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A blank white page sits on top of a collage of a calendar, clock, and coffee mug. Zac Freeland/Vox

I tried to write an essay about productivity in quarantine. It took me a month to do it.

Americans feel pressured to work under the best of times. What happens during a pandemic?

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when it was just beginning to become clear that people who could stay at home would be doing so for a very long while, an argument began to emerge. It mostly played out on social media, but after a while it moved to news outlets, too: the New York Times, HuffPost, Forbes. It concerned working at home, because it is disproportionately easy for people like me who work in digital media to work at home, and the question it revolved around was: Is a pandemic the time to get extremely productive? Or is it the time to take a break?

First, there was the King Lear argument. Shakespeare, as people reminded each other, wrote King Lear when he was quarantined during a plague. And it soon became clear that Shakespeare was just one of the many geniuses of history who accomplished miraculous things while confined to his house. Sir Isaac Newton discovered the laws of gravity and invented calculus under quarantine. Mary Shelley, well, was not under quarantine when she wrote Frankenstein and invented science fiction, but she was at least cooped up in the house because of the year without summer, so truly, can’t she serve as an inspirational figure as well? After a period, it began to seem somewhat astonishing that anyone ever managed to accomplish anything without some global catastrophe confining them to their home.

And then, inevitably, came the whispered implication: Shouldn’t you yourself be using this time at home — dare we say this gift — because you are at home and not working in an essential field? Shouldn’t you be using this time to become more productive? Shouldn’t you be buckling down and writing a masterpiece or inventing a genre or discovering fundamental laws of the universe? At the very least, shouldn’t you be taking up a new hobby, mastering a skill, or perhaps be reaching your fully fledged form as what Forbes termed a “coronapreneur?”

But then came the backlash. The push to be productive while sheltering in place during a once-a-century global catastrophe was the latest sign, critics argued, of capitalism corrupting our minds.

“Please don’t be guilted into being more productive during the coronavirus,” wrote Monica Torres at HuffPost.

“This mindset is the natural endpoint of America’s hustle culture — the idea that every nanosecond of our lives must be commodified and pointed toward profit and self-improvement,” wrote Nick Martin at the New Republic.

“I, too, am declining to write the next King Lear as protest against capitalism,” proclaimed Rosa Lyster at the Outline.

Since Lyster’s March 18 article, the Outline’s staff has been entirely laid off as a result of the pandemic’s toll on the economy. While I was working on this article, CNBC reported that Vox Media, Vox’s parent company, was planning to furlough multiple employees. That’s another layer of this fight: Many of the people who are arguing over how productive anyone should be right now are doing so with the knowledge that layoffs or furloughs or pay cuts are hanging over their heads. With that knowledge comes the whisper developing in the back of everyone’s minds that perhaps this is the time to get very productive indeed, because how else can they show their employer how valuable they are and ensure their continued employment?

Perhaps this is also the time to make our off hours very productive, because you never know when you’ll need a new hobby you can turn into a side hustle. At the very least, staying busy and using your time meaningfully will be the virtuous thing to do, and it will keep your mind off everything else that is happening ... right?

Unless that line of thought is yet another sign of capitalism getting into our heads, and we really need to process and mourn and deal with the overwhelming and exhausting anxiety of living through a once-a-century pandemic. Maybe?

In the end, it all boils down to one question: Under these very peculiar circumstances, should we be trying to be productive?

Time-oriented productivity was invented by industrial capitalism

The idea of productivity as we currently understand it — doing as much as possible, as efficiently as possible — is a product of industrial capitalism. In non-industrialized societies, human beings tend to organize their sense of time around how long it takes to complete certain tasks, measuring time not by hours but by how long it takes to boil a pot of rice, for instance. And instead of keeping to a strict work schedule from 9 am to 5 pm and reserving the rest of their lives for leisure, people in non-industrial societies tend not to establish strict divisions between their working lives and the rest of their lives.

Instead, they work on a task for as long as it takes to do it, with plenty of rest mixed in. Often they fall into what we might call the college student work system: long periods of idleness, and then sprees of frantic work as a deadline approaches (think harvest time, market time, or other similar markers). This way of thinking about work is called task-orientation.

