Productivity In A Pandemic

Among the pandemic’s many, much more pressing issues, I have struggled with a smaller thing: productivity. How does one produce anything in a pandemic?

This is nothing new. I have always struggled with productivity. I am coming to terms with my weakness.

The surface of the Internet roils with distractions. Social media algorithms have mapped my brain and provide me a steady source of sirens singing new and shiny information (or harpies screeching fresh and bitter outrage fuel). It is too much for me to bear.

Early in the pandemic, the constant statistics and pontificating from media-types sucked me in. I had to cut the news out — I deleted my old Twitter account and signed off of Facebook for a few months. Still, I watched the numbers tick up on state trackers, on Google, I got updates from friends and family.

I always want to know, but it is often for vanity’s sake — to be able to drop some witty comment, or update the room with the newest information. This is not good for my soul, of course, and I am improving, but here is a personal failing of mine for you to consider.

Avoiding fast knowledge — trending topics, instant updates — has been good to me, but it is difficult. If I am working online, I have a lot of trouble staying focused on one task at a time. I tend to switch between different tasks, my brain constantly seeking the new. If you believe the psychologists, this kind of cognitive switching can cost you 24 minutes of every hour’s work.

One tool I have been using is Forest. Do not worry: this is not a pitch or a referral code. The concept is available for free in different forms. Forest is a (paid) app and (free) browser extension that plants a digital tree, which grows for a period of time you choose. If, before the time is up, you leave the app on your phone, or visit a blocked site in your browser, your tree dies. If you do not break the rules, your tree goes into your Forest and you get some digital coins to unlock new trees.

It is a silly, pointless little game, and it has boosted my productivity immensely. I do not have hard before and after numbers, but I would believe it if someone told me I was 40 to 50 percent more productive.

Of course, “productive” depends on your metric. In school, I can measure productivity against grades; at work, there are other metrics. In writing poetry or fiction, though, the metric is less than clear.

I know many writers set word counts, but I do not think word count is an effective metric. Any hack can crank out a set number of words in a day. It does not require much thought. I say that with full consciousness that, here I sit, churning out words for this blog post. Is this productive? Hard to say.

I tend to lean toward using time spent writing as a metric for productivity. I count how many hours I spent actively writing — not just sitting on the computer scrolling Twitter when I should have been writing, but actively typing, editing, or thinking about the next word in whatever it is I’m writing. That is the kind of deep, focused work that Forest helps me achieve.

This almost-contemplative time spent working seems like a better metric for “productivity.” A poet might turn a metaphor over in his head a thousand times to write a single line. Is this productive? Not by word count. But what of the beauty in the line?


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