Going through Occupational therapy school, we learned a lot about occupational balance. If you read my earlier post about the basic definition of Occupational therapy, you might remember this picture. You can check out that post here. We talk about productivity as participating or contributing to the community, such as going to work or going to school. In today’s capitalist society, productivity is seen as a measure of efficiency of a person completing a task – we are taught that the more things we get done each day, the more productive we are. And the more productive we are, the more successful or worthy we are. Think about it. Often times we can be running around doing 100 different things in a day, but if you scroll through social media and you see people doing 101 things, getting a promotion, or completing a project, we feel lesser or guilty that we didn’t do that too. We identify ourselves as the job title that we have, not what cool talents we might have or hobbies we might enjoy, but who we present ourselves as is based on what our career is. Our fascination with productivity and the value that we tie to it can be seen not only in our “hustle” at work, but also in the way that society claims we should seek to turn all of our hobbies and free time into monetized activities so we can be MORE successful. We can’t just paint for joy, or learn something for the pure desire to learn something new… we are always encouraged to sell our art or figure out a way to get paid for our new knowledge. Capitalism is very alive and well in 2020.
As COVID became a global pandemic and the world went into lockdown, there was a mass shift in how the work day looked. Some people had to take their work home and figure out how to work while taking care of their children who weren’t in school, while some people were laid off and lived in uncertainty. Before lockdown, I worked at a daycare as a supply teacher, was a research assistant on a large scoping review, volunteered at a youth homeless shelter, babysat once or twice a week, and just started with two clients as a pediatric occupational therapist. On top of this I had just signed contracts to teach yoga at an LGBTQ+ community centre, and to work a weekend shift at a local fitness studio. This was on top of my research project I was preparing to present at the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapy, AND balancing my social life while maintaining a clean home, trying to cook healthy meals, caring for my cats, visiting my family and spending quality time with my fiancee. I was a BUSY BUSY person and took pride in that.
And then COVID happened and all of my jobs came to a halt. I went from being heavily scheduled to working a couple hours a week virtually. I had one occupational therapy client, two girls that I tutored, and taught virtual yoga…. but the rest of my days were unscheduled and I felt so chaotic that my anxiety wouldn’t allow me to even focus on watching a television show. As time went on and I realized that this might be a trend for a while longer, my fiancee and I started to try to make the best of being home – we read books, found artistic projects to try, hosted virtual games nights, and rearranged our living spaces more times than we can count.
Today, 4 months into quarantine, I am still not working much and my anxiety is pretty high, but my overall wellness is MUCH better. Some days I tutor for an hour, post on our OT business instagram page, or teach a yoga class. Every day I’ve made a point of going for a long walk in the sunshine while listening to podcasts and reflecting, and I realized that my definition of productivity has changed during this time. I was intruiged to see if I was the only one who had this realization, so I reached out to my social media friends to see what their experiences were these last couple of months.
For me, my view of productivity shifted over the last 4 months. Without having paid work, I turned my attention to my mental health. Not only was I not busy working or making money, but I was also surrounded by friends who were still working and being “successful”, and social media was flooded with people preaching about how to stay productive during this time. People started learning to bake bread, to knit, started taking tons of free courses, doing home workouts and binge watching netflix shows. Feeling so unproductive in comparison to the rest of the world, and scared about what would come next and the health of my loved ones, I could hardly get through a couple days without crying. I recognized that without a proper schedule, I had high anxiety or “negative” thoughts, and was unable to focus. So I started making a schedule. Starting every day with a little walk outside, and then filling a bit of my time each day with activities that would be traditionally defined as “leisure” (which are activities we enjoy doing in our spare time). I gave myself projects around the house, tried my hand at gardening, and found some videos and podcasts I enjoyed for when I needed some down time. I allowed myself to FEEL all the negative things that were coming up, and to acknowledge that I didn’t need to be go go go all day to feel productive.
I realized that for me, my life has changed in this time and looks very different than it did before, when I was constantly hustling around at the speed of light. So I got curious and started chatting with a couple people from different friend groups, different parts of my life, who are of different ages/stages of life and have different job titles. It seemed that everyone had a different experience of productivity during this time, but the common factor was that something had changed.
