How should we think about getting things done in a time of quarantine and outbreak? It’s a difficult question, since this season of social distancing leaves no one untouched. Indeed, it upends our lives in radically different ways.
Should we even be concerned with being productive in a time like this? Some would say no. I say yes. But it depends on what you mean by productive.
Here’s why I say so and five guiding principles to help us better steward this time.
1. Productivity is fundamentally about faithfulness.
Productivity is often defined along the lines of “getting things done.” But that’s only part of the story. Were the CEO of a company to spend months sorting mail faster than anyone else in the company, he wouldn’t make it past the next shareholder’s meeting with his job intact, and rightly so. That’s because getting things done doesn’t matter unless one is getting the right things done well.
Getting things done doesn’t matter unless one is getting the right things done well.
This idea resonates profoundly with a Christian vision of reality, which sees the Christian’s life as a summons to faithfulness in whatever mission field God places him or her. We’re called to be busy with what God has given us to do, and to strive toward effectiveness in it. In that sense, as Christians we should always be asking, How can I be faithful in this moment?
2. Different seasons call for different approaches.
The world is a different place than it was a few months ago. Your work may be the same, but that doesn’t mean you can—or should—try and get it done the exact same way. It’s easy to run into frustrations at this point.
You may be trying to maintain your normal routine, finding it doesn’t quite work. Don’t do that. Or, it may be that you’re feeling guilty about having to “sneak away” to help kids learn long division during “work hours.” Don’t feel guilty about that.
Here’s the reality: productive people learn to adapt. And we’re all having to adapt right now.
Productive people learn to adapt. And we’re all having to adapt right now.
In my case, I’m starting and ending my work day later than usual so I can help with our youngest children in the morning and spend time with my wife before we’re both exhausted. It’s not how I’d normally do it. But convenience isn’t the goal. Your setup may require something totally different. The point is to be proactive and ask yourself what changes you need to make.
3. Prioritize what’s most important.
There’s a maxim in politics: never waste a crisis. Admittedly, it rings fairly heartless, but what’s behind it is the reality that a crisis of any magnitude disrupts our lives and forces us to recalibrate and focus on matters of highest importance. Lean into that focus. A few ways to do so:
- Think about the areas of responsibility God has entrusted you with generally—work, family, church;
- Consider what is unique to this moment—maybe it’s more time at home, or alone, or with family; and then
- Ask, If I only accomplish three things over the next three months, what should those things be?
Once you have some answers, make time for those priorities, and don’t be afraid to prune some things away.
It may be that this is a season to slow down a bit. It may be that you have unique opportunities to get to know neighbors in your community. There’s a good chance you’ll never have as much concentrated time with your young children as you do now. Whatever your life looks like right now, take stock of what’s most important and leverage whatever unique opportunities you presently have.
4. Develop a strategy.
Once you’ve determined what’s most important, take steps to give yourself the best chance for success. I generally think in terms of two categories:
- Offense (How do I make time for what’s most important?)
- Defense (How do I guard against being overwhelmed?)
When it comes to offense, I literally schedule time on my calendar to focus on my priorities as if it were a meeting—even if that’s “5:00–6:00 p.m.: Bike Lessons and Family Walk.” I find that what’s important doesn’t always feel urgent; and if I don’t make time for what I’ve determined is most important, I’ll be overtaken by what feels most urgent.
A crisis of any magnitude disrupts our lives and forces us to recalibrate and focus on matters of highest importance.
When it comes to defense, regular rhythms help lend stability and calm to our family, especially in a time of quarantine. I try to create macro-rhythms that are the same day-to-day: 8:30–10:30 a.m. focus on kids (school); 1:30–3:30 p.m. focus on others (meetings); 5:30–7:30 p.m. focus on self (reading, exercise).
These allow me just enough structure to focus and just enough freedom to know there’s time for the unexpected. Yet we also try and eat dinner around the same time, have movie nights on the same night, and have certain fun activities on the same day each week to avoid the jet lag that comes from quarantine life.
5. Nourish your soul.
In extraordinary times, the ordinary means of grace are vital. Now more than ever before, make sure you are spending time with God in Scripture and in prayer. Be active with your church virtually to whatever extent you can. We need one another in the best of times—all the more in times like this.
That said, don’t ignore the needs of your body. Stay active. Take walks. Read. Have a conversation. Play a board game. Enjoy meaningful leisure. And be mindful of what’s helpful to you and what’s stressful to you. Particularly when it comes to social media, guard what you consume. In all likelihood, you don’t need minute-by-minute Twitter updates on mortality rates unless you’re an epidemiologist or public health official. Consider “slower” forms of news like the newspaper. If it’s important, you’ll hear about it. In the meantime, take care of yourself.
The author Wendell Berry argued that a fundamental question is whether you see yourself as a creature or a machine. In a pandemic, our mortality becomes uniquely clear and present, and yet we may still face the temptation to power through the moment as if we are machines.
But we are not. We are creatures, in need of regular rest and renewal. In a time like this, the end goal is not achievement, but faithfulness. Being productive is ultimately not about optimizing every second, as if we were machines, but about producing something meaningful. As Christians, let’s strive toward that being biblical faithfulness and gospel joy.