How Not To Be Productive: the Importance of Doing Nothing in Self-Isolation

Watching how China and Italy were starting to quarantine its people, I knew what was coming for the UK. I knew sooner or later we would be asked to stay indoors and put our lives on hold. So I borrowed lots of books from libraries before they closed, sorted out the WiFi in my study and made the shift to working online.

I genuinely thought I would be ok. I’m introverted, I have a million hobbies that I always wished I had more time for, I’m working on a book – I have an endless list of things to do that don’t involve walking out the front door. I could be the person I always wanted to be and finish the things I always wanted to finish, and I could take some pressure off our healthcare service. It was a win-win situation.

For the first few days, I was productive. I wrote. I read. I watched live streams of writers, agents, publishers and I learnt. But then overnight, I stopped being productive.

I desperately wanted to be though. I wanted to bash out that first draft of my novel, I wanted to make a serious dent in my reading list. New resources and avenues were opening up around me, new online courses and talks and amazing people willing to share their time. I wanted to make use of all of this. I felt that I was being given an opportunity, a space to do more, and I was squandering it. There was so much I could do.

I did none of it.

I didn’t read for weeks. My careful writing timetable fell to pieces and I didn’t write a word for three weeks. I didn’t touch my watercolours, didn’t watch any plays online; I haven’t written in my journal, I haven’t learnt to code. I haven’t watched any yoga videos.

Instead, I lay in bed, unable to do much more than watch YouTube videos and eat crackers.

And I really hated myself for it.

I felt like a failure. I felt lazy. I felt undisciplined.

I felt useless.

And I knew I was not the only one.

I think the constant need to be productive in our own estimation and society’s estimation is particularly strong within the South Asian diaspora. As a second-generation immigrant, I still feel the effects. Our parents knew that immigrants had to work twice as hard to go half as far, and the same still holds true for all people of colour, women, and LGTBQ+ individuals. To be even near a spotlight, we have to work harder than our privileged co-stars. I am haunted by writer Nikesh Shukla’s anecdote about how a publisher turned him down, saying that they were already publishing an Indian author that year.[1] We have one spot, Western society tells us, and all the brown people are competing for it – so don’t be just good, be the best. We have worked so long and so hard throughout our lives, in a million tiny ways, that now that we can’t work in the ways we did before, we have no intrinsic self-value that will see us through not doing anything.

We formed our identities and self-worth around our grades and academia and work goals and promotions and making people laugh and having people check us out - without all that, in our homes and alone, we are floating untethered. If I do not write a book, or do not read a book or do not write an article, then who am I?

I kept trying to work out why I was being unproductive. Maybe it’s because I’m living through a literal pandemic. Maybe it’s because I see what’s happening in the news and I’m angry and mad and sad and scared. Maybe it’s because the more I bully myself for not being productive, the more I cannot move. I nagged and shamed myself into a ball I could not roll out from.

But maybe doing nothing is ok.

In her book, writer Katherine May talks about the idea of ‘wintering’[2] and how we all have ‘fallow periods’ where we feel uncertain and blocked from progress. She encourages us to embrace our wintering periods, rather than feeling shame and negativity about it.

The metaphors she uses of wintering and fallow periods helped me see my own unproductivity differently. After all, we don’t judge a tree for not growing fruit in winter. We accept that it is natural for it to produce nothing, we admire it for still being alive and we wait patiently for spring and its flowers. We cannot be productive all the time. We cannot make and strive and produce indefinitely, especially not in times of stress such as this. But it’s hard to be ok with not doing anything. We see others doing so much more than us and we whip our own backs as punishment for our laziness. But often, we just end up in a vicious cycle.

We tell ourselves to work more.

We feel tired or we lack motivation.

We tell ourselves that we’re lazy and lacking discipline.

We feel ashamed and start feeling negatively about a project or a goal.

We don’t have the motivation to work.

We tell ourselves we’re lazy.

We feel shame and self-hatred – and the cycle continues.

Berating yourself to work when you feel like you can’t doesn’t help. Identifying why you can’t work and allowing yourself the grace and kindness to not work – and crucially, not feel shame for not working – breaks that cycle. I should know. I gave myself the permission to purposefully spend a week doing nothing productive. Two days into my week, I got an idea for a story and wrote 2,000 words in one sitting.

Maybe your fallow period lasts weeks. Maybe you don’t do anything you set yourself to do during quarantine. Maybe you will look back on this period of self-isolation and not be able to say anything other than, I survived. But that should be enough.

Celebrities and influencers these days are always urging us to hustle harder, work more, be more disciplined. They tell us that success is the product of graft and they might have a point.

But success is not happiness. And I think in this period of uncertainty, hardship and fear, we need to redefine success to mean contentment on the inside, rather than a finished novel, the perfect body or other external goals. Treat others with kindness, patience and grace - but don’t forget to extend those virtues to yourself. We are wintering - but it will be summer soon.




©2019 Cinnamon Bay

London, UK