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How to be productive under quarantine


My first day of online classes feels immensely unproductive. I sit through my lectures taking notes as usual, taking breaks to entertain my dog and to cook myself lunch. My email notifications of piazza are flooded with fellow students asking about course updates and grading policy. My to-do list no longer concerns my research or extracurriculars, but is full of stressful changes and responses to cancellations. I feel a lack of purpose and overall motivation, the exact opposite of the whirlwind of engagement I feel on campus.

As college students, we are fixated on our individual productivity. We receive often instantaneous feedback through grades and accolades that notify us of how hard we are working. When graded on curves, our productivity is directly compared to our classmates. If I score badly, I am not doing enough. This attitude carries over into our new lives as online students, as our career trajectories seem to be thrown off course. It is impossible to be productive in the way we have defined it and are rewarded for. So, we must find new ways.

The internet has been buzzing with advice on how to spend one’s time in a pandemic. Many people offer suggestions of starting new hobbies or pursuing interests we have put on the backburner. These ideas seem to disguise themself under the umbrella of self-care, as professionals encourage stay-at-homers to start their day with yoga or stimulate the brain with a new activity. But often the concept of self-care becomes inflated with self-improvement. Tips on time management are designed to maximize productivity and encouragement to learn new languages or code are centered on professional development. We are unable to put our professional lives on hold. 

As a pre-med student, my life is focused on preparing for medical school. I am trying to achieve a diverse set of experiences that will make me a good candidate—scratch that, a better candidate. I am competing amongst my peers, and for every hour I sit idle they are learning more and growing more. The changes on campus took away many opportunities I have invested in, opportunities that excite me and motivate me to dive deeper in my coursework. Research and volunteering give me a sense of purpose, as I feel that I am making my own meaningful contribution. Without them, I have fewer long-term goals and opportunities for professional development. So I feel unproductive.

Here lies our issue with productivity: we only measure it on the individual scale. In an evitable obsession with resume building and self-validation, we only see our productivity in competition with others. Although Duke switched to opt-out satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading, the hoards of pre-med students will all likely be taking our courses for grades. We cannot afford to slip behind the rest. Many of us want to help combat public health crises like the one we are experiencing, but we are taught that to get there we must compete against each other first.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a new necessity for communal productivity. No longer are our individual actions determinant of our success, but the collective action of many people taking actions that feel, well, unproductive. For me, it’s been an opportunity to analyze what my goals are, and to try and de-center my personal success from the success of our community.

It’s easy for Duke students to believe that our lives are exceptions from the rest of the population and that our time is the most valuable thing on Earth. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe we can afford to waste our own time, and save the time of others. By staying in, cooking for ourselves and social distancing, we can reduce the burden on essential services that continue through this crisis. When we look at who is still going into work every day, we can understand whose time is truly valuable.

This quarantine, I am going to try to loosen up on my own incessant need to be productive. I will continue to practice self-care, but not quantify every action of my day in how much it benefits me. I, like many other students, will lose many opportunities I believed to be of the utmost importance. Doing yoga and watching Netflix between studying might not feel like an efficient usage of my time.. But in taking part in an effort larger than myself, I am spending my time perfectly well.

I hope other students and professors will also loosen up on our strict ideas of productivity. Many students are transitioning to home lives that complicate and restrict their ability to be engaged in school the same way. Professors are unable to maintain the same goals for coursework in an online setting. The checkboxes and to-do lists we rely on to organize our hectic lives seem less and less important.

At first I felt sad that so few aspects of my life seemed to matter anymore. Now past my dramatic self-centered stage, I understand that a lot still matters a great deal. My friends, my family, the brewing class revolution. I put these things on the back-burner for my education and self-aggrandization. I am happy that my perspective on collective productivity has developed, even if forcefully. This new era might bring productive changes in my outlook on everything.

Who knows, maybe I’ll even stop writing self-obsessed think pieces about my life.

Nathan Heffernan is a Trinity junior. His column typically runs on alternate Mondays.


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