The Coronavirus Outbreak


The internet wants you to believe you aren’t doing enough with all that “extra time” you have now. But staying inside and attending to basic needs is plenty.

Credit...Raz Latif
Taylor Lorenz

When Dave Kyu, 34, an arts administrator in Philadelphia, realized that he would be working from home for the foreseeable future, he began to fantasize about the projects he could now complete around the house.

“We went and bought all this paint and cabinet hardware and thought we were going to do the kitchen cabinet project we had wanted to do forever,” he said. Two weeks later, he and his wife haven’t touched their supplies. They have two children and demanding jobs. There’s no extra time.

“We realize now it was a silly thought,” Mr. Kyu said. “It’s a lot more stressful than I expected.”

As the coronavirus outbreak has brought life largely indoors, many people are feeling pressure to organize every room in their homes, become expert home chefs (or bakers), write the next “King Lear” and get in shape. The internet — with its constant stream of how-to headlines and viral challenges — has only reinforced the demand to get things done.

“It’s everywhere,” said Julie Ulstrup, 57, a photographer in Colorado. “It’s in blog posts, it’s on social media, it’s in emails I get from people like, ‘use this time productively!’ As if I usually don’t.”

But in the midst of a global pandemic that has upended nearly every facet of modern life, people are finding it harder and harder to get things done.

“It’s tough enough to be productive in the best of times let alone when we’re in a global crisis,” said Chris Bailey, a productivity consultant and the author of “Hyperfocus: How to Manage Your Attention in a World of Distraction.” “The idea that we have so much time available during the day now is fantastic, but these days it’s the opposite of a luxury. We’re home because we have to be home, and we have much less attention because we’re living through so much.”

After her office announced that it would be going remote, Sara Johnson, 30, who works in philanthropy, created a detailed schedule of all the things she’d do with the extra three hours a day that she would no longer spending commuting. “I sat down last weekend and just felt like I hadn’t been maximizing this time that I have that I don’t usually have on my hands,” she said.

“I set an hour on my call every day for a home workout. Then I’d be on calls for three hours, then I’d make a homemade breakfast, take a walk at lunchtime, work on something non-screen-related in the evening, cook dinner and go on a run,” she said. So far, she admitted, “none of this has stuck.”

This urge to overachieve, even in times of global crisis, is reflective of America’s always-on work culture. In a recent article for The New Republic, the journalist Nick Martin writes that “this mind-set is the natural endpoint of America’s hustle culture — the idea that every nanosecond of our lives must be commodified and pointed toward profit and self-improvement.” Drew Millard put it more directly in an essay for The Outline: If you are lucky enough to be employed, the only person who cares what you’re doing right now is your boss.

Anne Helen Petersen, a journalist and the author of the forthcoming book “Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” seconded his assertion. “We’re so used to making every moment of ours productive in some capacity,” she said. “Like, I’m on a walk, I should listen to this information podcast that makes me more informed or a better person.”

Dr. Petersen said that the impulse to optimize every minute is especially common in millennials, many of whom are now balancing work and child care at home. “I think for millennials, our brains are particularly broken in terms of productivity,” she said. “Either you give up or feel bad about it all the time.”

Maggie Schuman, 32, is facing that very quandary now that her family is taking part in a Peloton challenge through the workout platform’s app.

“Every day everyone sends around a green check mark, and for some reason, now that I have that in my head of this thing I’m supposed to be doing, I’m not doing it,” Ms. Schuman, a product specialist in California, said. “I feel a bit like a failure.” She also ignored her sister when she tagged her in a push-up challenge on Instagram.

Instead, Ms. Schuman has started a gratitude journal and is working on practicing acceptance. “You’re supposed to be inventing something or coming up with the next big business idea or doing something great that’s going to be worthy of time spent at home,” she said. “I’m trying to be more OK with just being.”

Noelle Kelso, 38, a scientific consultant in Georgia, said that she’s “trying to find productivity in the small moments” but that the recent events have given her perspective.

“For a lot of Americans, everyone’s job is at stake right now whether you thought you were upper middle class, middle or working class, everyone’s livelihood is at stake,” she said. Right now she is focusing on not allowing her mind to “drift to a place of fear, concern, panic or stress,” she said, and instead encouraging herself to “keep the faith and remain grateful.”

“Putting all this pressure and stress on myself, it’s incredibly counterproductive,” said Ms. Ulstrup. “I’m putting stress on myself during a time that’s already stressful.”

Adam Hasham, 40, a product manager in Washington, said that it’s only a matter of time before more people realize that self-optimization in this time is futile. “I stopped seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said, adding that his optimism about the situation had “gone out the window.”

“It’s like you’re underwater,” Mr. Hasham said.

Dr. Petersen said having compassion during these times is key. “I think that everyone is coping with this differently, and there’s a real tendency to shame people who aren’t coping with it the way you are or have different circumstances,” she said.

Finding small pleasures helps, too. Mr. Bailey offered one suggestion: “Get yourself some Indian food and drink a bottle of wine with your spouse. We’re going through a lot and we all just need to take it easy.”

  • Updated March 24, 2020

    • It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.

    • Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.

    • If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.

    • Experts are divided on how much protection a regular surgical mask, or even a scarf, can provide for people who aren’t yet sick. The W.H.O. and C.D.C. say that unless you’re already sick, or caring for someone who is, wearing a face mask isn’t necessary. And stockpiling high-grade N95 masks will make it harder for nurses and other workers to access the resources they need. But researchers are also finding that there are more cases of asymptomatic transmission than were known early on in the pandemic. And a few experts say that masks could offer some protection in crowded places where it is not possible to stay 6 feet away from other people. Masks don’t replace hand-washing and social distancing.

    • Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.

    • That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.