As the West industrialized over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, the rising capitalist bourgeoisie developed new ways of thinking about time, which, in turn, it passed on to the working class. A factory’s machines must be turned on at the same time every day, and so workers, it followed, must be at their posts at the same time every day. And as factory work became more common, workers learned to think of part of their time as their own, and part of it as belonging to the people they worked for. To the capitalist, time is money, and specifically, the worker’s time is the employer’s money.

But the great switch from task-orientation to time-orientation did not happen overnight. It took centuries of social conditioning and moralizing, centuries of discussion of the importance of punctuality and the wickedness of idleness.

Moralizers wrote adages about how Satan finds work for idle hands. Factories instituted harsh punishments against lateness and loitering. Schools were designed to teach students that their time was not their own: If schools could manage to give poor students activities to work on for at least 12 hours a day, declared Bishop William Turner in 1770, “we hope that the rising generation will be so habituated to constant employment that it would at length prove agreeable and entertaining to them.” And over time, young children could become “habituated, not to say naturalized to Labour and Fatigue,” wrote the reformer John Powell in 1772.

The economist E.P. Thompson developed the ideas and examples I’ve outlined here in his classic 1967 essay, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” which examines England’s shift from task-orientation to time-orientation. Thompson argued that as capitalism and Puritanism rose together in the West, the pair taught human beings a different relationship to time from the one they had before: one in which time had a value, in which it was literally equivalent to money. And for Thompson in 1967, the rise of task-orientation prompted a new question: How were capitalist human beings going to handle leisure time?

“If Puritanism was a necessary part of the work-ethos which enabled the industrialized world to break out of the poverty-stricken economies of the past,” Thompson wrote, “will the Puritan value of time begin to decompose as the pressures of poverty relax?”

Put differently: Now that more people are living out of poverty than ever before, now that we have, once again, the concept of leisure time, is it possible for us to break away from the idea that productivity is a moral good and idleness evil?

In the 21st century, people work even when they’re not supposed to be

In the US, it looks as though the answer to Thompson’s question is no. Americans are not learning to treat productivity as anything but a moral good, or idleness as anything but wicked. Many people spend their time working, even when they are ostensibly off work. Even rich American men — theoretically the people with the opportunity for the most leisure time, since they have plenty of money and fewer household obligations than women do — spend more time working than their peers in other countries. One economist postulated to the Atlantic in 2016 that wealthy American men, like the children William Turner wanted to educate in the 18th century, are so habituated to the accumulation of wealth that they treat it as a form of recreation: It’s the closest thing they have to fun.

But even those of us who are not wealthy and who are not men spend most of our time working. This is especially true for millennials. As BuzzFeed News’s Anne Helen Petersen pointed out in her viral 2019 essay on millennial burnout, the youth of today’s workforce spent their childhoods optimizing to become more effective workers, only to graduate into a job market that had been decimated by the 2008 recession. Raised to be problem solvers, millennials like me responded by optimizing ourselves en masse, becoming ever more efficient and ever more committed to their work, while that work, in turn, seeped invisibly into even more corners of their lives, carried by smartphones and push alerts and long hours at the office.

But that constant work, which was supposed to bring millennials a measure of the job security our parents took for granted, was unsuccessful.

“The more work we do, the more efficient we’ve proven ourselves to be, the worse our jobs become,” Petersen wrote: “lower pay, worse benefits, less job security. Our efficiency hasn’t bucked wage stagnation; our steadfastness hasn’t made us more valuable. If anything, our commitment to work, no matter how exploitative, has simply encouraged and facilitated our exploitation. We put up with companies treating us poorly because we don’t see another option. We don’t quit. We internalize that we’re not striving hard enough. And we get a second gig.”

Millennials work; they cobble together side hustles and temporary jobs into something approaching a living wage; they post the result on social media for their friends to admire. But then social media, too, becomes a form of work, a place on which millennials are reminded that they must always continue optimizing their lives for clicks. Marie Kondo your home, cook your Alison Roman shallot pasta, organize your books by color, and post a picture of the shelf on Instagram.

We spend our time locked into the endless, infinite scroll of Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook and Instagram, all of which reward constant immersion and monitoring until they begin to feel like duties rather than products to use for fun. We listen to podcasts and audiobooks at 1.5 speed to consume them more efficiently; Netflix floated the idea of letting us speed up our binge-watches, too. We consult lists of the TV shows we must watch and the books we must read which come, over time, to look more and more like homework. Leisure today is not truly leisure; it is labor.

