Why your COVID-19-related “free time” is making you less productive


You’ve probably told yourself that you’d accomplish more—if only you had the time. You’d build that shed in the backyard or read the novel that’s been sitting on your bookshelf for years. You’d clean out the basement and dust off your resume.

But with the spread of COVID-19 halting most of our social activities and ostensibly freeing up our time, are you doing any of those things you said you’d do?

If not, you’re not alone. In fact, you might be wasting even more time than usual. Here’s why, and here’s why it’s OK to cut yourself a break.

Why would we not be making the most of our time these days? What’s getting in the way?

First, although many people have more non-work time—less time commuting, transporting children to activities, etc.—paradoxically, having more time makes people less efficient. If you have less time to fulfill responsibilities and deadlines, you’re likely to feel more pressure to complete them and you’re motivated to make good use of time blocks that you have.

But having large amounts of unstructured time can contribute to procrastination.

Second, the routines that support productivity are currently disrupted. If you’re used to getting into work at the same time each day, drinking a cup of coffee, looking at your email and to-do list and picking a high-priority item to start, it becomes automatic. Some people are much more efficient at home, but if you aren’t in that habit, it can be more difficult to get in the zone.

A third factor is that people might engage in various behaviors to try to escape COVID-19 outbreak-related stress. These can include excessive use—sometimes even addictive use—of the internet, including social media, video games, gambling and adult sites.

A fourth major time drain for some people is excessive news consumption. In addition to taking up time, sometimes hours a day, it can fuel anxiety and worry.

Fifth, anxiety and depression—which tend to increase during national emergencies—decrease productivity by affecting your sleep, concentration, motivation and energy.

Is it good to set goals and make plans for this time, or do we run the risk of stressing and disappointing ourselves?

It’s typically beneficial to balance goal setting with flexibility. Not having goals leads to a sense of floundering, low productivity and more escape, or addictive, behaviors.

Your goals should be consistent with your values and what you care most about. This can include relationships, work, social life, virtual community involvement and hobbies. Although it can be very stressful to be at home full time, it also can be an opportunity to foster healthier living through meaningful time with family, exercise and connecting with friends and families electronically.

On the other hand, it’s important that you don’t work compulsively toward these goals. Driving yourself hard in times of stress can increase distress. Being compassionate with yourself for being less productive is important.

It’s human nature to be less productive in the face of unpredictable change and stress.

What can we do to reduce our anxiety and try to stay productive during this time?

To address anxiety, it can be helpful to try to maintain a balanced perspective—remembering that there are concrete activities you can do to increase safety and attempting to, repeatedly and gently, refocus from unhelpful worry to valued activities.

Routines and structure are extremely important. It’s good to attempt to maintain routines from prior to the pandemic whenever possible: Get regular exercise, limit news consumption, stay in contact with friends and family regularly, eat well and avoid increasing use of addictive substances or activities.

Lawrence Needleman is a psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, where he specializes in treating adults with anxiety disorders. He’s also an associate professor in The Ohio State University College of Medicine.