Quarantine Workaholism: A Different Beast

Featured Illustration: Raz Latif


Ever since quarantine began, it seems that everyone is pushing themselves to new heights. Comments like, “You should be writing the next great American novel!” and “If you wanted to start a business, now is the time do it!” never fail to send a spike of anxiety down my spine.

Of course, I’m happy for anyone who can achieve anything in such a trying time. These months of isolation have given them the opportunity to do great things. Who am I to complain about their accomplishments? 

My only problem with this is that it has put immense pressure on the people who are still struggling to navigate this new world we’re living in. There are many questions on our minds, given our unique and unprecedented current landscape, but for some reason, “am I doing enough?” feels like the wrong one to be asking. 

This trend of productivity isn’t specific to quarantine. Going to an incredibly competitive high school meant that I was surrounded by students resembling worker ants. In the mornings, my peers would compare how many hours they slept at night. Sleep deprivation became something like a badge of honor. A’s became the status of success. Staying at school until 8 pm doing homework and running clubs became the model mold. The norm was that you said you were tired when someone asked how you were doing, and if you said you were “fine” or even “great”, you’d get a weird look and people would think you were lazy. 

Ever since quarantine began, this stress has only increased tenfold. 

I went crazy looking for publications to send my work to, classes to take, lessons to fulfill, books to read, anything and everything I could do to brag about on LinkedIn or Instagram. “Hey! I’ve been doing a lot of work and getting things done!” There always seemed to be an unspoken “What have *you* been doing?” written behind those words. “I’m suffering really hard over here, what are *you* doing to keep up?” 

I lost sleep over my work. My agenda no longer fit my daily tasks and I had to move from logging a week on two pages to barely fitting a day per page. I was checking off my tasks, meeting my year-long goals sooner than I ever thought I could, and I was happy. 

Or I was supposed to be. 

Whenever I failed to achieve something, I felt horrible. Whenever my eyes began to hurt from looking at the screen for too long, I promised myself to work only an hour more, nodding off when the hour became two, and two became three, and suddenly I was working into midnight to check off all of the things I wanted to get done. 

I felt like I had no excuse for my lack of productivity when I had access to what everyone else had. On social media, I’d see people writing a novel in a month, landing the job they’d always wanted, launching passion projects on a near-daily basis. It became a competition for me. I felt like I had to live up to these expectations.

The reality was that I was killing myself. 

I got headaches when I couldn’t check off enough tasks. I slept later and woke up earlier, but even that couldn’t fix my stasis. Several hours in my day were spent contemplating all the other things I still had to do. During the few breaks I allowed myself, I refreshed LinkedIn obsessively, wondering if I was doing enough, if I was being enough, if I was competent compared to my connections. 

Needless to say, I began to hate my work.

It wasn’t until I realized that my idea of productivity became borderline workaholism that I decided to forgive myself. 

I forgave myself for not getting 20 tasks done in a day. I forgave myself for sleeping when I’d stayed up late the night before. I forgave myself for making mistakes, for taking my work slowly and enjoying it. 

While quarantine has become a symbol of opportunity for some, I believe it’s important to realize that it’s not the same way for everyone. 

Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to quickly adapt to a new way of living in the middle of a global pandemic. Not everyone can adjust to working from home (cue the kids screaming in the background). Not to mention the stress that lots of us are under financially, mentally, and even physically. 

Of course, productivity is irrefutably good for one’s work, but quarantine workaholism is a different beast, and not everyone can fight it. 

Rather than celebrating sleep deprivation, malnourishment, and busy schedules, I think we should celebrate the breaks and the Saturdays off for relaxation. Let’s celebrate self-care. 

Our bodies aren’t machines. They deserve kindness. And you do too.

Cindy Tran

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