For the people who are working their office jobs from home, there was a feeling that the expectation of productivity were the same, yet because of the shift to working from home, this felt overwhelming. The setting of work had changed, but deadlines and expectations stayed the same. Regardless of whether you live with multiple other people or pets to create distractions, if you have a child who is home due to closures of school and daycare, or don’t have a calming office space at home, deadlines are still intense. On top of that, because there aren’t many social obligations in person due to social distancing guidelines, it’s easy to feel like you need to put in more hours of work past regular “business hours”.
For people who’s jobs had slowed down or come to a halt like mine, productivity took a turn towards the activities that occupational therapists (and often the rest of the world) label as self care and leisure activities. Creating a self care routine, getting errands done, starting little projects and diving into enjoyable activities like reading and spending time in nature became some people’s ways of staying busy. Some people turned their attention to the positives of being at home in this time, taking the opportunity to journal, workout, try meditating and learning to eat healthier as a little wellness retreat.
“I don’t think my definition has changed, just where I have chosen to focus my energy.”
Time away from work, and shifting energy towards wellbeing helped some of the people I talked to come to some personal realizations; “I realized the importance of nature and staying connected to those I love”. There were realizations about personal wellbeing, activities they enjoy and have fallen away from during the hustle and bustle of full time jobs, but also reflections on mental health and motivations.
I was thankful to hear that other people also recognized they are super hard on themselves about how they could always be doing more, and how their mental health is correlated with their productivity. I was not alone in feeling that my low moods seemed to spike during COVID because of my lack of productivity… and in the need for a constant reminder that this lack of productivity is OKAY. I was thankful to hear that other people recognized the benefit of staying busy in order to combat anxiety and stress from being at home and that he was unsure if his involvement in art and journalling in this time was positive to his mental health because they made him feel good, or because they made him feel less bad about being unproductive when everyone on instagram was making enough bread to feed an army. I too have been feeling this way, and trying to coach myself to recognize when I want to do an activity because I want to, and not because I THINK that I need to so other people will be impressed by me.
***The instagram link to the left is an art installation by the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver that inspired the above friend to reflect on his relationship between productivity and his mental health.***
I was also thankful to hear that I wasn’t alone in realizing a lot of my motivation was from external sources. A friend who is a stay at home mom with a crafting business reflected that without having her family coming over, she had a hard time motivating herself to clean the house or push her children to get fully dressed every day. Does it matter if your house isn’t pristine or your children in their best outfits? Of course not, as long as everyone is safe and healthy – but we put so much pressure on ourselves to fit in a mold that it feels like even though basic needs are met, that isn’t good enough. (believe me from her instagram videos through quarantine she’s a magical mom)
As occupational therapists, we’re trained to think it is a human need experience occupational balance, and that people who are not involved in productive activities are at risk for poor mental health. In conversation with an OT colleague, we discussed how productivity is still important in our eyes to one’s wellbeing, but we need to reflect on the activities that help us feel productive and the meaning behind them. Are we stressing productivity in a paid job or clocking in volunteer hours and negating the feeling of productivity that might come from creating, moving, socializing or housekeeping? And why do we value productivity? Is it because it makes us feel good and contributes to our identity and wellbeing, or is our motivation to be productive associated with capitalist ideals or fear of not being valued by our loved ones and our peers?
As life slowly returns to a bit more “normal”, I strive to continue reflecting on this, for myself and for my future clients. To continue to reflect on why I am striving for that feeling of productivity; is it for me, so that I feel in control and like I’m contributing or is it because society tells me I need to be productive to feel valued and that I’m less valuable than my peers if I’m working less or working at a “lesser” job (whatever that might mean to you). Most of all, I strive to remember that in this time, productivity shifted from paid work to other activities we take for granted like creating art, playing music, socializing and cleaning my space. Let’s get this conversation going so we can normalize all experiences in life, not just the high up careers and “hustle” lifestyle.
Whether your life seems to have changed drastically during this time or not, what has your experience with productivity been? As life starts to get a bit back to “normal”, what would you like to bring into your future? Feel free to comment below, or start a further conversation with me on my Instagram.