No, the pandemic is not making me more productive


Thank goodness, nobody I am working with has asked or expected me to maintain my productivity at the level it was before All Of This started. Though from what I’m hearing from others, there’s some folks expressing that this social distancing is a great moment to write a crap ton of papers and grants. Yeah no, it’s not working out like that. For those who are positioned to do so, I wish you well.

At a distance, I can see how it might seem how my identities and responsibilities and privileges converge to allow me to get a lot of stuff done right now. I’m not parenting any young children at home, my spouse and I are working from home and continue to earn normal paychecks. If anything, our day to day lives have just gotten a lot simpler. And my teaching load this semester has been reassigned to running our office of undergraduate research, and that actually has just gotten more simple because of what’s going on right now. But, still, I’m not managing to write those manuscripts and grants that have been waiting for far too long.

Why am I not publishing like a demon? Well, have you noticed, that there’s a pandemic out there? In addition, have you noticed, that people all around us are suffering because of the pandemic? This event has amplified the inequities underlying our social fabric. The people getting hit the hardest are those working full time but still living below the poverty line, who don’t have secure food and housing, and who don’t have reliable internet access at home – and these folks are most likely to put themselves and their communities at risk because it’s likely that their source of income means leaving the house and interacting with other people. The student population that I’m working with is being impacted tremendously, and I think it’s perfectly fine and normal to not leverage this opportunity to increase my scientific productivity. I do wish I could use this as a chance to bring in more grant funds to bring more opportunities to students, and hopefully my mental health will get to a place when I can do this. But I’m not quite there.

So, how have I been spending time that otherwise would be spent commuting, socializing, traveling, and such? We’ve been sheltering in place at home since before Pi day (3/14). I made a peach pie that day, and while I’m the cook at home, I’m not usually a baker, so that says something. I’ve also started a sourdough starter, which I’ve been vague thinking about for the past score of years or so, but never gotten around to. I’ve also been cooking new things and new ways, in part to husband groceries so that I need to replenish less frequently. And I got out of the habit of running during a holiday cold snap, and now that I’m back into it, I’m running more regularly and longer than I typically do, which is quite nice. My department had a virtual happy hour one night last week, and it was nice to see and hear about everybody.

I’ve been meeting my base responsibilities just fine, though when it comes to completing new scholarship, I’m just, well, stalled. I feel like I’m kind of stuck in a limbo between reading the Washington Post, and a novel, and cooking, and spending time with family, and exercise, and sleeping. And I’ve spent more time taking care of myself than I have in a long time. Of late, I’ve been feeling (as Bilbo Baggins once said) “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” And that feeling has subsided as I’ve been able to spend more time with myself. I’m currently working less and getting less done, but it’s helping me take care of myself, which feels more sustainable in the long run.

Economists have explained how shutting things down during the pandemic is actually more healthy for the economy in the long term than acting as if things are normal and allowing more people to get sick and die. Perhaps on an individual level, with respect to our own mental health, this might be a useful analogy? That we can’t pretend that things are normal in the midst of a pandemic, and we need to focus on taking care of ourselves and one another? Sure, I might get around to writing more papers and grants at some point in the coming months instead of going to give a seminar or going on vacation, but that’s not my priority at the moment, and that’s okay.

14 thoughts on “No, the pandemic is not making me more productive

  1. Finally, I smiled after a long time :) That means, it’s not just me; struggling hard to concentrate on my studies, making timetables every night but following the same unproductive routine: confined in a small room, hovering over online news and listening to friends/families from my home country. Thank you for writing this!

  2. Thanks, Terry. I think I was one of the people who needed to hear this.

    • Well, I’m doing what’s required and apparently expected of me, and am in that rare and comfortable position of having tenure. I imagine/hope I’ll get a few papers and proposal out the door in the coming few months, more than I would be otherwise. But it’ll take me a while to adapt to this situation.

  3. Thanks Terry, I am even having problems getting some of home projects completed let alone papers or grants. I have managed to get into the greenhouse to transplant and start seeds. Digging in the soil felt good.

  4. Thanks Terry so much for posting this. I have always loved following your blog, but this post made me feel so much better. I see many of my colleagues online apparently being so productive, but I am not. I had to throw out a 5 month experiment and then drive like a fool across the USA to get back to Canada (in the middle of our sabbatical). Now we are in mandatory isolation, not allowed to go for a walk and feeling ill. It is all I can do right now to completely my editorial duties somewhat on time and answer a few emails. The sabbatical is a bust. I should be writing but can’t. Right now it is all about self care and care for the family. After I read your post, I started to feel better about this. Maybe this isn’t the time to be focused on writing or being productive. Maybe instead this is the time to focus on healthy cooking, helping ourselves and others, and just slowing down. I am grateful for so many things; you and your blogs are one of those things. Stay healthy everyone. Stay safe. Take care of yourselves and your families. Productivity should be reduced, and that is OK.

  5. Thank you for this post! I can and like to work from home, but being forced to do it is not the same. And I feel so privileged, for being able to work (almost) normally and, especially, because my family has remained healthy thus far! But I’ve had a hard time focusing and not being dragged to another news or opinion piece and my productivity is not the same, which is an additional source of anxiety… I’m truly happy that you are able to adjust at a slower pace and that you’re finding the energy to inspire others.

  6. Right there with you Terry- from a remarkably similar career place (tenured prof with considerable administrative duties). Despite a laptop with a handful of MS’es and grants I thought I might push out, that’s… not happening. I am holding onto small victories: I got my classes “online” and running. My students seem to enjoy my synchronous lectures. I really like hearing from them at class time. I am more or less keeping up with administrative needs.
    That’s it. That’s work life right now. Everything else is keeping myself and my family safe and well, and that feels like a lot.

  7. I’m glad you shared this, but I’m a bit bummed to hear that other professors have time for me-time. I’ve got two young kids and my husband and I split the day in half for 5 hours one works and the other entertains the kids and then we switch. Because they are so young, they can’t amuse themselves so I have to come up with activities to do. And then when it comes to work, I’m finding that there are so many odds and end to take care of– address how internships will now continue, advising questions, review class budgets, that I barely get time to get my classes together, let alone have some mental relaxation time. I’m lucky that I have a job, and try to be grateful that I get some quality time with my kids, but I’m totally exhausted, and everyday is the same slog. What weekends? Oh, and this is supposed to be spring break. -TooTired

    • If it makes you feel any better, I do have a set of challenges at home that have been a challenge and definitely has increased the stress of this situation, getting in the way of my sleep. I’m not talking about them more specifically in this post because I have a policy of essentially keeping private the affairs of people close to me on here and in social media in general, even when they intersect with my own concerns. So it’s not as if I’m getting all this great me-time. Though clearly, I own that this would be radically different and more challenging if one or more toddlers were involved! My heart goes out to you.

  8. Thanks for sharing and I am glad it is helping people. Judging by the comments above. But I am living it differently.
    I am in a soft money position and there is no escape the pressure to publish and submit applications. I know I am privileged having an income “guaranteed”, even if it is only for one more year until renewal. My family is healthy. And I am lucky I don’t have to go out or serve in a hospital. All of that is good, but I also know that when grant review comes they will compare my productivity with peers and priors. If I want to have a shot at keeping my job for a few more years, I better shake everything else and get to write. It doesn’t even matter if my Chair or Dean or whoever agrees that lower productivity is OK. When the time comes, if I don’t have the money to pay for things, it’s bye bye. I also keep receiving requests for service (reviews, university service, scientific association service…). These come from people that are probably just as stressed, yet they are handling it. If I don’t pull my weight, someone else will have to do it. I can’t do that.

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