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Illustrated by Dhabia Al Mansoori

Slow Down: A Productive Person’s Reflections on Quarantine

Perhaps an unintended lesson of this time is that we should not be scared of things that don’t make sense, of experiences that don’t fit neatly into a narrative or contribute to some long term goal.

Aug 30, 2020

It is the third day that ‘finish Gazelle draft’ has remained in the priority slot of my never ending to-do list. A task that somehow justified the fact I have not responded to my capstone mentor in two weeks and an excuse to spend another day in front of my computer with ‘work to do’. It has been four months since the surprise return to a comfortable childhood home and slowing pace of life, but the drive to accomplish something useful during this unexpected time has not waned.
By the end of March 2020, over 100 countries were in some state of full or partial lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic. College students around the world — other than those spending the spring on Saadiyat — were pushed off campuses within a whirlwind matter of weeks, or days. And while classes transitioned online, social life and everyday movement slowed to a standstill.
As many reflected on this new normal, there began a proliferation of self-help style guides for staying productive — pushes to decorate your home or finally dedicate yourself to a lifelong learning goal during this newly discovered free time. The pressure mounted, but as internet dynamics often work, the counterargument was quick to arise.
Despite the well-circulated quip that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantined in 1606, no one realistically held themselves to the expectation of producing their magnum opus during our modern plague — Taylor Swift excluded. And aesthetic, punchy graphics reminding everyone that self-worth is not tied to productivity, quickly took over our feeds. It was a reasonable reminder; we are in the major health crisis of our lifetime and taking care of basic needs — safety, health and financial security — should be enough.
To me, it did not feel like enough. Each day that passed without honing a skill or securing an internship was a disappointment. Months later, I feel a nagging sense of regret for what I should have accomplished during the time long gone, intruding thoughts more aggressive than the Duolingo Owl shaming a missed five-minute practice.
I am unsure how to pinpoint the source of this subconscious pressure — perhaps it stems from growing up in a capitalist, productivity obsessed nation or maybe it is a side effect of the recent swelling of the attention economy. This dynamic manifests itself differently for college students who are living, in a sense, in an intense, four-year rat race; an exhausting and often competitive routine with constant learning as the very crux of our experience. So when academic and professional endeavors lay in jeopardy in an evolving health emergency and social interactions were pushed into a more detached virtual space, our quarantined springs and summers turned into an unreachable quest for productivity. When validation comes from tangible successes and material gains, we can launch ourselves into a downward spiral, aware that there is always something more, something better, we can be doing.
We are a generation that grew up with information at our fingertips, seemingly with no excuse to not consume as much of it as possible. While our parents had the choice of the nightly local or global news, our selection of the latest Netflix drama is a conscious choice, the difference of only a few keystrokes, of not mastering Java on LinkedIn Learning.
Before the pandemic, I would have easily characterized myself as a productive person. Yet, I struggle to give myself that same label during this period, despite the hours of work — ranging from tedious to extremely enjoyable — accumulated over the spring and summer. Virtual tutoring, Student Government meetings and capstone topic research lack a sense of cohesiveness and closure. There is no quantifiable achievement, no summary to add on a resumé, and when productivity is measured in outputs, I overlook the inputs. But I am working to change the way I view success.
Perhaps an unintended lesson of this time is that we should not be scared of things that don’t make sense, of experiences that don’t fit neatly into a narrative or contribute to some long term goal. To value work in progress and the incomplete. To appreciate the joy that comes from actually doing something in the present, rather than the professional or monetary validation that is only received in retrospect.
We think we need to learn another employable skill, but in fact, we need to learn to relax. So tomorrow, I will appreciate a calming moment under the sun, refusing the company of Michael Barbaro on my morning walk. I will try, however messy the attempt, to find fulfillment outside of the pressures of non stop progress. And most importantly, I will work to accept the unfinished or imperfect.
Caroline Sullivan is Senior Features Editor. Email her at
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