In the early days of lockdown, I thought society had readjusted itself to align with my innate capabilities and desires — a time of solitude spent creating.
For a few days, life had proceeded according to my predictions. But as the days passed, my super-productivity transitioned to something resembling sloth.
The hype infected me. I read too many stories about how we were suited for quarantine. The lockdown was supposed to be a liberation for us. We huddled in virtual spaces, preparing to coddle the poor extroverts destined to suffer.
For the first three weeks of lockdown, I worked more hours but produced far less output than before this maelstrom swept in and turned our homes into prisons; the reasons why are now clear.
We don’t have a choice
It’s one thing to choose solitude, but it’s different when someone or something restricts your freedom. That’s a distinction you rarely hear about because it hadn’t been relevant until COVID-19 upended our lives.
Remember when you were a teenager, and your parents forbade you from dating that troubled boy or girl? That restriction on your freedom inflamed your desire for them even more. This kind of psychological reactance still works on us as adults. Now that we’re prohibited from socializing, we crave it, at least a little.
Back when we had that choice, we still opted to socialize, just not as much, and not in the same way as extroverts.
We still need people
In the pre-corona world, you could go out to a bar and enjoy the company of your friends. At about the thirty-minute mark, those same friends would start to annoy you, so you’d come up with some flimsy excuse and slip out to embrace a few hours of solitude before tucking yourself in for the night.
But now, you don’t even get those thirty minutes. You can’t even enjoy a taste of socialization. Who knew? Introverts need that taste.
Before COVID-19, you could fulfill that need by sitting in a coffee shop, alone amongst the crowd and listening to the white noise ambiance that resulted from a dozen incoherent conversations. It made you feel a part of the community even though you played the role of an observer rather than a participant.
Then there were those brief and casual moments of chumminess that seemed so insignificant — saying hi to neighbors at a local restaurant or the quick conversations with the owner of a bakery.
Now deprived of those experiences, I realize how much those everyday interactions matter.
Only human-to-human interaction fulfills our need for socialization. It spawns creative ideas and promotes connectedness. Yes, Zoom and Facetime help, but digital representations of people don’t replace real-life interaction.
Worse, our reliance on technology for meeting our social needs has set us up for a unique challenge: We never fulfill our social fix yet still experience the feeling of over-stimulation that stems from excessive people-time.
An instrument of anti-productivity
Combine the over-stimulation, absence of social interaction, and restrictions on our freedom. What do you get? All those pieces assemble into an instrument of anti-productivity.
It’s harder to think deeply with the angst, worry, kid interruptions, loneliness, or whatever other ills interfere with your cognitive muscle. Focus is the superpower we need, and it’s an elusive commodity right now.
The standard advice does help. We all benefit from disconnecting from the outside world and practicing mindfulness. Still, it’s hard to shut off the brain-chatter and devote your mental energy to creative thought and problem-solving.
How to get back on track
Those of us who thought we were suited to this lifestyle can’t claim supremacy anymore. But it’s not all bad news.
In the last few days, I’ve reclaimed a piece of my old self. I’m back on my schedule with improved focus and producing better quality output. If you’ve struggled to do your best work, or even as much work, here are a few ideas to help you get back on track.
First, lighten the pressure you put on yourself. Before the lockdown, you may have given yourself a target to hit each day: write 1,000 words, complete 20 pages of reviews, or make 100 phone calls. By permitting yourself to come up short, you can say out loud, “I couldn’t finish today,” without guilt or self-criticism.
In more mundane times, that may not be a good idea. We need a certain amount of stress to achieve optimal performance. But today, we’ve got enough angst without adding artificial pressure. Combined with the already existing tension of COVID-19, production goals add far too much strain and become counter-productive.
Give yourself the freedom to fail, the guilt-free flexibility to admit if you must, that you just couldn’t do it today. Paradoxically, this approach has allowed me to align closer to my productivity goals.
Second, reward yourself for no reason at all. Before the lockdown, I used to treat myself to a glass of wine at the end of the day if I hit my daily targets. But now, I’m doing it even if I fail. You should reward yourself too, just for making it through the day.
In time, we’ll adapt. We’re good at that, but don’t think that because you’re an introvert, you’re suited for isolation and loneliness. Give yourself permission to fail and reward yourself just for surviving.