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The Productivity Monster Vs. Pandemic Paralysis

Remember those early months of the pandemic, when — in the midst of cavernous uncertainty and heart-stabbing grief — we began to see our social feeds fill up with…bread? Suddenly people from every phase of our past lives had converted to the same Banana Bread Cult that we didn’t get an invite to. I don’t know about you, but it made me think, “Should I be making banana bread?” “Are these people not as unhappy as I am?” “How can I climb out the broad bum-shaped dent that I’ve molded into the couch/bed/other couch?” Ultimately, the question that kept surfacing with the fiercest intensity was, “Why can’t I be productive like that?”

As a therapist, in The Before Times, I heard a regular drumbeat of guilt and self-loathing over my collective clients’ lack of productivity. Society at large tells us that we are worthwhile when we “make something of ourselves,” and that was reflected in my daily sessions. Explicitly, this message means getting to work. It means building an identity rooted in effort, creation and craft. “Doing” as a lifestyle. Hustle culture. Work hard, make money, be happy. Right?

There are certainly excellent effects of this message. It plays a role in innovation, ingenuity and improvement on societal and personal levels. It can contribute to a sense of accomplishment and progress — both of which feed feelings of fulfillment.

And yet. The dark side of hustle culture is always just beneath the surface, a sly monster working its claws deeper into our psyches. It whispers to us morning, noon and night. It tells us that our value as people lies in our productivity. It tells us that hitting the snooze button was a grave mistake. That without a productive day, we don’t have worth. That no, definitely not, merely existing as a human being with a beating heart was not enough today. Will never be enough. This is the Productivity Monster that exists within us all.

In the pandemic year, when the dark mist of Covid stole into all of our homes, that monstrous voice took on another pitch. It said, “Make it count.” “What are you going to do with all of this time?” “Now is your chance to do that thing you’ve been putting off forever. Get to it. Now.”

The increase in our collective free time was, indeed, a breath of fresh air for… a month, maybe. Then the Productivity Monster started its threatening whisper once again. If we worked from home and felt the effects of neuroticism that come hand in hand with isolation, it became more menacing. If we lost our job, it started to howl. Social media brought it to a fever pitch, telling us that everyone else was doing something with their quarantine time. And for those in relationships, having more sex to boot. At a time when the message we needed was the Kris Jenner classic, “You’re doing amazing, sweetie!”, surviving a global pandemic didn’t feel like enough.

The truth (as always, right?) is that the social media picture isn’t accurate. Like, at all. In fact, what I have overwhelmingly heard from the suite of people that I work with on a weekly basis is that personal motivation and the ability to be productive has reached an all-time low. No one is having more sex. As our movement has stalled, so has our energy. This groundhog’s day life, which has largely confined us to our homes, has widely been an inspiration killer and a de-motivator. This is the normal that exists behind the screen: Pandemic Paralysis.

Pandemic Paralysis means that when we lose the movies, the gym, the bars, the freedom to socialize, our workplaces, traveling, and existing without an undercurrent of fear, we also lose our momentum. Our stimulation decreases, and our bodies and brains get comfortable with reduced stimulation. It’s a motivation killer. It makes us feel, as one client of mine says, “like slugs.”

I, personally, did make banana bread a few times. To be honest, it was delicious. But it has taken me months to actually sit down and write this article. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I drummed up the desire almost immediately after I began seeing clients in person again post-vaccination.

As I sit here, I visualize an internal battle being waged in homes around the world, around America, and especially, around my home of New York City. It’s the main event: Pandemic Paralysis vs. the Productivity Monster. Most days, both win. We’re the ones who lose. We are left feeling simultaneously immobilized and self-critical. We feel awful about ourselves for not meeting distorted and unrealistic expectations about what we should have accomplished. We’re convinced that we aren’t valuable because we didn’t tick off that to-do list or make progress on that project. Am I the only one that believes this is insane?

Today, with restrictions easing and a gradual return to some semblance of a pre-pandemic lifestyle, Pandemic Paralysis will naturally begin to soften. We will have more strength to fight the Productivity Monster each day. But it will still be there, cajoling us into self-loathing and fractured self-worth because of the things that we didn’t have the energy to accomplish that day.

I can’t stand idly by as we move beyond this terrible, traumatic time without some learning, some small bit of growth, taking us into a new future. So, I’d like to take this moment to give us all a brief therapeutic antidote to this irritating, incessant monster. I ask that you give yourself permission to have worth for just existing. For surviving. For doing one thing that you enjoy each day. Being a human is hard. Being a human during a global pandemic has been excruciating. So I’m asking you to repeat this message to yourself today and every day henceforth: “You’re doing amazing, sweetie.”

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