The new FOMO

Why it’s Totally OK Not to Be Productive Right Now

Pandemic or otherwise, you have worth outside of your output.

For a long time, productivity was a crutch I relied on to get through difficult times.

Whether it was moving past a major career upset or navigating a tricky familial issue, throwing myself into work or side projects always felt easier than letting myself feel whatever painful emotion I was experiencing.

Not letting myself rest eventually caught up with me in my late twenties, leading me to seek treatment for my anxiety disorder. Three years later, I’m better at giving myself space to just be and exercise stronger boundaries, but I admit I’m still an overachiever. After all, when every minute of your day can be monetarily measured by your output, it can be hard to ever stop working—especially as a freelancer who mainly works from home.

Regardless of your occupation, the lines between work and home life can easily blur these days. And for those who are not used to remote working or staying home the majority of the time, this is especially true given the current circumstances surrounding COVID-19.

With all this time at home, it’s easy to wonder: Am I doing enough? Should I be doing more? With so many voices encouraging people to leverage this time to be productive or start new side hustles, how could one not feel guilty for not doing “enough”? When the world feels like it’s falling apart and there’s not much you can do about it, it’s tempting to stay busy so as not to feel the full weight of things. But I’m here to say, both to myself and whoever needs to hear it: It’s okay to not be productive right now.

The new FOMO

Being home all the time can make it hard to set boundaries around work and can lead to hyper-focusing on productivity. “It’s common to feel that since we are home we should be using this time wisely and to be productive,” says Elizabeth Beecroft, LMSW. “With less of an agenda, it becomes easier for pressure to arise as we think we should constantly be doing something like we might be used to.” And, with people also spending more time online, it’s easy for social media culture to amplify feelings of guilt around productivity.

In some ways, FOMO (fear of missing out) has become FONBP (fear of not being productive). Fitness studios are offering schedules stacked with virtual classes while brands and influencers launch around-the-clock digital programming through IGTV and Instagram Live. “The fact that you’re seeing that programming creates a tendency to compare yourself to others. ‘Am I doing enough? Am I using this time wisely?’” says career coach Meghan Duffy.

"The fact that you’re seeing that programming creates a tendency to compare yourself to others. ‘Am I doing enough? Am I using this time wisely?"

With our real lives at a standstill (for good reason: we need to flatten the curve), our digital lives are on fire. Internet usage is up, as the pandemic gives a whole new meaning to aimless scrolling. Whether we realize it or not, we’re constantly being fed messages that tell us inactivity is unacceptable. Because the worst someone could do is spend all this time at home doing nothing, right?

“I've seen posts such as ‘tips for how to be productive at home during COVID-19’ and influencers almost preaching at people to use this time to be productive,” Beecroft offers. This message is something Chandra Johnson, a digital producer, and many others grapple with daily. “There’s a lot of pressure right now to make the most of this time. It’s exhausting trying to keep up.”

But why has inactivity become our enemy? Maybe it’s because when we do things that are deemed productive it gives us less time to think about the reality of the moment and all of the big unknowns. “If you stuff your plate with work, there’s no space for those feelings to surface,” says Duffy. If we fill our time with at-home activities like puzzles, stress-baking, and Marie Kondo-ing our apartments, maybe we’ll forget, even if just for a few moments, the weight of our global circumstance.

On doing nothing

While productivity can be necessary and even helpful in some instances, it’s also healthy to take time to practice self-care, rest, and just do nothing. “This is a time of uncertainty and that can bring on feelings of anxiety as well as symptoms of depression,” Beecroft tells Supermaker. “The practice of social distancing takes a toll on our mental health, especially for those who look to their family, friends, [and] loved ones for support and social connection.” This is why it’s so important to give yourself space to feel your feelings, rather than ignoring them or shaming yourself for not getting shit done.

""If we fill our time with at-home activities like puzzles, stress-baking, and Marie Kondo-ing our apartments, maybe we’ll forget, even if just for a few moments, the weight of our global circumstance."

