“Last seen: 2019. Reward offered.”
Megan talks about the struggle of working hard as a university student in a pandemic: and how she adjusted her mindset to cope.
Inspirational quotes are a guilty pleasure of mine.
My camera roll is full of them. As are several notebooks. And, formerly, my bedroom wall.
I’m not talking about the TED talk, entrepreneurial nonsense from multi-millionaires. Just simplistic quotes from more down-to-earth people that help me make sense of my experiences.
At the start of the UK lockdown in April 2020, I came across a post by @blcksmth on Instagram. It featured this quote from TV writer Jenny Jaffe:
“You’re only being unproductive by the standards of the world that we lived in a month ago, and that world is gone.”
When I first read it, the last part filled me with a sense of dread.
I didn’t want that world to be gone. I wanted to continue to define myself by that same standard of productivity, because maybe that would mean things did not have to change.
Once I started to realise that things were already changing – had already changed – I found myself coming back to the quote frequently.
I’ve always been someone that defined themselves by their grades, and the level of commitment to my studies. Being a student was such a big part of my personal identity that, at times, it was the only way that I defined myself.
Because I was good at it.
In high school and college, I received top grades. In my first three years at uni, I could count on one hand the number of lectures and classes that I skipped. I would spend hours in the library reading and re-reading my coursework… before going home to start work on the next one.
And my grades reflected that – I was working hard, I was motivated, I was producing good quality work. My grades were high and I was engaged with university.
When the first lockdown was announced last year, my motivation took a major hit.
Suddenly, I couldn’t concentrate for longer than ten minutes at a time. Constantly shifting in and out of focus, finding myself at my desk, staring blankly out of the window for hours.
Reading research papers became impossible – I could hardly force myself to read a long text message. Listening to lectures felt like a monumental task, when I didn’t even feel motivated to listen to the voices of my best friends on the phone.
And it made me feel so bad about myself.
I wasn’t the hardworking, motivated student anymore. Now I was scraping by, doing the bare minimum – and even that felt exhausting. It didn’t just apply to uni work either. Even the smallest “productive” tasks like cleaning my room or responding to people’s messages seemed to take whole days to complete.
All of these little things would just pile up over days, weeks and sometimes months, until I felt like I was drowning. Wherever I looked, there was something that needed to be done that I simply didn’t have the energy for.
I saw other people picking up new skills in lockdown – running, painting, cooking – and here I was. Completely unable to grasp onto the skills that had come so naturally to me before.
We’re almost a year on from the first lockdown, and I still find myself going back to Jenny Jaffe’s words daily.
“You’re only being unproductive by the standards of the world that we lived in a month ago.”
I thought there would come a point when I’d get used to things being this way. I beat myself up for still struggling with it, after so long. For not getting used to the lockdowns, and a lack of routine, and staying inside all the time.
But this still isn’t what we’re used to or “normal”. It’s not how we’re meant to function. We’re all living under very different circumstances, too. So if you’re struggling to be productive by the standards of pre-lockdown life: that’s okay.
It took me a long time to get that into my head – stop treating this pandemic as a productivity contest.
The best way I found to do that was to stop placing productivity at the centre of how I defined myself. To redefine what I saw as “doing my best”.
I started defining myself as a good friend, a kind person, a funny person – I took the word student out of my self-definition completely. My best is no longer pushing myself to my absolute limits, but doing what I can. Even if that’s significantly less than what it used to be.
That’s not to say I don’t still care about my studies. I am still trying my best – but I’m also willing to accept that my best has changed dramatically. I take breaks – a lot of them, sometimes days long. What used to be huge waves of productivity are now just small ripples: but I take advantage of them when they come, nonetheless.
I’m not getting the same grades that I used to. My work is half the quality that it used to be – if not less. But as long as I’m doing okay, that’s more than enough.
I remind myself of Jenny Jaffe’s words whenever I start to doubt myself.
Our worth is not tied into our productivity: especially when the world is upside down.
I’m being productive enough.