“The past two years have pretty much been a write-off,” a friend said over Zoom, defeated and bored. Followed by: “I’ve been so unproductive.” It feels like the two staples of 2020 and 2021 are Covid-19-related productivity anxiety and Zoom.
Everywhere, research about unproductivity has been cropping up as employers languish over the prospect of allowing their workers to work from home. Allegedly people will spend all day on Animal Crossing, forgetting that we need to work to eat in this hellscape.
But it is not just the research. Friends and family have been reaching out, trading stories about the nothing we are doing all day, nothing we are seeing, and the nowhere we are going.
I used to crave lazy nights on the couch with a shitty B-movie and a joint, passing the night away. Now, every day kind of feels like that. Coupled with COVID-19 productivity anxiety, it has me thinking that maybe I shouldn’t feel so good about it anymore.
But as I listened to my friend talk about the so-called zombied state many of us have been in since the start of the pandemic, I started to think about the intersections shared by productivity culture, the Covid fear of missing out and the pothead ethos of just slacking off, man.
Covid 19 and productivity anxiety
Since employers first realized their workers had lives and could go home and smoke up, the media has been rife with derisive reports about the slacker stoner. In counterculture movies, however, these representations were more comedic. Although there was sometimes an underlying sense that these people are not who we should strive to be. Of course, we now know that much of the media correlation between weed and laziness was a smear campaign. Even then, many stoners actually embraced the slacker image.
The thing is, slacking off is a pretty radical act in the culture of immediacy. And the flaws of that culture have only been made more apparent with the arrival of Covid.
Overworking, getting multiple jobs to get by, doing overtime, doing overtime without pay, hustling day in and out, only feeling like we are worth something if we hit arbitrary milestones in our lives — these are all part of productivity culture. They have all been glamourized and encouraged to the detriment of the worker’s physical and mental health.
Covid and Lost Time
When Covid erupted across the globe, pandemic-specific productivity anxieties came to the forefront. For the first time, it shed an unflattering light on the problematic productivity and work culture steeping in us. Workers had little guidance on navigating the upending of their lives and this novel problem of lost time.
There are three main productivity-related issues at hand:
- Anxiety over unproductivity: I’ve not been accomplishing much, and that is going to come back and bite me in the ass
- Guilt over perceived laziness: I must not be accomplishing much because I am so lazy
- Angst over lost time: I could have done this thing this year, but I couldn’t because of COVID, which means I may not be able to do it ever
This toxic combination of bad feelings has naturally resulted in skyrocketing rates of mental health issues.
Virtually every worker experienced an unprecedented and jarring disruption to their routine. As my friend said, two years is a write-off. But I couldn’t accept that. Two whole years — that’s 731 days or 17,544 hours. Could all of it amount to nothing?
When I used to zone out on lazy nights, joint in hand and giggling at the TV with a buzz in my ears, was that a write-off?
Is time only worth spending if doing something deemed “productive”?
So what do we do to deal with the anxiety? Experts have recommended everything from reducing social media use to creating a new routine. These are all helpful suggestions that could work for most people. However, I find critiques of the underlying issue sorely lacking in mainstream coverage.
Now, this is where I think we can take a well-smoked leaf out of the stoner handbook.
What does it mean to slack off?
I first got into slacker movies in university. At the time, I was juggling studies, part-time work and heavy involvement with extracurriculars. All of this was part of some vain effort to live up to unspoken expectations on productivity.
From Pineapple Express to The Big Lebowski, I sought catharsis from the various slacker leads. The latter, in particular, made a significant impression. As I watched the movie, I found myself envious of The Dude’s outlook on life, especially his bowling analogies about the nature of life, like “strikes and gutters, ups and downs.” But one quote, in particular, stuck with me: “I can’t be worrying about that shit. Life goes on, man.”
The movie didn’t change my life or anything, but I do often think about it whenever the issue of productivity messes with my happiness.
Conventional attitudes would have us believe that slacking off means being less committed to work and that that is a bad thing. Well, you know, that’s just like, your opinion, man.
The term “slacker” actually dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries, gaining prominence when Sudanese labourers “slacked off”, AKA worked super slowly and without energy, as a way to protest against the British for their ill-treatment.
In an age where hyper-efficiency and maxed-out productivity is a constant expectation, slacking off might be the smart and moral thing to do.
Taking back time
Around the world, increasingly absurd work requirements, low wages and abusive superiors have people taking to the ethos of the slacker. Now, potheads, long vilified for their lack of work ethic, can finally be vindicated.
Indeed, the Covid era has seen the rise of the antiwork movement, reflecting increasing worker frustration greatly exacerbated by the unsustainable work situations many found themselves in due to the pandemic.
All this is just to say, next time you feel the unproductivity anxiety coming on, yes, take some time for self-care and tuning out from the noise of the world. After all, psychiatrists recommend taking a step back and having downtime as key in combatting Covid productivity anxiety. Experts stress that now really is not the time to be worrying about that promotion. But also, it’s important to question why you even need to feel bad in the first place. We are in the middle of an ongoing global pandemic. Lives are lost and on the line. Cut yourself some slack.
In the 90s and 00s, the term “slacker” took off, partially thanks to a slew of films dealing with the subject of slacking off. It is no coincidence that this period coincides with the release of some of stoner culture’s most iconic films.
Richard Linklater directed one such film, the appropriately titled Slacker (1990). He had this to say about slacking off:
I’d like to change [the definition of a slacker] to somebody who’s not doing what’s expected of them. Somebody who’s trying to live an interesting life, doing what they want to do, and if that takes time to find, so be it.
Richard Linklater, Mondo 2000 (9)