As soon as I arrived home, jet-lagged and duffel bags in hand, I immediately began daydreaming about my next big project.
The coronavirus pandemic cratered my daily schedule – hours of practice, club meetings, and social events were replaced by emptiness. Facing an indefinite stretch of quarantine and social distancing, I felt an intense urge to be productive. If I’m going to be stuck at home, I might as well put my time to good use, right?
During the first few weeks of remote classes, my Instagram feed was flooded with at-home workout videos and DIY tutorials. According to the internet, quarantine is the perfect time to pick up a new skill, whether it’s guitar, breadmaking, or trading stocks. Though I was already struggling with online learning and could hardly muster the motivation to move between my couch and my bed, I was compelled to become a better, fitter, worldlier version of myself. I started a 30-day squat challenge. I ordered a boxful of books from Barnes & Noble and decided – rather presumptuously – that I would teach myself Norwegian.
The uncomfortable feeling of not doing enough also led me to enroll in an online class over the summer in addition to working two remote jobs. I scoffed at the predicted hours of work and told myself I had no excuses for avoiding extra responsibilities with so much time on my hands.
It took three problem sets and a midterm for me to realize how unhappy I was. My daily screen time had skyrocketed into the double digits, and I was bringing my laptop with me when I went to hang out with friends. I wasn’t sleeping. Four weeks in, I cut my losses by dropping the class and receiving a permanent withdrawal mark on my transcript.
Dropping my summer class was the right call. My quality of life improved dramatically after I took one thing off my plate. I was able to focus more readily on my other responsibilities and on my health, and I learned a valuable lesson: Productivity should not be my biggest priority, despite cultural pressures telling me otherwise.
Don’t get me wrong – I think that staying busy can be a good thing. The structure of my pre-coronavirus schedule had a large role in keeping me happy and stable. But when the desire to be productive begins to encroach on our body’s basic needs for rest and leisure, we put our health and wellbeing at risk.
In my opinion, the United States has a culture of overwork. Many of us believe, consciously or not, that the ideal worker is the one who can put in the longest hours, sacrifice the most energy, and devote themselves to their job religiously. Unrealistic work expectations can easily take hold at a place like Harvard, where high-achieving, hardworking students are not few and far between. Though I’m sure I come off chill to some people, I’m a perfectionist at heart and I’ve always had a type-A undercurrent. I catch myself feeling anxious and guilty when I’m supposed to be relaxing – especially in the work-from-home arrangement – because I know I could be chipping away at my work instead.
However, I’m trying to reorder my priorities, and I hope other students will too. High school isn’t just an antecedent to college, and college isn’t just an antecedent to your career.
Loving life matters.
We don’t always have to be climbing the ladder or running the rat race, despite what some Instagram influencers or self-help bloggers may imply. We’re living through a global pandemic. Please be kind to yourself, and stay safe and healthy.