Doing Nothing in Quarantine, and Some Predictions on the ‘New Normal’
I have tried (and struggled) to spend my time in lockdown doing more relaxing and nothing-ness. This has done wonders for my brain and my sense of clarity about what is important to me, yet it has also been challenging to go against my natural tendencies of proactivity and productivity. I previously touched on this collective obsession to make the most of all this free time, and as a result I have been doing a lot of thinking about whether my Type A, overactive personality helps me or works against me.
These tendencies certainly make me good at getting things done, but I’m never especially calm while doing it. My body and brain find it hard to relax and enjoy doing nothing, which I know is bad for my overall sanity and mental health. Every good thing has a down side, and every bad thing has a silver lining. If my overactive brain helps me get far in life and be successful, then I think it is worth it. On the flip side, if my overactive brain makes me busy and anxious for the sake of being busy and anxious, then it definitely isn’t worth it. Unfortunately, I don’t have a crystal ball to see how this works out for me in the future. So like with most things in life, I am needing to find some balance between the two. I am needing to learn how to control my overactive mind when I know I should be relaxing, and let it run wild in moments of actual work.
Last week I started reading Jenny Odell’s book, How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. It has been on my bookshelf since it launched last year, and with everyone trying to be productive and get their lives together during this lockdown, it seemed like the perfect occasion to delve into it. I wanted to share one quote, which has stayed with me at this time when a lot of us have a lot more free time:
“By spending so much time on social media and chained to the news cycles, you are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else.”
This makes me reflect on how I am spending my time in quarantine: glued to screens of Twitter and social news feeds, obsessively reading people’s comments for their views and experiences. Deep down, I know this is not good for my brain. Deep down, I think we all know that a bit of rest and relaxation is healthy. Yet with face-to-face social interactions currently limited, how can we not be chained to our social feeds, trying to make sense of it all, of one another?
I am such a work in progress. We all are. And although I know this to be true, it’s always nice to have a reminder. So this is your reminder, that it is ok not to have everything figured out. It is ok to go back and forth in your mind, about whether time in quarantine should be productive or not. And it is most certainly ok to have the highest expectations for yourself, only to be disappointed when it doesn’t work out as you had hoped. This is something so many of us are dealing with at the moment, and it really goes to show how anxious our society makes us.
Who could have predicted that this culture of ‘always-on’ would make us so crazy? It’s easy to see in hindsight, but harder to change now that we’re in the thick of it.
Children in the US and UK are more likely to dream of being famous YouTuber stars when they grow up, instead of firefighters or astronaut. People are becoming commodities, selling their personalities on Instagram and Twitch. When it comes to popular culture, the middle-men film studios, publishing houses and other conventional content producers are getting cut out, in favour of going directly to the source. These phenomena are only being sped up by the Coronavirus pandemic, with people and businesses pushed to find creative new ways of reaching their audiences.
This past week, AMC Theaters announced it would no longer screen Universal films after Troll World Tour had immense success streaming direct to consumer. This will undoubtedly be a huge loss for AMC, as in a time like this they need film studios more than film studios need them. It is yet another example of traditional institutions failing to adapt to new ways of doing business. What has been happening with big retailers and cable, is now happening with content and media overall. People have realised they can have just as much success self-publishing their own books, writing their own newsletters, and filming their own videos, than they could by working with more traditional content houses.
Whether we accept it or not, these new ways of creating content are coming, and there is no stopping them. Change is a good thing in the long term, and we are due for a new way of life. Coronavirus is only acting as a catalyst to speed all this up, so that a decade from now all of us are likely to be working in more entrepreneurial ways, acting as our own brands, with some form of a digital presence and online audience. The expectation in this new society will be that if you don’t exist online with a voice on a particular topic, then you may not be worth working with at all, as it will be much harder to prove your value-add to potential projects and jobs if you can’t bring the strength of your own network to the table.
At what cost do these changes come to us? What new expectations do they create for our society, and how will we need to change our ways of working in order to not perpetuate more anxiety and mental health problems, as is often the case when the person becomes the brand commodity?
I acknowledge this is a very negative way of looking at things, and none of this is for certain. This is only my opinion of how the trends we are seeing today, are going to accelerate in the future and ultimately end up changing how we live, work, and present ourselves, both in person and digitally.
If we were to look at these changes in a more positive way, one could argue that by building an online following, being our own brands and cutting out middle-men organizations, we will have much more ownership, flexibility and freedom over how we spend our time, how we find work, and how we make a living. Particularly for more creative-leaning people, the ability to make your own art and not have to jump through dozens of hoops to get it out in the world, is a good thing.
In the future, everything we produce will be democratized, and our work will no longer be restricted by geography or time. Yet this doesn’t mean that everyone will have equal opportunities of success. With any form of capitalism, some inequalities are bound to linger. What is does mean, however, is that the onus to be successful will be placed on the individual, more so than we have seen in the past. If the fabric of our social support systems doesn’t change alongside these new economies and ways of working, things like burnout, lack of work-life balance, and resulting mental health issues will only be further accelerated.
Another point worth making is that this doesn’t mean traditional companies will no longer exist in the future. I suspect the way they employ people will be very different from what we know today. Perhaps organisations will have a smaller group of core employees, with a majority of contractors and freelancers that are able to select their own projects and work for multiple companies throughout the year, or at the same time. Again, this is positive in that it gives people more choice with where they want to work, allows them to have a bigger network of opportunities, and potentially frees them up to spend more time and energy on work that fulfils them. Likewise, it allows companies to have lower overhead costs and be quick to react to new business opportunities and challenges. Yet in order for this new reality to be successful, we will need new ways of supporting these kinds of working relationships. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, we need to have a plan in place and can’t leave it to chance and panic bailouts when things don’t go as planned.
Fundamentally, the world is always changing and history has proven again and again that there is no point in trying to stop it. Society needs to evolve; it is the way things have always worked. So in order to ensure these changes are positive and make our lives better, we need to be aware of the knock-on effects they will have on other parts of our life, so we can adapt with them.
If the way we work is changing, then the way we support each other must change alongside it. Fifty years ago governments offered much more social support to people than today. Increasingly, the responsibility for these forms of support have been placed on private companies, which are now expected to take care of their employees through pensions and other perks. If in the future these traditional employer-employee relationships change and more people becoming self-employed content creators of some form or another, then how will we ensure people have a cushion to fall back on if things go sideways, like they have with Coronavirus? Maybe it will be time for governments to step back in and look after their citizens. Maybe the big tech giants will end up taking care of us. Maybe we will find a whole new way to support society, and it will open up whole new industries, opportunities and innovation. More likely it will be a combination of multiple ideas. I don’t have the answer, and all three of these examples have clear upsides and downfalls that we would need to consider. So let’s take this opportunity to start a discussion about how we will support one another in the most basic sense, now that our traditional ways of working and our desires for the kind of work we want to do, are changing.
I don’t know what the new normal will be after this pandemic, no one does. Yet what I do know is that this is the perfect time to reset, re-focus on you, and have a think about how you show up to the world in a way that feels true to you.
That is not something to be rushed.