We have become a society in which people feel constant pressure to work and to be productive, even when they are theoretically resting. And that’s under normal circumstances.

So what happens during a pandemic?

It took me almost a month to write this essay. But I wanted desperately to produce something for that entire month.

My editor assigned this essay to me on March 19. “People keep talking about King Lear,” she said. “Could you write something about that?”

“No problem,” I said. I started a file labeled “You don’t have to write King Lear,” and then instead of writing anything in it I sat and stared at it for some time. Then I opened Twitter in another tab.

My mind felt as though it had been shattered. I couldn’t sustain a thought long enough to analyze anything. I just stared in a blank fury at that Rosanne Cash tweet reminding me that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during quarantine.

“What a stupid thing to say,” I thought. “We’re already dealing with a global emergency and now I’m supposed to write King Lear on top of that? Well, fuck you.”

Rosanne Cash was probably not trying to pressure anyone into writing King Lear. Probably she was just trying to remind us that great art can come out of very dark times, and that this too shall pass, and perhaps when it is over, it will have given us some great artistic gift. But I was in no place to think of her tweet that way.

Like nearly everyone else who is living through this, I was grieving. The world was a certain way, and then the pandemic came and changed things, and now that old world will never come back in quite the same way again: It’s dead. That’s a loss, and one we have to work through.

I was also angry. I am still angry. I am furious at the leadership in our government that has abdicated responsibility for handling this crisis. I’m furious that essential workers are putting their lives on the line without medical-grade protection. Looking at one industry and one city alone, at least 62 New York City transit workers are dead and over 6,000 more are in quarantine with suspected Covid-19 after management told them not to wear masks on the subway to prevent customers from panicking. How can anyone not be angry and afraid and sad right now? And how can anyone do meaningful work under those conditions?

I am also living through my second major financial crisis as a working adult at age 31. Those first few weeks, whenever I wasn’t listening to the sirens outside my apartment or trying to figure out safe ways to see my 72-year-old parents again, I was thinking about all the reports that said that traffic throughout digital media was high, but ad revenue was way down; reports that showed layoffs and pay cuts and furloughs spreading through one media company after another.

I am a good well-behaved, high-achieving millennial. Every instinct I had said that now was the time to buckle down and put myself to work, to try to outwork whatever would come. But I couldn’t sustain a thought long enough to work on long-form analysis.

Still, I wanted to lose myself in a project, something I could finish, something that would give me a sense that I had produced something — and that I had thus been virtuous. I baked bread, and then bread pudding. I sewed masks. I started an advice column. I started a book club.

I felt like I still wasn’t being productive enough. I felt like I couldn’t ever be productive enough. The thought of this unfinished essay assignment haunted me every time I sat down to work.

“The thing is,” I told myself every time I looked at the empty file, “the thesis of this hypothetical piece is that capitalism is fake and you don’t actually have to be productive during a global crisis. So, capitalism is fake. Don’t be productive.”

But the thought felt like cheating. It felt lazy and hackneyed. All I wanted was to produce something, and I knew where the desire came from, what historical and economic factors lent it moral weight and what quirks of my own brain chemistry made me internalize them so completely, but that didn’t make the desire less real. I wanted to produce something, and I couldn’t do it, and the failure felt monumental.

Eventually, I pulled myself together enough to be able to hold a thought in my head. I put this essay together, section by section, and the work felt soothing.

But I don’t have a good answer to the question of how hard you should be working or how productive you should be during a pandemic. We’re in a global crisis, and if we are extremely lucky, we’re sitting in our homes and trying to work through it. Taking on big and absorbing projects might be soothing right now, because we have been taught to experience labor as soothing and this is not the ideal moment to start deprogramming capitalism from our brains. But it also might feel impossible to take on any additional labor right now, because dealing with the loss we’re feeling is monumental enough.

Those are both perfectly reasonable, understandable reactions. Be kind to yourself. Do what feels good to you, and what you have to do to make it through this.

You don’t have to sit around and do nothing if the idea is scary to you. But also: You really don’t have to write King Lear.

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