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How I learned to love my unproductive lockdown

By Harriet Clifford


It's ok if you're not top of your game. We’re in a crisis, not a nationwide summer holiday.

For reasons which don’t need explaining, it’s likely that as a young professional fresh out of university, you’re now working from home, on furlough, or out of a job completely. You’ve suddenly been provided with seemingly endless reserves of time with which you may do as you wish. Surely, as a twenty-something in the prime of your life, this time, despite its many anxieties, offers an opportunity to start that project you never usually have time for. So, why haven’t you baked sourdough, started writing your best-selling debut novel, or mastered the Crow Pose on your yoga mat yet?

Perhaps, if you’re like me, instead of getting on with whatever it is you’ve always wanted to do, you’re crippled by the endless list of things you could be doing.

You instead opt to do none of those things and find yourself clicking “play next episode” for the sixth time that day. To make matters worse, your Instagram and Twitter feeds are full of people painting, writing, working out or cooking. “Oh god, just shag your sourdough starter why don’t you,” columnist Dolly Alderton tweeted last week, capturing the mood of all of us who haven’t caught the baking bug. These smug posts are usually accompanied by an image of your friend positively glowing in their pristine loungewear (is it just me that can’t keep a pair of tracksuit bottoms clean for more than five minutes?) or an aesthetic laptop-notebook-coffee set-up, with some honey-coloured filter.  

Resisting the temptation to compare yourself to the sea of smug posts is particularly hard if, like me, you’re in the self-punishing group of individuals labelled “high-achievers” at school. 

I’m talking about the kind of people who enjoy “doing” and get a buzz from ticking jobs off a list. Relaxing or doing nothing isn’t an option, because it only leaves you feeling guilty, lazy and unproductive. You probably base your self-worth on what you do, rather than on who you are.


If you’re still working, perhaps you’re finding that you have three or four hours (minus one for the Zoom pub quiz) worth of extra free time at the beginnings and ends of your days, plus weekends without plans. If you’re on furlough then you’ll have your nine-to-five days to fill too. So, how do you deal with feeling overwhelmed by the endless possibilities, and the pressures you might be feeling?

Here are a few things I’m trying that seem to be working well at stemming the nagging feeling that I should be making more with my time in lockdown:

1. Don’t compare yourself to someone on Instagram​ (obvs)

Not only is the image itself probably filtered, so too is the content of what you see on social media. The pile of dirty washing, the plate with a dried-up smear of ketchup, the six empty cans of Diet Coke and the pile of unopened books are all just out of shot. Funnily enough they don’t quite suit the aesthetic of the photo in question, and they certainly don’t fit within the typically, carefully-curated Instagram feed. Remember that behind every dreamy Monday morning set-up there’s a person with a whole load of mess, just like you. The photo represents one second of a 24-hour day, so there’s plenty of time for mundanity, like binge-watching Netflix, eating ice cream from the tub, ugly crying, and getting drunk in your pyjamas and texting an ex.

2. Rethink the to-do list mentality

If you know you struggle when you’re not achieving or ‘doing’, try challenging the negative thoughts associated with this by carving out time each day to just be. Re-read a book, have a nap, watch an old film, listen to some music, do some easy stretching – just do anything that doesn’t count as “productive” in your head. In reality, all these things are incredibly productive, especially if they improve your mental health, and by building them into your routine, you can actually trick your brain into thinking you’ve completed a task.

3. Set realistic goals, or no goals at all

If you are going to embark upon your passion project, set aside a limited amount of time each day to work on it. Taking away the endless expanse of hours will help reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed. Choose one thing, like an online course, baking, creative writing, or blogging, and decide that you’re only going to spend X amount of time on it each day. If you’re feeling particularly motivated, maybe spend a morning or an afternoon doing it, but not the whole day. If not, just start with an hour or so. 

Who knows how long this lockdown is going to last, but we’ve probably got a good few weeks (or months) ahead of us. If you’re someone who likes to set goals, don’t feel pressured by people on social media declaring that they’ll have finished a 60,000-word novel, or learnt Spanish by the end of lockdown. Instead, give yourself daily targets, or no targets at all, and work one day at a time. If you look too far ahead it will likely be too overwhelming to even get going in the first place.

4. Remember we’re in a crisis, not a nationwide summer holiday

There won’t be a test at the end of all this in which we must present what we have learned, achieved, made or gained. Why on earth, in the middle of a global pandemic, should we be expected to be at the top of our game? You don’t need to have something to show for yourself – it will be an achievement to just have survived, literally. Just because most of us have now got more time, this doesn’t mean we need to turn this into a period of study leave, using it to better ourselves in one way or another. Sometimes self-improvement comes in the form of getting through something - it’s not always about achieving something. It’s important to remember these truths when you’re giving yourself a hard time about your lack of picture-perfect sourdough, or your non-existent daily work-out routine.

Whether you’re using these unprecedented times to create, learn, earn money, cry, watch Netflix, lie in bed or eat shop-bought banana bread, none of this has any bearing on your worth as a human being. We’re all so used to living life by the hour, each time-slot filled with the next activity, that it’s only natural that we’re struggling with the practicalities of slowing down. Although habits of a lifetime are hard to break (here I am, writing this article), if there’s ever a time to start being kinder to yourself and have a break from productivity, I’d suggest that time is probably now.

Image by Katie Barrett.

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