Why You Don’t Need To Feel Guilty For Being ‘Unproductive’ In COVID-19 Lockdown

In between an endless stream of Dalgona coffee videos and pushup challenges, you might have scrolled past some variant of this ‘motivational’ gem on your social media feeds:

Garnering thousands of shares and just as much backlash, it’s the most in-your-face guilt trip about COVID-19 productivity that I’ve seen so far. But it’s far from the only one. Like ghosts of Productivity Past, thinkers from Shakespeare to Newton have been resurrected to nudge us, not-so-gently, to turn isolation into achievement. Newton purportedly invented early calculus in quarantine during the 1665 Black Death; Boccaccio wrote The Decameron while fleeing Florence’s plague outbreak in 1348. So hey, what excuse do we have?

That’s not even mentioning the hundreds of chirpy articles penned on ‘how to stay productive when working from home’ (we’ve written one ourselves), or the veritable tsunami of advice on new skills and courses to pick up. These days, it feels like the only thing on our feeds − apart from bleak updates on new clusters and lockdown measures − is tips on how to fill our time usefully. Whether it’s working from home efficiently, working out, or working on some cool new hobby, the dream is to blossom from our quarantine cocoons like self-improved butterflies.

It’s Okay If You Struggle To Be Productive

Here’s the thing: when the world is collapsing, there’s no such thing as not being productive enough − much less the moral judgment tangled up with it. If working from home gets your mental juices flowing, that’s awesome. If picking up French or sticking to a fitness routine keeps you sane and happy, more power to you.

But we also have bad days, and they’re equally valid. I’m talking about the days when I can’t, for the life of me, concentrate on work, because anxiety for family members on the frontlines keeps creeping in. Days when ‘social distancing’ doesn’t feel like a chance to cook up a storm − only like crawling through a dark tunnel alone, with no future at the end. This crisis may be our ‘best chance to pick up skills‘, but for those fearful about layoffs and sinking businesses, just getting through day by day can be a mental struggle. Best chance? There’s hardly been a worse time.

Part of this pressure to live our best #lockdownlife comes, understandably, from the desire to stay positive. The problem comes when we start feeling guilty about being distracted or dispirited − when these are perfectly normal feelings in our new (ab)normal. As Nick Martin astutely points out in The New Republic, this strange guilt is a byproduct of our deep-rooted hustle culture − “the idea that every nanosecond of our lives must be commodified and pointed toward profit and self-improvement”. Occupational therapist Andrea Sadler sums up nicely in a HuffPost interview as well:

“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.

There’s an interesting judgment that the more productive people are doing it right, and the less productive people are doing it wrong. But… it’s all just about getting through.”

Be Kind to Yourself

So how do we beat the productivity phantom? The most important idea to embrace is being patient with yourself − easier said than done, since many of us don’t have the luxury of taking a break. But don’t get frustrated when you’re sidetracked by coronavirus updates, and don’t shame yourself for wanting to just shut the stress out and roll into bed. Rather than beating yourself up for being ‘unmotivated’, go treat yo’ self to a breather, some wine, whatever − then come back without feeling like you’ve wasted time. Far from it − you’ve just done the best thing you could do for yourself.

It helps to reframe our expectations as well. Living through an epidemic as we are, survival is a miracle in itself − let alone thriving. It’s awesome, for instance, if you want to Marie Kondo your house, but just doing your regular cleaning is a mini victory in itself. Staying rested and hydrated? Definitely a success worth celebrating.

So no, you don’t need to come out of COVID-19 lockdown with the next Shakespearean masterpiece or business solution − hell, you don’t even need to feel strong all the time. Say it with me: it’s enough to just survive.

Jolene Hee


Jolene has a major sweet tooth and would happily eat pastries for all meals. When she’s not dreaming of cheesecake, she can be found in the dance studio, working on craft projects, or curled up with a good book.