"I remember hearing an old Duchess say: “What do the poor want with holidays? They ought to work.” People nowadays are less frank, but the sentiment persists, and is the source of much of our economic confusion." — Bertrand Russell
Not a day passed from when it became agonizingly clear COVID-19 has ensnared the world that I began seeing calls for productivity while people became homebound and uncertain about their own and their loved ones' futures. Among other outlets, the New York Times wanted its readers to know that there are multiple ways to stay productive while staying home. Google's "productivity expert" had some advice to dispense, too. That there is a professional title for something so abstract is proof of our modern obsession with commodification. Fortune readers gave tips on what they do to be productive and successful. On different platforms, there was a sudden and rather overbearing emphasis on the need to channel this newfound stress and mania and misery into something tangible and creative. Something lucrative.
The gist of these articles and listicles, tweets and posts from the cult of productivity and hobby-into-hustle was straightforward: it does not matter whether we're in the suffocating center of a pandemic with no foreseeable treatment yet, you, my friend, should maximize your time to create something majestic. Like King Lear, one suggested on Twitter. Never mind that King Lear is one of Shakespeare's lesser literary productions.
These calls to be more productive carry an unspoken demand to ignore certain uncomfortable truths. You are expected to casually brush aside the fact that the number of positive cases has reached one million globally and that at least 50,000 deaths have been caused by this outbreak so far. Don't focus on the fact that there is a makeshift hospital set up in Central Park and thanks to repeated administrative assaults on medical infrastructure (like this Trump budget chief supporting cuts to the CDC), some nurses on the frontlines of the disease are wearing gowns made of trash bags. Don't dwell too long on the fact that the 6.6 million people who have lost their jobs in the midst of this will now have to navigate a world that binds their health insurance — a razor-thin chance of finding adequate care — to employment.
People are being told to be more productive in the middle of almost 1 out of 5 Americans having their work hours reduced. It should not have to be spelled out but fewer hours mean lesser pay. Lesser pay means more difficulty in meeting basic needs. Unmet basic needs, as research has repeatedly indicated, stultifies creativity and decision-making skills. More than anything, try not to think about, for example, how the most powerful country in the world has the least comprehensive response to this deadly disease, bartering industry bailouts with people's lives.
When every single aspect of our lives follows a philosophy of productivity, we sap joy out of terribly simple things.
One shouldn't be surprised by these passionate calls for efficiency. The proponents of this modern and mechanical philosophy were not born yesterday. It goes back to the Industrial Revolution at least, when work was likened to virtue and idleness to moral failure. Through a misplaced sense of righteousness, many have praised sacrificing the idleness of today for the productivity of tomorrow.
Writers like Bertrand Russell lambasted this collective fixation. So did Soren Kierkegaard. Diane Ackerman wrote a simple and elegant defense of leisurely play. There are countless poems and paintings depicting the contentment derived from doing nothing and simply letting the mind wander based on its own compass. But the most beautiful call for idleness, in my opinion, came from Ruth Krauss. "Everybody should be quiet," Krauss once wrote, "near a little stream and listen."
The writers of these manifestos could have never predicted the spike in "pandemic productivity" articles and emails in 2020. Over the past few weeks, I have been quietly collecting these emails I receive extolling productivity for people who suddenly find themselves working remotely. A PR email — for a prominent bank in the United States, ironically enough — tells me that its worker management solution company has some magic tricks to boost employee productivity. Shrouded in the sterile language of profitability and accountability, there is an unmistakable emphasis on surveilling the remote landscape. In one particularly notable part of the email, I am told that the management group's software would allow companies to "see all team members as they are working in real time" and that "employers don’t have to wonder if the employee is working or being productive, because the software will provide them with the immediate information they need."
In the marketplace, too, this preoccupation with occupation is inescapable. You may not find toilet paper, disinfectants, diapers, or even food in some cases but you will find an unmistakable and rather pandemic-produced retail re-do with productivity journals, planners, rose-pink bordered calendars cheering you on with Larry Page quotes like "always deliver more than expected" or calligraphic Benjamin Franklin text telling you to "either write something worth reading or do something worth writing."
It is cruel to demand more of people with increasingly less.
Our obsessive pursuit of productivity and efficiency comes at the precious cost of our collective mental wellness, a well that is rapidly running dry. When every single aspect of our lives — from blending juice in the morning to walking the dog — follows an energy-depleting philosophy of productivity, we sap joy out of terribly simple things. And under a pandemic, it is the simple things that will give us some semblance of normalcy in such abnormal times.
It is parasitic to afflict people with guilt for not producing enough in the middle of an outbreak afflicting the world. It is cruel to demand more of people with increasingly less. Based on how most millionaires have conducted themselves so far and the grandiose facade of the tech world that promised us solutions through disruptions, this virus most likely won't give these sectors an epiphanous paradigm shift and teach them to be more humane, less avaricious.
But, it can remind us to hold on tightly to the little things that give us stability. A toast with plum jam while you call your loved ones. A bicycle ride down an empty street. Reading a few pages out of your favorite book, if you would like. A show of your choice running in the background while you think about your friends. If nothing else, a delicious nap under the sun by the window.
As these grand-claim-making institutions show us how pathetically unprepared they were for a pandemic and these workplaces fall shamefully short on protecting what makes their empires even possible — everyday workers — there is no need to do beyond what you did before all hell broke loose. There is no need to whittle yourself away as a nameless cog in the machine. There is no need to come undone in the name of productivity.
Working beyond one’s human limits inevitably bruises their sense of joy, discernment, and clarity. It’s the last thing the world needs right now. “Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most,” Russell once wrote, “and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle.”