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Thoughts on productivity in a pandemic

“A bunch of sage advice” - Check out @vickys.scribbles on Instagram

©️Victoria Llewellyn

It feels like I’ve got whiplash. My neck and shoulders hurt, my stomach is uneasy and I’m not quite sure what just happened. And it’s not just me, it’s pretty much the whole world.

For those who work in healthcare, it’s been a violent surge forward - unprecedented pressure and heroic action. For those in support and key worker roles, it means rapidly changing gears - adapting to daily change and engaging with those in need in dynamic ways. For the arts sector, it feels like someone pulled the handbrake whilst we were doing 80 on the motorway.

This has completely changed what our live’s look like as artists, which can include what we expect of ourselves on a daily basis. Whilst this time is predominantly laced with anxiety about friends, family and finances, is there also an underlying unease that this has left a void in our creative output?

Too often in conversations with other artists, we fall foul to the newest status symbol: busyness. “I’m great, just so busy”, this response echoed around pre-covid social events - and is perhaps particularly potent in the arts. As an industry, it is inherently tied up in cultural perceptions of failure, a mental dance on this finest of lines is unwillingly performed daily by most artists. The justification dance.

You’ll know this series of moves well if the question “what do you do” brings cold sweats. It can elicit the sudden response of “I’m a geography teacher”, simply to avoid the weary, repetitive explanation of our life choices. Sometimes a sidestep is the easiest way to avoid being thrown to the wolves of our self-doubt.

But there are other tactics too, a popular one being the systematic filling of time: If I’m doing something I have something to say, to talk about. In other words, I am active, necessary, worthy.

Failure and it’s connotations to “laziness” are completely woven into the linguistics of art-making: “resting” if you aren’t on a show, or “between jobs”, “emerging” even though you’ve been writing or directing for years. Even shifting or changing career isn’t given a positive or refreshing connotation - you’ve “quit” - suggesting you weren’t “cut out” for something in some way. No wonder a commonly used cushion between artists and the concept of failure is never having a break. No holes. No rest for the wicked…

And yet, along comes Coronavirus. It shuts our Theatres, stops our day jobs and keeps us at home with nothing but time and our own familiar brain. For many, this can be a recipe for creeping unease, anxiety and all manner of unpleasant thoughts. The ones we drown out with movement, spending so much time in motion that they can never catch up. So with nothing but time, in comes the usual coping mechanism - do, do, do. The only option it seems is to keep going, push harder, run faster - for fear that if we ever truly stopped we might just fall down and not get up again.

If you started your self-isolation by writing lists, scouring Twitter, watching Instagram stories about writing challenges and ignoring the uneasy churning in your gut (like me), then I have a proposal for you - woah. Dare yourself to slow to a walk. To come to a halt, stand in the sun (mentally), stop and meet yourself.

Whilst there are of course things to attend for those in financial trouble, with family worries or want to help others - perhaps we can also take time to notice this may be the first time in our lives where we are forced to sit and face the voices in our minds. To listen to where they come from. To unpick them in a journal. To ask them square in the face - is what you are saying to me true? If work is your drug, your drink of choice, the numbing pacifier we most often reach for - perhaps now is the time to sit down and realise that our productivity isn’t the sum of who we are.

Creating work, opportunities and connection through Art is an incredible thing, and the world needs these now more than ever. But it can only be better for artists everywhere to inspect their practice - is my productivity coming from a healthy place? In a new reality without deadlines, daily routine or “normality” (whatever that is), maybe now is the time to cut ourselves away from comparison, crushing schedules and just stop. Even just for a few hours. Or the next few days, or a week.

If we can draw a positive from this situation perhaps it could be this - when are we ever in the ideal situation to stop and listen to ourselves? To what we like? What we don’t like? What serves us? What makes us happy? What work do we really want to be making?

How we all react to social distancing and isolation measures will be inherently different. Some might write that trilogy of novels they have always had in their head. Some might create platforms for others and connect on global levels. Some might be creating positive change around the world. But some might re-discover their love for music or painting or crochet. Some might reflect and heal. Some might grieve. Some might rediscover how to move slowly. Some might recover, and some may simply and joyously rest.

We cannot control a pandemic. We can’t control what happens to our jobs. We can’t go back in time and re-shift everything so it would have worked better than it has for us and our families and friends. But we can control our actions (see the “sage advice” from @vickys.scribbles above). We can also try and use the chaos outside to maybe look more deeply inside and listen. We can try and use this time for good - whether that ends up being for others or just, quite wonderfully, for ourselves.

Surely creating a better relationship with ourselves can only prove to be as useful in making art as the making itself? The more we can align our sense of self the clearer our outward expressions can be. Then maybe we won’t feel such compulsion to defend or justify. We can simply be. And simply being - liking what we do and enjoying how we do it, and doing it with as little comparison as possible. Hey, that’s definitely “productive” in our eyes.



Some resources on wellbeing and slowing down:

  • Looking inside: Author Josie George has a beautiful blog with find thoughts, observations and moments on slowness.

  • Yoga For Uncertain Times: Queen of calming vibes Adrienne has curated a list of her videos most appropriate for this time

  • How To Fail: A wonderful podcast examining failure in a positive way (check out the latest episode with Mo Gawdat - our personal fave)

  • Poetry Power Hour: I never read poetry. But the few times I have had really boosted my creative wellbeing! Amy and I recommend the poems of Mary Oliver and Emily Berry. Also the wonderful actor and writer Mary Antony is sharing her isolation birdwatching adventure with related poems. What better time than to discover some poems that could inspire, inform and speak to your creative practice. (Or don’t. Whatever you want!)

  • Life in the slow lane: this post list some active ways we can slow down (cause sometimes it’s hard to just tell yourself to do something!)

  • Love Yourself: a reminder from one of our favourite artists Bode Burnout

© 2020, Bode Burnout

Author: Olivia Foan