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From The

From The


Unproductive Power

I don’t know about you, but recently I have felt a lot of pressure to keep busy and to fill my time while we are sheltering in place. Every day I see people using their “extra” time for fitness, cooking, cleaning, or creating, and I feel the need to keep up. I have found myself harboring feelings of guilt and disappointment if I just want to take a nap or watch Netflix instead. This compounds the stress and uncertainty that I feel about our complicated situation, which then affects my productivity at work and my energy at home.

Last year, I wrote a piece on “hustle culture,” and in many ways, this trend buys into this mindset and lifestyle of extreme busyness. These habits were accepted as normal before we experienced a global crisis. That doesn’t mean they are healthy; in fact, this is a particularly toxic form of productivity. Anne Helen Petersen, author of Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation notes that “for millennials, our brains are particularly broken in terms of productivity. Either you give up or feel bad about it all the time.” Due to current events, our definition of “normal” has drastically changed over the last few months, and with it, so should our definition of productivity. 

For many of us, this “extra” time is not “free” time. I have friends who have become caregivers to their parents or grandparents, colleagues who are trying to homeschool their children, employees who have increased workloads at school, and family members who are essential workers. It’s hard to be productive under these circumstances, at least by old standards. We need to be fair to ourselves and others when it comes to our expectations during this time and through the changes and transitions to come. 

If we refer to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we see that people are motivated by five categories of needs:

  • Physiological: These include the most basic needs that are vital to survival, such as water, air, food, and sleep. All needs become secondary until these physiological needs are met.
  • Safety: These include our needs for safety and security. Security needs are important for survival, but they are not as demanding as physiological needs. Examples include steady employment, health insurance, and safe neighborhoods.
  • Social: These include needs for belonging, love, and affection. Relationships such as friendships, romantic attachments, and families help fulfill this need for companionship and acceptance. 
  • Esteem: After the first three needs have been satisfied, esteem needs become increasingly important. These reflect self-esteem, personal worth, social recognition, and accomplishment.
  • Self Actualization: This is the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy. Self-actualizing people are self-aware, concerned with personal growth; they are less concerned with the opinions of others and are interested in fulfilling their potential. Maslow believed that only a small number of people actually reach self-actualization, some figures that he used as examples include the likes of Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. 

In a crisis, we become predominantly concerned with fulfilling our physiological needs and our safety needs. When the majority of our time and energy is being put into just getting by, it’s nearly impossible to take up new hobbies, set goals, or feel inspired. Until we can consistently fulfill our most basic motivators, we will be hard-pressed to focus on anything else. Right now,  we need to respect our limits and know when and how to take a break. I propose that instead of finding ways to “stay productive” at home, we take time to be unproductive to meet our mental and physical health needs. 

What does being unproductive look like for you? 

  • Take your time waking up
  • Have coffee or tea or even breakfast in bed
  • Take a bath
  • Binge a new show 
  • Start a new book or podcast
  • Doodle or color
  • Snuggle with a pet 
  • Try a free mindfulness app like Smiling Mind
  • Watch a short, calming TedTalk 
  • Stretch
  • Sit outside in the sun
  • Take a nap
  • Pamper yourself

This may seem like just another list of things “to do.” So, my best advice is to just listen to your body and go with what you need or what is possible in your day. As long as you are intentionally switching off from work or other “productive” activities, then you are doing it right. The hardest part may be giving yourself permission to do this. 

For those of us who supervise or lead others, we can take this time to be more intentional with check-ins, ease up on workloads, shorten workdays, or extend weekends. The more we can allow our teams the ability to reset and recharge, the less likely they will be to burn out, which means we can keep doing our best to do good work together to get through this. 

*Leadership Lesson* 

Make unproductivity a part of your routine. If you are someone who makes to-do lists or uses a schedule, actually set aside this time in your task lists. If that doesn’t work for you, there are many other ways to keep yourself accountable and to make a habit out of being unproductive: 

  • Focus on different dimensions of your wellness to give yourself options and mix up your routine.
  • Elect an accountability buddy who can check-in or you can report to each day. If this is someone in your household, see if you can find time to be unproductive together. 
  • Before bed each night, write down one thing that you did that was unproductive to keep track of your progress. If this process inspires you, you might love taking up bullet journaling
  • Reward yourself for different milestones! If you made time to be unproductive for a whole week, then treat yourself to something special. 

Some of these things might sound silly because we aren’t used to talking about unproductivity this way, but this is how we can begin to normalize being unproductive at home. Give it a try!

*Meet the Author*

Caelan Cooney is the Operations Manager for Leadership Inspirations. She got her start in leadership as a high school DECA student and went on to graduate from Chapman University with degrees in Business Management and Integrated Educational Studies. As a regular contributor to From the Balcony, her favorite topics to explore are personality theory, group development, and conflict management. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and listening to podcasts. 

Favorite Quote: “I am still learning” – Michelangelo

Fun Facts: 1) I once bought a goat on Craigslist 2) I am afraid of escalators 3) My life goal is to give a TedTalk