understand that unemployed free time is not the same as employed free time. There are different priorities and stresses, and “being productive” becomes a luxury.

With schools closing and everyone being in the same home I cannot imagine that parents have much free time at all. Even if your work allows you to easily work from home, having any amount of children at home during work hours is super disruptive to getting anything done.

Productivity

Assuming there is some extra time, maybe from not having to commute every day even if your job remains largely unchanged, should this time be used for “being productive”? Should you feel guilty for doing something that is “unproductive”?

I think the push to be productive during any extra time is misplaced. First and foremost: people should do whatever they want. You define productivity, no one else. If painting or playing piano or cooking or learning magic tricks piques your interest - that’s what you should fill your time with. Fill it with anything that lets you express yourself more. If you have children, now you have the chance to spend that time with them.

Are any of these options “productive”? While some might classify productivity as “work put towards creating value” it might be better to classify it as “time spent doing what you enjoy”. Exploring your tastes and skills, spending time with those you love, growing as a person - these are some of the best ways you can spend your time.

This Is A Pandemic

Having said all of that, we are currently in a pandemic. Stress levels are high for almost everyone, not least those who might have lost their job or are unsure of what the future holds. The best use of time right now might be to unwind, to do absolutely nothing, and to not feel guilty about it at all.

Binge watch your favourite Netflix series? Re-watch your favourite sports matches? Get lost in a Youtube rabbit hole? No guilt.

I’m a believer that sometimes you need this kind of time, to just do nothing. This time might last an hour or a few days, and eventually you’ve had enough and you are ready to do something else. Or maybe not. Either way I don’t see this time as explicitly bad, especially during periods of heightened stress.

Be Kind

Without sounding too preachy, a good attitude is to be kind. With stress and pressure and uncertainty things can get out of line pretty quickly. I keep reminding myself: be kind to myself, and be kind to others.