It's OK If You're Not Being Productive During The COVID-19 Pandemic

Some people are baking bread and learning new languages. Some of us are just trying to get through the day.
Not everyone is using their quarantine time to get things done. And that's perfectly all right.
Not everyone is using their quarantine time to get things done. And that's perfectly all right.

All of a sudden, it seems like everyone’s a baker. Social media feeds are full of people buying sourdough starters, gleefully watching their bread rise, sharing updates as it forms and bakes. They’re fun to watch but can also sometimes fill you with dread: Should I be doing this too? What’s wrong with me?

Lots of people are using their time at home to develop new skills: They’re cooking up a storm, they’re setting up at-home exercise routines, they’re learning new languages, and re-organizing their basements. Those are deeply admirable things to be doing.

But a lot of people aren’t reacting to the coronavirus pandemic, and the social isolation that comes with it, in that same way. For some people, just getting through the day in sweatpants, with dirty hair and lapsed responsibilities, is enough to deal with. For some people, not having a total breakdown is the biggest accomplishment possible.

And that’s OK.

“We’re conditioned to believe that being as productive as possible, and structuring our days in this very externally validating way, is what’s right,” said Andrea Sadler, an occupational therapist and psychotherapist working in Toronto.

“There’s an interesting judgment that the more productive people are doing it right, and the less productive people are doing it wrong,” Sadler told HuffPost Canada. “But there are no rules around that. It’s all just about getting through.”

Understand that we’re all just muddling through

We all have different coping mechanisms. “For some people that might be making a bookshelf or exercising,” Sadler said. “And for some people it might be sitting in front of the TV and binge-watching a season, and nothing’s wrong with that.”

Being ultra-productive and sleeping a lot are both valid methods of coping, and neither is better than the other. If anything, Sadler said, it can be helpful to remember that the “be-ers” might actually be having an easier time with all of this than the “doers.” People who cope with stress by getting things done may find it difficult that they can’t do enough to stop the global pandemic.

Be compassionate to yourself

This one’s easier said than done, to be sure. But Sadler says this is one of the most significant things she’s been talking to her clients about recently.

It’s important to be patient and kind to yourself as you adapt to a new and very difficult reality. You’re figuring out how to cope under circumstances you didn’t expect and haven’t experienced before. It’s normal for that to be difficult.

Physical distancing can be very isolating.
Physical distancing can be very isolating.

And there’s no value in adding “a dirty layer of anxiety and judgment and frustration” to an already very difficult situation, she said.

The best way to start the difficult process of self-compassion is to notice your self-judgement when it starts to set in. “By noticing that, there’s this sense of self-compassion, this idea that this is a really difficult time,” she said. Taking note of your tendency to judge your behaviour as “weak” or “not enough” can be the first step to stopping that sort of negative self-talk and becoming kinder to yourself.

Identify your grief

The drive to be productive during the pandemic can also be a way for us to sidestep our own distress. But that won’t serve us in the long term.

Edmonton-based psychologist and grief counsellor Ashley Mielke told HuffPost Canada that exercising and baking — along with emotionally eating, or drinking a lot, or gambling — are what her clinical community calls short-term energy-relieving behaviours. They can take the edge off during a stressful situation, but the relief they offer doesn’t last for long.

“We’re very quick to minimize our sad and painful feelings,” she said. “There’s a lot of talk of, ‘You have to exercise, you have to be positive,’ but that’s only half of it. What about all these big emotions that everybody’s feeling but nobody knows how to talk about or how to acknowledge them?”

“‘Am I defective because I’m not happy right now? Because I am struggling to get out of bed? Because I feel completely physically and emotionally exhausted?’ That’s grief.”

- Grief counsellor Ashley Mielke

A lot of people are experiencing the loss of control and connection that the pandemic has caused as a form of grief, she said. Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end or change in a familiar pattern of behaviour — and that’s something we’re all experiencing right now.

“Think of all of the familiarity that has changed for millions of people,” she said, “for our families, for our communities, for our businesses, for us, in a matter of days.”

Looking at what we’re going through as grief might make it easier for us to be patient with ourselves. “We cannot minimize the mass of emotion that so many of us are feeling,” she said.

″‘Am I defective because I’m not happy right now? Because I am struggling to get out of bed? Because I feel completely physically and emotionally exhausted?’ That’s grief.”

Recognize that what’s going on can trigger mental health issues in a lot of us

“A lot of what we’re asking people to do by isolating is a lot of what triggers people’s mental health issues, like not leaving the house,” Sadler said.

People who are depressed are often told to get out of the house and to socialize, something none of us can safely do these days. Staying in and avoiding contact with other people can be isolating, which is hard for a lot of people.

It may be an especially difficult time for people with eating disorders, both because of the stress of isolation and the constant messages about quarantine-related weight gain and exercise.

And people who suffer from addiction are at risk, too. Support groups like AA and NA have moved online, which is an enormous help for some people, but the lack of in-person care can take its toll.

Staying home can exacerbate mental health issues in a lot of people.
Staying home can exacerbate mental health issues in a lot of people.

Whether or not you’re a person who suffers from one of these conditions, isolation and disruption of routine is difficult for just about everyone.

Sadler suggests thinking about what it is you need to maintain good mental health. It’s different for everybody, but “usually people kind of know” what it is they need, she said. From there, figure out how to make adjustments to get what you need in this new reality.

If you’re someone who really needs exercise to feel good, seek out one of the many home workout options floating around the internet. If you need social contact, plan phone calls or video chats with your friends. Maybe limiting your time on Instagram will keep you away from the memes that you don’t need to see right now.

Focus on the here and now

This is another hard one. But try your best not to think too far ahead, Sadler said. Worrying about when kids will go back to school or whether that trip you had planned this fall is still happening is fruitless: No one has the answers, and you’ll just drive yourself crazy trying to figure it out.

“Take it day by day, week by week, moment by moment,” Sadler suggested. For instance: Right here, right now, I still have a job. Right here, right now, I don’t have COVID-19.

Or: Right here, right now, I can apply for employment insurance. Right here, right now, I got COVID-19 but I recovered.

“It’s not because those questions [about the future] aren’t good questions,” she said. “They’re great questions. But they’re not helpful in this given time, because we can’t answer them, and that makes us stressed.”

Remember that this is fully unprecedented

One of the most important parts of Sadler’s therapeutic practice is helping clients cope with day-to-day stressors, with the parts of daily life that are and will continue to be inevitable: irritation at fellow riders of public transit, tension with a co-worker. This isn’t that.

“This is a one-off,” she said. “This is something that most of us, we’ll have once in our lives.”

That means the focus is less about figuring out a detailed strategy for how to be as happy and productive as possible, and more on just getting through the day.

“There are no rules,” Sadler said. “The rules are all out, for this. It’s really about: How do we get through.”

Some resources

Are you in a crisis? If you need help, contact Crisis Services Canada at their website or by calling 1-833-456-4566. If you know someone who may be having thoughts of suicide, visit CAMH’s resource to learn how to talk about suicide with the person you’re worried about.

Also on HuffPost: