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Productivity in a Pandemic

The impact of COVID-19 on productivity is one that will long outlive the virus itself.  

The pandemic is redefining our understanding of what it means to be goal oriented. Since lockdown began back in March, we’ve found interesting ways to occupy the time, from learning a new language to spending some much-needed time off with family.  

In light of COVID-19, many are questioning what it means to be productive during a pandemic. (Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash)

But while some of us have been keeping busy during self-isolation, others have  experienced an incredibly hard time trying to feel productive.  

The science of productivity 

Dopamine,  the happy hormone as I like to call it, is a neurotransmitter secreted in our brains during various everyday functions (e.g. moving and eating).  

Dopamine is also released when we’re anticipating a reward, like waiting for the pizza delivery guy to show up. Dopamine is therefore linked with pleasure, and when we accomplish a goal we’ve set for ourselves, we often feel happy and productive. But getting that dopamine productivity hit may be difficult for many living through the pandemic. Early research on the psychological impact of COVID-19 suggests individuals have felt high levels of anxiety and feelings of worthlessness throughout the last few months.  

“The sad truth is life does not slow down when we need it to.”

In a paper published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, psychology researcher Lauren Leotti and her colleagues describe the human need to have a sense of choice and control over our environment.  

It’s difficult to feel you have any choice or control when a virus is forcing you to stay inside. But what if even a small daily routine could help us gain a sense of control amidst the chaos around us? 

Of course, creating a routine is easier said than done. While productivity and a sense of direction can do wonders in establishing a little piece of mind, there are those of us whose version of coping is doing absolutely nothing, which is perfectly fine! Nobody should feel pressure to be productive when they are not feeling up to it. However, there are small tasks we can accomplish throughout the day in order to make ourselves feel more productive. 

Redefining productivity  

In my opinion, simply making the bed in the morning, going for a walk or  cooking dinner instead of ordering takeout can make a huge difference in our mindset. These small life changes could program our brains to feel more motivated to accomplish larger tasks at hand. This is especially important for students who are wary of going back to school online in the fall and feel a lack of motivation in the face of the pandemic.  

The sad truth is life does not slow down when we need it to. While there is no button we can press to pause things, we can still take steps to make things more manageable. Redefining what productivity looks like is a step in the right direction.  

Getting into a routine 

When lockdown was first announced back in March, I knew  if I remained idle, the reality of what was happening would become too overwhelming. I began to fill my day with activities  I always wanted to do, but never had time for: practicing German, writing and drawing, and finally reading a fiction book for the first time in a while.  

By slowly falling into a routine, I felt less anxious and more in control. Of course, I could not change the reality of what was happening, but I could enact change in my life, which seemed like a fair trade. By making to-do lists with neat little checkboxes, we return to the days when life was less unpredictable and we were not victim to the whims of a nasty little virus.  

As a society, we have not moved beyond the need for productivity. If anything, the emergence of COVID-19 has only cemented that humans need routines in times of stress in order to feel grounded. Living through a global pandemic is scary, and while nobody should feel pressured to become the pinnacle of productivity,  setting small goals for ourselves is a good way to alleviate stress and anxiety.  


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