The myth of pandemic productivity

pandemic productivity candid orange

The year is 1665. Isaac Newton has been sent home from Cambridge University following an outbreak of the Great Plague.

Just another university student in his early 20s, Newton is confined to a year-long isolation. Fast forward over 350 years: just another university student in her early 20s sent home during the Covid pandemic, I share many parallels with the great Sir Isaac. Except for one: I am not on the precipice of discovering the foundations of modern physics. 

An ambitious article published by The Washington Post posits that, like us, Isaac Newton had to work from home during a pandemic, using his time wisely to discover gravity and write papers that became early calculus. However, the article sustains the misconception that the year-plus time we spent isolated from civilisation was meant to be the most productive time of our lives. 

Newton contributed to analytical geometry, shouldn’t we at least be able to run a 5k in thirty minutes?

The many faces of productivity

With life crawling back to normality, the ‘how the hell are you’ of everyday conversation will most likely be followed by a hefty ‘what the hell have you been up to?’. I’m not alone in dreading this question.

My housemates feel no different. One will tell people about the online coding course she completed, before revealing her three-month, back-to-back, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills binge. Another will bite your ear off about all the uni work she completed and deadlines she met. ‘I was just in the zone at home,’ she’d say, but a few drinks later she’ll be boasting about how she finished Grey’s Anatomy (16 seasons and counting). Another housemate successfully sold a range of self-designed hoodies but invested the remainder of his abundant free time into creating a virtual Sims reality of our university house. They’re Isaac Newton Russian dolls: each concealing a year of unproductivity. 

Pandemic productivity realised itself in many different ways to many different people. For my sister, productivity meant waking with the sunrise at 6 am and completing a 40-minute HIT workout, before settling into an 8-4 work-from-home day. 

Productivity appeared in a very different form for me. I was under the pressure of end-of-year exams and struggling to deal with a friend’s deteriorating mental health while barely mitigating my own. From March through June, productivity was getting out of bed before midday and changing into clothes that didn’t consist of flannel. 

Hindsight’s a wonderful thing

At the time I was haunted by what-ifs. I had neglected to perfect the TikTok iced coffee (mine tasted like dirt) and my phone was flooded with threatening DuoLingo notifications (the extent of my Italian is yet to surpass grazie). What if I had persevered? Would I be an Italian-speaking, barista sensation? 

In more grandiose pipedreams, I would look back at the pandemic with my children and recount how I wrote a bestselling novel, learned seven languages and single-handedly eradicated poverty. What if I’m embarrassed to tell them the truth?

In retrospect, the most productive thing anyone could do was survive all the shit life threw at us last year. Newton’s ‘miracle year’ was my nightmare year; I no longer feel remorse for not contributing to modern science when fighting with siblings over the remote had me fully occupied.

Sometimes, navigating the new normal of living in your childhood home in your early 20s – sacrificing any morsel of independence by living with your family – can feel like rocket science; the kind for which even Sir Isaac couldn’t provide a formula.

Redefining productivity

We live in a society obsessed with pushing the limits of productivity. Bestselling books and viral talks encourage us to re-evaluate the parameters of our productivity, insisting we optimise any free time by assigning it a task. 

My mum refuses to take a day off. She uses her allocated holidays to make sourdough loaves from scratch and repot the entire garden. She asks me every night before bed “what are your plans for tomorrow?” and frowns on our Sunday FaceTime when I tell her I’ve done laundry (Sunday- as permitted by God- is the only day of rest). The woman likes to keep busy. 

44-year-old Steve Waters told the BBC that, pre-pandemic, he defined productivity as crossing as many tasks off a list as possible, admitting that without a ‘forced pause’ he’d still operate in this way, continuing to spread himself too thin. He radically transformed his work life, narrowing his focus from a variety of things to a laser focus on one important thing – his new contact tracing business. 

Waters redefined his concept of productivity: he wakes up two hours earlier than he used to and has completed a full day of work by 2 pm. His work life is a deviation from the traditional 9 to 5, and so is his sense of productivity.

Conducting this on a larger scale, Spain has become one of the first countries in the world to trial a four-day working week following issues around wellbeing, burnout and work-life balance that surfaced during the pandemic. Iñigo Errejón, of the left-wing party, Más País, launching the trial, maintains the idea that working more hours does not mean working better.

Unlike Steve Waters, the pandemic was not a welcome pause for my mother. Her lifestyle has hardly changed in terms of workload and our house remains a hurricane of her executing endless domestic tasks.

From an economic perspective, labour productivity in the UK – as measured by output per hour – reached an all-time high in July- August of 2020. Allowing individuals the freedom to restructure their workday to their advantage had a seismic impact on productivity. Perhaps the pandemic was the refreshing reset we needed to confront the problematic nature of productivity, and come out the other side feeling more focused than ever.

‘Remember the example Newton set’

And then remind yourself: he is the exception, not the rule.

I know people who have incorporated their government-mandated daily walk into their lunch breaks – using their half-hour away from the desk to explore beyond the office. I know others who have adapted to a work-from-home lifestyle and now complete their 9 to 5 from the comfort of their living room two days a week. Everyone has a pandemic before and after, not everyone’s ‘after’ features abundant additions to a CV.  Some are as simple as having your lunch break by a canal you never knew existed.

Whether it’s mastering a second language, starting a business selling handmade jewellery, perfecting a banana bread recipe or managing to maintain even a morsel of sanity during the pandemic, our feats, while comparatively small by Newton’s standard, are feats nonetheless.

We owe it to the virus’ millions of victims to celebrate our survival. It doesn’t make for the best water-cooler conversation, but neither does quantum physics.