The pressure to be productive during the coronavirus pandemic

As many are home with time to spare, social media is flooded with messages about doing more with that time during this pandemic. Dilshad Burman explores the pressure to be productive and why not all productivity is positive.

By Dilshad Burman

With the coronavirus pandemic driving everyone except the most essential of workers indoors, many of us have a little — or a lot — of extra time on our hands.

Some have unfortunately lost their jobs, while others no longer have to commute or even change out of their pyjamas before getting down to working from home.

With the sudden lull in activity coupled with COVID-19 dread comes restlessness and anxiety — a feeling of needing to do or accomplish something.

Social media is flooded with messaging that encourages productivity while the pandemic has brought the world to a screeching halt. Perhaps learn a new language, pick up some cooking skills or start that side hustle you’ve been planning for years?

But let’s admit, this isn’t a staycation. We are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis as COVID-19 blazes a trail of destruction across the planet.

The massive stress you may be feeling as a result probably isn’t the most conducive mental space in which to be productive. But yet, the feeling — and the social pressure —  persists.

Where does this need to be productive come from?

Steve Joordens, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, says the feeling is likely part of a primitive, hard-wired physiological response – but slightly misdirected.

“The system that produces the anxiety is really meant to help us deal with immediate, short-term, acute threats,” he tells CityNews. “It’s often called the fight or flee system.”

In terms of the situation we find ourselves in currently, Joordens says it could be called the “do something system.”

Our bodies are primed and ready to fight or flee — but with nothing tangible to fight and no real possibility to flee. So the feeling lingers.

“It’s like our body screaming ‘do something’ at us and one way to get relief of some sort is to accomplish something,” he says.

Joordens created an online course called Mind Control: Managing Your Mental Health During COVID-19. In it, he suggests trying to set a goal for the day and completing it by the end of the day to help alleviate the feeling of anxious energy.

“That feeling of accomplishment is answering your body and saying ‘I am doing something,’ ” he says, adding that the creation of his course was also partly a response to his own feelings of wanting to do something productive.

Joordens says the “toilet paper panic” that we saw during the early days of the pandemic, was another example of people answering their inner call to do something. In that case it was by preparing – or over preparing – for what’s to come, in an attempt to answer that physiological prompt.

How do you cope with the pressure to be productive while dealing with COVID-19 stress?

Use productivity as a stress buster, not a stress creator

“You can use the environment to change the channel on your mind. If you can identify activities that put you in a different place [mentally], allow you to escape, those things are golden,” says Joordens.

However, he frames the goal of productivity as finding a healthy distraction and a way to take a break from ongoing stress factors rather than achieving something specific – whether that be a course in astronomy, watching two hours of soap operas or in his case, learning Garage Band.

To explain, he points out the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic learning.

Extrinsic learning is motivated by a reward at the end and is more about the goal than the act of learning. Intrinsic learning is motivated by the joy that the process of learning brings – it is something you love and want to do for yourself with no set reward in mind.

Joordens says he doesn’t suggest undertaking any sort of extrinsic learning during this time. The motivation behind doing something productive should be to relieve stress, not add to it, so the activity should bring you to a mentally positive space.

“To the extent that the need to accomplish something, upgrading, makes you feel psychologically better, then its a good thing,” he explains. “[If you feel like] if I don’t come back here with some upgrade to myself, some 2.0 version of myself, then that good thing, that distraction that should be a relief from the anxiety, becomes a second source of anxiety.”

Joordens also cautions that if the “fight or flee” system is engaged for too long, your immune system can be compromised, and that’s the last thing you want during a pandemic.

He stresses that we’re all going through more than enough right now and adding more to our plates is not helpful.

“Find something that gives you relief and a break because that’s what we need way more than an accomplishment at this point,” he says.

Joordens also says some distractions have a bit more “mojo” than others when it comes to stress relief. Things like singing, aerobic activity or dancing help counter the negative effects anxiety can have on your body.

“If you’re going to take an hour and do karaoke, that’s therapy. That’s not goofing off. That’s really mental health work. If it’s good mental health work it should be fun,” he says.

Recognize that you have some control over the situation

In addition to re-framing how we approach productivity, Joordens also suggests coping with the push to be productive by trying to change your mentality about being “stuck at home” — from that of a victim, to that of taking charge of the situation.

“Simply by staying at home, we are doing something,” he says.

“The healthcare workers have to fight this virus. It’s up to us how big a challenge that is and by us staying home, it’s like we’re actively pushing the virus smaller. And if you think of it that way, then simply by being home you’re already doing something.”

Joordens emphasizes his point by adding that provincial COVID-19 numbers have been encouraging and in some cases, they have been lower than initial modelling indicated.

“Look at that difference in numbers and say ‘I was part of that, I’m part of the reason why that happened,’ ” he says. “We’re already starting at that baseline of doing something. Anything else we can accomplish is fantastic, but don’t feel pressured.”

He adds that acknowledging and learning about your own mental health needs and what works best for you goes a long way in mitigating how you respond to stress, both in the current climate and beyond. He says it’s important to check in with yourself to see whether certain activities and even people in your life are leading to positive or negative feelings.

“If trying to drive yourself to accomplish something is not leaving you feeling positive then it’s not a good thing in your life right now,” he says.

How to cut yourself some slack about your productivity

Joordens suggests a few ways you can help yourself feel less pressured to be productive:

  • Check in on your mind and how you feel about what you’re doing.
    “If, when other people think you’re being ‘unproductive,’ you’re actually content and distracted from anxiety, then that’s probably a good form of ‘unproductiveness.’ ” says Joordens.
  • Choose an activity where the process gives you joy and doing it makes you feel good, simply for the sake of it. If a task or activity is causing negative feelings or additional stress, simply give it up for now.
    “If your mind state is not positive while doing it, you don’t need that right now,” says Joordens.
  • Do not feel bad about needing an escape — if all you accomplish is binge watching an entire season of your favourite show which provides an all encompassing distraction, that’s enough.
    “[Escape is] not necessarily something you should feel bad about at all. It may in fact be part of your coping strategy.”
  • Pay attention to self-talk.
    “This is not a time to be putting ourselves down, this is a time to be giving ourselves a break.”


“If you enjoyed the day, doing whatever, and you escaped COVID for a lot of the day, you did accomplish something,” says Joordens.

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