“Every waking moment of your life does not need to be optimized to make you a better, more profitable you,” Duffy explains. “Pandemic or otherwise, you have worth outside of your output.” To be sure, our work obsession is nothing new, but perhaps this crisis is giving us a beat to question what we once thought to be normal. With so much is in flux right now, making space for your brain to rest and process may uncover some clarity about how you want to emerge in the future. “Unstructured time may not look ‘productive’ from the outside because it doesn’t generate a tangible output,” adds Duffy. “But it can help surface latent insights into how you’re feeling and what you need more of to get through this time.”

Productivity isn’t a requirement

As Beecroft says, we don't have to be productive to take care of ourselves. Often, not being productive is taking care of ourselves. “Sometimes doing nothing, lounging on the couch and relaxing are great forms of self-care,” she continues, noting that taking a break from everything is often exactly what your body needs, particularly when dealing with anxiety.

Structure and routine is important during a pandemic, however so is compassion,” says Jennifer Musselman, a psychotherapist and executive coach. “Showing yourself and your loved ones empathy and [taking] the time to adjust to this new normal is critical.” And this includes not setting high standards immediately for jumping into production mode.

Many of Musselman’s clients still subscribe to unhealthy beliefs about what they "should" be doing, many of which existed pre-pandemic. But with previous forms of stability—from office work to child care—now gone, striving to meet these old standards is almost impossible.” With this, she says we must level-set with new standards and learn to be more forgiving, both of ourselves and others. "I'm doing the best I can," could be a better mantra right now than “I’m doing everything I can.”

Employers can help

At this moment, we are all in uncharted territory—and this also includes companies. “Leadership doesn't know how to effectively measure employee performance from a distance,” says Musselman. “I have clients complaining that half their day is spent doing their work, and the other half is documenting and reporting how much work they've completed.” With many companies losing money by the minute due to the economic impacts of COVID-19, the pressure for workers to prove their worth is intensifying and will likely grow the longer this situation continues.

As companies lay off staff or face the threat of collapse, many are fearing for their livelihoods. A friend recently told me: “If I can’t perform like I did before, I’m worried about losing my job. How would I survive?” Unfortunately, her fear is not unique. It’s more important than ever for companies to find ways to support their workers even if business has been disrupted.

"I'm doing the best I can," could be a better mantra right now than “I’m doing everything I can.”

“Companies should be trying their best to support the mental health needs of their employees, whether that be through providing resources to them, allowing safe spaces in meetings for people to check in with one another on their feelings, or simply letting their employees know that they are there to offer support,” says Beecroft. “Sometimes just [knowing] our companies are there for us through these difficult times is enough.”

While not all companies will be able to stay afloat, or have the tools to support their employees' emotional wellbeing, it’s also on us to regulate our mental health and find a better balance between productivity and rest. “Getting rooted in one-day-at-a time and setting realistic expectations of what you can achieve in one day is key,” Musselman says.

Staying grounded amidst instability

It’s natural to feel a lot of things right now. Or even to feel nothing at all. The bottom line is: whatever you feel is 100 percent okay. This is not a normal situation and it’s of utmost importance to practice compassion and give yourself permission to not be productive.

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, Beecroft recommends journaling and practicing breathing exercises. Further, it’s not a bad time to find a therapist if you aren’t seeing one already, especially with so many digital apps out there. Moving your body and eating nutritious foods (because nutrition impacts mental health) can also help, but remember to be flexible rather than rigid with yourself. Finding time in your day to relax or do something you enjoy may help to calm your nerves. Plus, these practices can ultimately lead to better focus in the moments when you do need to get something done. Ultimately, as a therapist once told me, the best thing to do is to meet yourself wherever you’re at.

Learning how to strike a balance between productivity and rest is something I’ll likely be figuring out for the rest of my life. And while this situation is scary, I’m practicing gratitude for each new day and every new lesson learned along the way.

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