Written by Maha Ashraf. Edited by Ehsas Kakkar and Nicole Guan.
Artwork by Blossom Neo.
It was a school night on an insignificant March day when we received the email: ‘Due to the new coronavirus pandemic, your child will have two weeks off of school to quarantine.’ Instantaneously, my heart soared. The final year of school is never easy: each day brought more due dates, stress, and the relentless anxiety of performance. I was ecstatic, to say the least, to be at home and to finally, finally, have the time to recharge and lift the weight of expectation off my shoulders. I was adamant that I’d have a fresh start when I came back. But more importantly, I was excited to be able to relax and temporarily remove myself from an environment that I had believed was toxic.
Needless to say, that’s not how it went.
Two weeks turned into a month, two months became three, and as the days went by, my short-lived happiness turned into deep despair. We were regressing into our homes, yet reality seemed to continue and charge at us with full force. My due dates persisted, my exams were still encroaching, and the pandemic raged on, rendering this year a disaster. To make matters worse, the new reality of online school left me and many other students around the world utterly clueless. All expectations, ideas and hopes for the forthcoming year had been decimated within two weeks.
In spending so much time with just me, myself, and my computer, I pondered how I was actually going to come out of this year with results I could be proud of. I had never learned to use these online resources before, and the face of education had changed for the foreseeable future. I resorted to ‘studytube’ channels and stoic cynicism that didn’t leave me for much of the first quarantine lockdown period. During the second wave that my country weathered, I fell into a vicious cycle of trying to adapt to my surroundings yet becoming resentful of those who seamlessly transitioned into this foreign reality.
With restrictions having been lifted recently as well as my exam season coming to a close, I decided to look back to when my productivity seemingly vanished that fateful March night and all the times I have been vicious and harsh to myself since then. I quickly realised that my unrealistic expectations had taken a toll on not only my school work and performance but on my mental health as well. For days and weeks at a time, I would spiral into a cycle of glamorising these people as masterminds of productivity who breathed, slept, and ate success for all their followers to see. I, on the other hand, could barely complete a Chloe Ting workout without giving up halfway. This would transform into an unwillingness to even attempt to study, and school became a burden I couldn’t face in my physical isolation.
After months, I began to recognise that this culture of productivity became destructive. Beginning as inspiration, my views on self-worth as a student and learner took a turn for the worse. I measured myself through ticks on my to-do list and the hours I would spend at my desk. However, these toxic thoughts weren’t new. They’ve only been exacerbated in these ‘unprecedented times’ and become more profound. Pre-COVID, the rise of studytubers’ endless energy for productivity and the idealistic routines of successful and intelligent individuals online were my inspiration. They changed how I viewed my productivity.
From pre-COVID to the present day, my ideas surrounding productivity have changed completely.
It’s one thing to recognise how a mindset can affect you, but what do you do about it? After some self-reflection, successes, and failures, I’ve concluded that productivity is not about perfection. A ‘good’ day cannot entirely consist of how much exam material you memorised or assignments you completed, and a ‘bad’ day should not be defined as the lack of to-do items ticked off a list. Your day should not wholly be equated to the tangible things you’ve completed. Instead, viewing days as opportunities to do your best, rather than being filled with often unrealistic expectations of yourself, will result in a newfound appreciation for yourself. We aren’t nearly as kind to ourselves as we should be.
Productivity for an exhausted high school student on the brink of graduation is the brief bursts of motivation I get to cram and study for tests and assessments. Completing and enduring the International Baccalaureate has taught me a lot about the notion of productivity and the misconceptions that are often synonymous with it. Productivity isn’t always continuous motivation and uninterrupted perfection. To me, it purely consists solely of using your time wisely. It’s choosing to complete that assignment instead of scrolling on TikTok, but also, it’s taking time off for mental health instead of pushing yourself too hard. It’s pushing your limits but not splintering them entirely. And for me, it was choosing myself and my mental health over everything else. Whether it was a grade or a result, I knew that as long as I looked out for myself first, I would change for the better.