The productivity paradox of self-isolation

category - covid-19
category - workplace
sector - retail
type - opinion
As the world adapts to life in isolation, brands operating in an accelerated capacity are spouting self-improvement and productivity – but not for the better.

With global societies having to navigate new ways of living and working, the sudden constant pressure to be tuned in and logged on is – among some – aggravating feelings of underachievement and low self-worth. ‘It’s tough enough to be productive in the best of times let alone when we’re in a global crisis,' explains Chris Bailey, an author and productivity consultant.

While initial reactions to the slower way of living brought on by Covid-19 tapped into the benefits of introversion and opportunities for self-reflection, productivity-toting brand activations and spiralling social media chatter concerning sourdough and spring cleans are, in fact, heightening people's anxiety.

This supposed ‘time out’ from daily life is instead inviting a sense of performance from consumers – whether it’s a carefully-curated WFH outfit, an at-home clubbing experience or rehashed new year’s resolutions for the age of the quarantine. Even in a period of self-isolation, consumers are under pressure, topped off with feelings of decision fatigue.

After all, capitalist society exists on the perpetual need for production and betterment. As Jenny Odell, author of How to do Nothing, writes: ‘In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured, optimised, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily.’

And yet, as marketers jump on the illusion of extra time afforded by the disposal of the daily commute, many of those still in employment are working at accelerated rates. In the US, the average working day has increased by 40% since the pandemic, as people juggle home life with operating remotely.

Published by:

22 April 2020

Author: Abi Buller

Image: Working From Home Fits by wfhfits, Instagram


At the same time, a slew of sites have emerged to combat feelings of boredom for those furloughed, unemployed or between jobs, exemplified by well-meaning yet unwittingly anxiety-inducing and Excellent Quarantine Ideas.

This is being compounded by the wellness industry, as invitations to disconnect and unwind manifest in an increasing number of services for practising mindfulness and self-care. But while live-streamed yoga and wholesome baking tutorials seek to quell feelings of unease, this content also risks placing unnecessary pressure on people who wouldn’t ordinarily engage in these activities – or have the means to do so.

As Refinery29 journalist Connie Wang explains through the lens of the Chinese philosophy of ‘wuliao’ – loosely translated as ‘the absence of conversation,’ or being ‘too bored’ – boredom should always be attributed to a sense of privilege, instead of a sense of lack. Only those who can afford to be bored right now can, in turn, be productive in the ways brands' marketers want them to be.

The companies capitalising on peoples' uncertainty around time and home-management could be breeding a culture of comparison relating to productivity, achievement, learning and thriving. After all, in Generation Homebody, we identify a culture of staying in that thrives off the privacy and contentment of being away daily global pressures – centred on the desire to leave the external world firmly on the outside.

Of course, the importance of building resilience has become paramount globally, but the need to support audiences already dealing with widespread burnout is pushing us further away from the self-actualising ideas identified in The Optimised Self. Instead, brands must work towards new metrics of success; inviting inactivity and purposeless enjoyment as an act of radical fulfilment.

'As marketers jump on the illusion of extra time afforded by Covid-19, many of those still in employment are working at accelerated rates'

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