Rewriting Pandemic Productivity

I spent this summer in pursuit of productivity. With summer programs canceled, vacations postponed, and prospects of finding a summer job thrown out the window, I focused the first month of my summer on finding other ways to fill my time. 

It was almost as if I lived off the adrenaline of being productive. Whenever I had even a minute of free time, I would spend it worrying about what I should be working on. Despite the ongoing pandemic, I couldn’t help but think about all the time I was wasting while some of my peers continued their jobs and internships. 

In the end, although I was successful at remaining productive and achieving the goals I set for myself, I did not understand why I so desperately needed to feel busy. Why did I need internships and summer programs to fulfill my sense of purpose?

Graphic by Ethan Foreman/The Choate News

In her article “[Expletive] the Bread. The Bread Is Over,” poet Sabrina Orah Mark describes her relationship with productivity in the time of the coronavirus. For years, she spent her time and energy applying and interviewing at hundreds of universities for professorships she didn’t even know why she wanted. On the 58th day of quarantine-induced homeschooling, Ms. Mark gave her children a list of objects to find for a scavenger hunt, simply because they needed to stay busy. 

She spent her own time in quarantine searching for purpose through arbitrary goals. Hunting for bread flour in grocery stores so she could bake bread, Ms. Mark compared her experience to fairy tales characters who must diligently spin straw into gold or slay monsters to inherit the throne. But, once they succeed at their task, what happens to their narrative? The story ends. There is nothing left to do. No more purpose. “The bread is over.” 

Before coming to Choate, I never sought to be productive for productivity’s sake. However, after being surrounded by people who constantly seemed to be doing and achieving more than me — and after stalking too many LinkedIn profiles — I began to strive toward that same level of success. 

At competitive schools like Choate, which are often labeled as having toxic productivity cultures, it’s easy for students to compare themselves to others and constantly push themselves to work unhealthily hard. It’s easy to walk into Lanphier Cafe, see everyone on their computers with an iced coffee in hand, and get nervous about the three assignments that are due the next day. It’s easy to get caught up in taking as many classes as possible, joining every club Choate offers, and applying for every leadership opportunity until the enjoyment of doing these activities in the first place is forgotten. Like me, many students felt they needed to fill their free time in quarantine with tasks such as learning new languages or starting a nonprofit organization — they never stopped searching for the bread flour.

In her article, Ms. Mark said that once she completes tasks like achieving a professorship, there is nothing left to do but jump off the top of the fairy tale palace that has no place for her. Instead, she must redesign the system — cut down the kings and sons and peasants and the whole castle itself. She must get comfortable with where she lands among the rubble of the kingdom and choose what she wants to do with her life, rather than continuing to fulfill these tasks (like spinning gold or searching for bread) for the sake of checking them off a to-do list. We don’t have to stop looking for bread, but we must come to it on our own terms. 

For those who did learn a new language or start a nonprofit this summer, they still ended up expanding their own knowledge and helping their communities. There is nothing inherently wrong with the way these students chose to spend their time, but it’s also important that they do it for their own self-improvement and not for the sole purpose of being productive. We don’t need to push ourselves past our breaking points and lose sleep completing arbitrary tasks that serve only as tiny ego boosts in a quest to emulate what we see others accomplishing. There’s nothing productive about studying nonstop until we can’t distinguish our own thoughts from the words swirling on the screen in front of us. We need to allow ourselves the time to recharge and take a break. Once we learn to be productive doing the things that we love, then we might not need to leave the fairytale in the end. Maybe, we will rewrite the story.

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Covid-19 Update


Last spring, as the threat from the coronavirus pandemic escalated, Choate Rosemary Hall closed its campus and transitioned to a system of distance learning. Although many students have returned to campus this fall for in-person classes, others remain scattered across the globe. The staff of The Choate News, no matter where each member finds themself, remains committed to the vital work of gathering and reporting the news of the community it loves. This website will be the primary outlet for our reporting. We hope you will find this work valuable—and, as always, we welcome your feedback.


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