How to Get (or Stay) Productive When You Feel Shitty, Covid edition

10 months ago, I wrote a post entitled How to Get Productive When You Feel Shitty. Little did any of us know that life was about to get a lot shittier for everyone. What were we worried about back in January, 2020? Well, for one thing, I personally didn’t speak so much in first person plural. Feeling shitty was an individual problem and I was focused on myself.

But now, with over 200,000 Americans dead (and over a million deaths around the globe), it feels natural to talk about “us” rather than “me.” That said, I’ve found plenty of time in the last 7 months to think about myself. I’ve even found the wherewithal to feel depression and self-pity! The human mind is truly a thing of wonder.

There’s been an odd, unspoken argument throughout these months: do we use this strange time to get productive and reach our goals? Or is it capitalist brainwashing that tells us we need to be productive even in the midst of a pandemic? I tend to align more with the first idea, not because I disbelieve that capitalism ties worth to productivity. It does. But because I know what is true for me: when I’m productive, I’m happier. Simply that. And when I’m making progress on my personal goals, I feel nearly at peace.

This is not to say that I’ve been a model of productivity. But that’s all right. This is where the second idea has merit as well. It’s okay to slow down during a highly stressful time. In fact, nothing impedes productivity more than being stressed about whether you’re being productive.

In this video by Anna O’Brien (a.k.a. Glitter and Lazers), she discusses the difference between telling yourself you’re being productive and actually making progress on your long term goals. She says, I’m paraphrasing, that she used to involve herself in so many pursuits, that she never made real progress in any one area. She calls it “goal distraction” and I agree that it’s a way for those of us highly skilled in the art of procrastination to distract ourselves by pursuing all of our goals. There is a joke about writers who aren’t writing because they’re “researching.” Research is important but if you never get down to writing, the book will never exist.

So, here are my suggestions for being productive during Covid-19. Take them with a grain of salt because I’m just a person, not a productivity master. But here’s what’s been working for me.

1. Focus on 1–2 goals and that’s it!

It is very tempting to think we can do everything. But when I make a To-Do list that’s more than five items long, you know what happens? Less gets done because I get overwhelmed. The same principle applies to long-term goals. For 6 weeks during the summer, I achieved my two goals: do yoga every day and write every day. (I’m a teacher so I realize I’m in a unique position.)

Focusing on one or two things may mean that the rest of your life goes to shit for a while. Let it. There were many many days this summer where I spent the day being an unwashed lump on the couch, doomscrolling through Reddit or watching video after random video, or on the days when I had an attention span, movie after movie. I would procrastinate until about 1:00 am and then I would say “Fuck”. I’d throw a yoga video on Youtube and grimace my way through 20 minutes. But by the end, I would feel more centered and energized. And then I’d go write.

Often I started my daily writing after 2 am and finished as the sky started to lighten. I was keeping vampiric hours, sleeping until the afternoon, hiding from the world. From an outside perspective, I was a mess. I was a mess. But I let it all go to shit and I didn’t hate myself. I was reaching my goals.

In less than two months, I revised and rewrote over 100 pages of my novel.

And then work started back up and my dedication to my personal goals went to hell.

2. Reform your schedule to fit your current life

Teaching is a stressful job, but I used to beat myself up for not being able to stick to a writing schedule despite that. It’s true that I am my happiest and most productive when I follow u/ryans01’s NON-ZERO DAYS. But you know what? We’re living in crazy times and my August, September, and even October have been uniquely stressful. For a time, it looked like we were going on strike, could lose our pay and even perhaps our jobs, and were going to be working in dangerous conditions (to say nothing of the looming Presidential election.) We can be forgiven for needing “Top Chef” and a glass of wine at the end of the day. Going back to work also meant rejoining the human race. No more marathon writing sessions in the pre-dawn hours. I have thrown myself into work, as I always do, and spend the days doing a thousand little tasks and interacting with students, coworkers, administrators, and parents. I am exhausted at the end of almost every day. That said, my goals are important to me, specifically my goal of finishing my book. So I realized I needed to make a new schedule that fit with my current life. I now do yoga 2–3 times a month and I write once a week.

3. Get accountability partners

The other name for this suggestion could be “say yes” because I did not have to seek out my accountability partners. They came to me. (They don’t know I call them that. Please don’t tell them. It sounds weird.) A Facebook friend is training to be a yoga teacher and announced donation-only classes on Sunday mornings. A mutual friend tagged me and a few others and, boom, I had a low-stakes way to keep up with this goal.

A few weeks later a friend asked if I’d be interested in having a writing date once a week on Zoom. Boom, I now show up once a week, not only for myself, but for my friend.

In both areas, my progress is much slower than in the summer. I’m not seeing physical changes in my body from yoga anymore, though every time I do it, I get the same clarity and energy. Instead of revising/writing 2–5 pages a day, I’m doing 2–3 pages a week. However, I am feeling the same peace of being on the road to my goal. Next week, I start a series of classes that will also require me to write. I feel confident putting down the money for a writing workshop, a first for me, because I know it’s just another accountability partner. I’m not signing up out of guilt that I’m not doing the thing. I am already doing the thing. This is a sign to myself that I’m taking my goal seriously, though not overextending myself. I’m doing exactly the right amount right now.

But, keep in mind: “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” (Confucius) As long as you do not stop. In a way, the principle is the same as Non-Zero Days. The point is forward motion. Always forward motion, no matter if it’s one push-up or one sentence a day, or one workout or writing day a week. The point is not to be dogmatic about the system. The point is to have a system.

For now, this is my system. And it’s working. I do not know when my book will be done, but I’m writing (and revising) the words. The book grows longer (and better.) I see the finish line and I’m grateful to have come this far.

It’s good to pursue a goal. It’s good to revise your system in the face of an overwhelming world. Here’s hoping the world returns to normalcy soon. And we all stay healthy, both physically and mentally. I wish you peace and progress on your goal.

Originally published at on October 23, 2020.