Dealing with productivity guilt

I haven’t touched anything academics-related for almost two weeks now.

Each time I try to, my brain seems to freeze for a second or two then restarts with an entirely different thought: What if you do something else? The suggested activity ranges from important to mundane, so I sometimes end up doing important chores at home like making dinner an hour too early or organizing photos in my long-forgotten hard drive. There are times when I simply doze off. Your body needs rest, you deserve it, my mind tells me.

This is really weird for me. Usually, I’m so good at getting things done no matter what the circumstances are. I pride myself at still being able to function well despite everything falling apart. In fact, I have already gone through a lot of major heartbreaks in life without letting work suffer. There were many times in the past when I’d continue working even if tears wouldn’t stop running down my face.

Even telling a professor about my inability to give my 100% last week took a lot of courage. Indeed, it was something I would not normally disclose. My closest friends from college would know. Regardless of how chaotic my personal life was, I never missed a deadline. And, I always showed up whenever necessary. Sometimes with puffy eyes, sure. But I really tried to be around no matter what.

Good thing, the prof was so compassionate. She assured me that it was just fine, and that she understood my situation. She even postponed our exam, which she was supposed to administer on the same week. Apparently, I wasn’t alone. My classmates were also having a hard time.

That correspondence comforted me. For once, I felt that it was okay to accept defeat during difficult times.

That was a huge leap, since I always feel guilty when not doing anything. It’s so bad that even on my rest days, I try to keep myself preoccupied either with tasks for a part-time job or important chores at home. And, when done with everything, I simply turn to productive hobbies like reading, writing, or learning anything online.

Although I watch movies and series, I usually multitask. And, whenever I feel like just watching without any other tasks on the side, I see to it that I earn the privilege first.

But the last few days have been really different. It seems to me that my brain hasn’t been functioning properly that I have to take things slow and, as much as possible, focus on just one task at a time. It’s just been hard to focus. Of course it’s disappointing. Each time I fail to do something school-related, I feel hatred towards myself for being so lazy and undisciplined.

At the same time, it has pushed me to mourn death of my younger, more energetic, and more focused self who, despite having a lot family problems and insufficient sleep, could still travel from Antipolo to Quezon City early in the morning, attend classes, tutor kids for at least three hours, travel back to Antipolo, and stay up for a couple of hours more to read the assigned reading materials at school. On the top of it all, my younger self also had a vibrant social life, enough time to date and fool around, and the energy to participate in extra co-curricular activities. Why can’t I just be that person again? Why can’t I just run like a machine?

Clearly, it’s productivity guilt that’s been eating me up. According to Isaac Lowton:

It’s a mindset of feeling bad about not creating, achieving, or working hard and it has (probably) been around since forever.

He even linked it to the Zeigarnik effect, which pretty much explains why humans tend to have “intrusive thoughts” on unfinished tasks.

In my case, though, it’s not just thoughts of unfinished businesses that keep me from taking things slow. Also bugging me are those ideals of my younger self about how things should be done–excellently regardless of the pressure.

This is totally unfair. Of course, younger Mina had no choice but to do things properly no matter what. There was no opportunity for a slowdown. I just could not afford to slack off, because doing so would mean not having enough money for school, not being able to finish college, and failing to escape the terrible situation I was in.

But now, I think it’s just okay be a little kinder to myself. I need to slow down or even take a break once in a while. I need to accept that certain situations could negatively impact my productivity, and that’s just okay. In other words, I need to understand that my inability to focus and remain productive in a situation we’re currently in is actually not a crime.

I’ve been trapped in a condo unit for days now, with no one to talk to. My partner is in another city for work, while my entire family is in another region. There’s just no way to see them right now because of the lockdown. Sunlight has barely touched my skin, and I haven’t had enough physical activities to help release my happy hormones. I’ve been eating like shit, too.

I know that my personal struggles are nothing compared to what others are dealing with right now, but I have to admit that things are taking toll on my mental health. Like what I said in the message I sent my prof, this pandemic is affecting me more than I imagined.

Also, adding to the stress is our government that has been anything but reassuring. It’s so frustrating to see it fuck things up, as though the threats weren’t serious at all. It does not seem to care much about the lives we already lost and are about to lose.

Indeed, it just makes really sense to slow down, breathe, and allow myself to process things instead of going business as usual. I need to fight productivity guilt before it drives me to madness.

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