On March 13, writer and musician Rosanne Cash tweeted: “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.” The tweet garnered more than 51,000 retweets, 250,000 likes, and 3,000 replies, and launched an online discourse about just how productive we should be amid the “shelter in place” and social distancing COVID-19 has brought. Hours after Cash’s tweet went viral, Tim O’Brien, a former senior advisor for Michael Bloomberg’s 2020 campaign, tweeted, “If social distancing has you down, just remember that Shakespeare most likely wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra, during a plague-inspired quarantine between early 1605 and late 1606;” he also included a link to a Slate article titled “The Infectious Pestilence Did Reign,” an adapted excerpt from Ben Cohen’s book, The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks. “The plague was also Shakespeare’s secret weapon,” Cohen wrote. “He didn’t ignore it. He took advantage of it.”
Some of this can be attributed to an anxious desire for normalcy. Many of us are asking ourselves and our families: What if this never ends? What if life never gets back to normal? There are some resources to help calm the panic that might be leading to the above-mentioned tweets: Shine, an app that promotes itself as “the self-care community for all of us,” has partnered with Mental Health America to create a website that offers “free resources to help you manage any anxiety you might be feeling about the coronavirus.” The New York Times is offering a guide to taking a “brain break.” Anna Borges, author of The More or Less Definitive Guide to Self-Care, also compiled a list of ways to manage COVID-19 anxiety for SELF. Though these tweets don’t outright tell Twitter users to stop being lazy and use this current slow down to get work done, the amount of King Lear references definitely imply we should have the work ethic of Shakespeare.
As Tim Marcin wrote in a recent article for Mashable, “if you find some time to be productive, that’s awesome! Just don’t compare yourself to Shakespeare.” Beyond these needless comparisons to one of history’s most beloved playwrights, pushing hustle culture—offering tips for doing more work remotely and telling recently laid-off employees how to leverage their newfound time off—only serves to illustrate the bizarre ways those of us who are not millionaires and billionaires are encouraged to sacrifice our health for a dollar. We need sick time to truly recover from the physical, emotional, and mental toll that COVID-19 is wreaking on all of us, not to finally write that book proposal or kick off that side gig. But apparently, doing nothing is not encouraged—even during an international pandemic.
Jenny Odell’s 2019 book, How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, seems perfect for this time since it essentially posits that—thanks to capitalism, the cultural expectation that we’re productive 24/7, and the seemingly endless number of apps on which to waste our time—many people have become bad at simply doing nothing. “In a situation where every waking moment has become the time in which we make our living, and when we submit even our leisure for numerical evaluation via likes on Facebook and Instagram, constantly checking on its performance like one checks a stock, monitoring the ongoing development of our personal brand, time becomes an economic resource that we can no longer justify spending on ‘nothing,’” Odell writes in the book.
“How to Do Nothing isn’t a book about being comfortable with absolute nothingness; rather, it’s about how divesting your attention from the ever-growing list of things that demand it can be the most radical form of resistance,” wrote Izzie Ramirez in a 2019 review of the book for this site. “Odell, an artist and writer from Silicon Valley, argues that our attention has become a commodity within our capitalist society, something that she argues is ultimately harmful to our well-being,” wrote Ramirez. “Even in the moments where we need [to pause] most, we are encouraged to turn our attention to doing something else instead of addressing our needs.” Though many of us understand that time is money, it can feel nearly impossible to slow down and do nothing. It feels even more difficult to follow Odell’s suggestion when social media has become ground zero for peddling hustle culture or the demand that we should all eat, sleep, and breathe work.
“If you’ve fallen prey to the hustle culture, you have bought into the idea that it’s cool to be ‘always-on’ and to push yourself to the max each of the 1,440 minutes of the day,” wrote Dr. Bryan E. Robinson, PhD in a 2019 Psychology Today article. “You boast about no breaks. No leisure. No weekends off. No vacations.” Having a full-time job isn’t enough when everyone has multiple streams of revenue. In hustle culture, passions and hobbies should be profitable, otherwise, what’s the use? And most important, everyone on social media should know how hard you’re hustling. Tweet about those sleepless nights. Answer emails on the weekends. Never turn off Slack notifications.
Hustle culture is a grift that will ultimately wear us all down in the name of capitalism.
“I saw the greatest minds of my generation log 18-hour days—and then boast about #hustle on Instagram,” wrote Erin Griffith in a 2019 article for the New York Times. “When did performative workaholism become a lifestyle?” Even worse, performative workaholism has become nearly impossible to escape online because every moment is photographed and then shared in order to showcase just how hard someone’s working—and how virtuous their work ethic is.
In the 11 months since Odell published How to Do Nothing, hustle culture has become even more ingrained—even rearing its ugly head during a literal pandemic. It’s not enough that service workers are frozen with fear at the thought of businesses shutting down or that nurses, doctors, and other care workers are incapable of self-quarantining; we have to work even harder amid the whole world shutting down. Hustle culture is a grift that will ultimately wear us all down in the name of capitalism. “It’s not difficult to view hustle culture as a swindle,” Griffith wrote. “ After all, convincing a generation of workers to beaver away is convenient for those at the top.” We’re all getting swindled and we’re swindling others by telling them it’s possible to become the next Shakespeare in a time of crisis.
While a tweet about productivity might seem like a glimmer of hope in dire times, there’s also a denial about what’s happening right now. It’s not fear-mongering to say that if we don’t contain Coronavirus, or the resulting COVID-19, we will all be in dire straits, or that if we don’t do anything about it, our hard work and business success won’t matter. But it won’t, giving us less reason to pretend to like it—let alone tweet about it. These trying, stressful, and dangerous times demand that we put aside our cultural workaholism (and our desire to proudly tweet about it) prioritize our health, and just do nothing.