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This is the Time to Start a Project — Or Take a Break

The idea that because you suddenly have more time to spare, you should be using it to further a side hustle or develop a hobby is false -- if only because it doesn’t take into account the stressful reason behind all of that “free” time.

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If you’ve scrolled through Facebook or Twitter at all in the last several months, you’ve probably been privy to one of the most controversial motivational posts of the year. First written at the start of America’s mass quarantine, it reads: “If you don’t come out of this quarantine with 1) a new skill, 2) your side hustle started, or 3) more knowledge – you never lacked time. You lacked discipline.”

The message is caustic, and it’s meant to be. #HustleCulture posts like these use shame as a tool to — in a best-case scenario — spark motivation and prompt productivity. It makes those of us who haven’t structured our forced isolation around a new project or goal reflect on our apparent inaction. The social media jab hurts because it feels true. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to step away from the demands of our usual daily routines. Shouldn’t we try to create something positive out of the time we unexpectedly have at hand? Or is the caustic judgment implied in messages like the above inappropriate, even cruel, in a pandemic crisis?

The answer is complicated. 

Since the close of February, the coronavirus has prompted stay-at-home orders to extend nationwide. At their most expansive point, these restrictions compelled over 316 million people across the country to stay home and observe social distancing guidelines. These restrictions closed offices, shuttered town centers, and asked residents to limit their contact with those outside of their household as much as possible. 

Now, several states have begun to restart their economies to some extent — but many are still in a cautious lockdown at home. According to a recent study conducted jointly by CNBC and Change Research, 42 percent of respondents nationwide say that they are working from home — an astronomical leap from the 9 percent reported before the pandemic. Fourteen percent of those surveyed claim that they are working remotely more than before; 19 percent are doing so for the first time. 

These numbers imply a significant amount of saved time per person. Consider the lack of commute alone. Recent reports put the average American’s commute at a half-hour one-way; in my home of NYC, that time rises to 37 minutes per trip. That might not seem like all that much, but as one writer for Business Insider calculates, “A half-hour commute adds up to 125 hours spent commuting every year (using a 50-week, five-day schedule as the baseline).”

These substantial time savings aren’t inclusive of the other closures that add free hours to our schedules. People in isolation aren’t going out on weekend excursions, taking in a movie, or visiting the gym. They have more time at home — and the freedom, it would seem, to pursue a project. 

But the idea that because you suddenly have more time to spare, you should be using it to further a side hustle or develop a hobby is false — if only because it doesn’t take into account the stressful reason behind all of that “free” time. 

At the risk of stating the obvious: a pandemic isn’t a summer break, and quarantine isn’t a carefree work-from-home period. People are anxious and uncertain, worried about their jobs, health, and future. Many don’t have the energy to spare on a side hustle, because they’ve spent it all trying to keep themselves afloat. 

“As a trauma psychologist, I am utterly horrified, enraged, and bewildered about how people can believe and spread this phrase in good conscience,” Alaa Hijazi blasted in response to the viral work-shaming post. “We are going through a collective trauma, that is bringing up profound grief, loss, panic over livelihoods, panic over loss of lives of loved ones. People’s nervous systems are barely coping with the sense of threat and vigilance for safety, or alternating with feeling numb and frozen and shutting down in response to it all.”

She has a point. Right now, millions of Americans are facing economic stress and uncertainty. As of mid-May, the national unemployment rate stood at 14.7 percent, the highest since the Great Depression. Countless people — even those with jobs — are scrambling to prepare for the worst and weather the economic uncertainty. 

This stress has, as Dr. Hijazi alluded, a significant impact on mental health. In 2017, a study published in Materia Sociomedica found that job loss was a significant predictor of impaired mental health. This conclusion is somewhat intuitive. But it is worth keeping in mind that a person doesn’t need to lose their job to be impacted by economic uncertainty. Another study circulated in a 2018 issue of SSM Population Health found that “a key feature of economic insecurity is that the negative effects on mental health are experienced equally throughout the income distribution and may be experienced without any objective event occurring.”

In other words, those from every income bracket and all employment statuses can suffer the mental health consequences imposed by adverse economic conditions. Ergo, even if you have a relatively secure job, work from home, and have an extra hour or three to spare because you aren’t commuting, there is a fair chance that you won’t have the energy or capacity to pursue an additional project. This energy cost goes double for someone who is already unemployed. How can we be so callous as to demand that someone who is facing the weight of financial hardship and struggling to stay afloat fill up their hours with a project — and then scold them for not doing enough? At best, it’s a thoughtless sentiment. At worse, it’s downright cruel. 

As Dr. Hijazi concludes in her post, “What we need is more self-compassion, more gentle acceptance of all the difficult emotions coming up for us now, more focus on gentle ways to soothe ourselves and our pain and the pain of loved ones around us, not a whipping by some random [person] making us feel worse about ourselves in the name of ‘motivation.’” 

Be kind to yourself. While this period might be, for those who feel comfortable and secure in their quarantined lives, the time to start a project, it doesn’t need to be. It can also serve as a time to step back and allow yourself to process the events of the last several weeks. Don’t feel shamed into taking on more work because you feel as though you should. If you have the time and interest in starting something, do so! But if you need to take care of yourself, do that instead. Don’t let viral shame-messaging compel you into taking on a project that will push you towards burnout at a time when you need your energy the most. 

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