A lesson on embracing the “unprecious” and letting go of quarantine guilt

Recently, I watched an architectural show where one of the hosts used the term “unprecious” to describe a house that was first and foremost incredibly functional. I was struck by the word unprecious, especially in these current times.

When quarantine first began, I noticed a push in social media circles to be productive, to do all the things I never had time for in the course of “ordinary” life. We were told to use this extraordinary time wisely. But perhaps the true challenge of quarantine and beyond is letting our time be “unprecious.” Rather than treating every moment as something we have to maximize, we can embrace the unpreciousness of our time by letting ourselves use it in ways that are functional, even if we’re not getting to everything (or anything) on our to-do lists. And what’s functional looks different for every person. For some of us that has meant ordering take-out almost every night of the week because we’re now homeschooling. For others, it’s meant giving up on house cleaning because we’re busy job searching or working longer hours than ever.

While quarantine has allowed some of us a slower pace of life, that was (and is) not the case for many others. Viewing quarantine as a precious time we may never see the likes of again romanticizes the experience. Perhaps quarantine has allowed some of us to rediscover old hobbies, to reflect on the places and ways we work best, and to discern what matters to us most. If this is you, I’m so glad. But perhaps it’s been a nightmare of worries about family, finances, and the future. If this is you, I empathize and thank you for your persistence.

Though the end of this quarantine is arguably in sight, below are a few tips for embracing the unprecious as we face the transitions of these next few months.

01. Take your emotional temperature.

No matter how you’ve lived your quarantine, unexpected change can cause emotional turmoil. And now there’s the added stress of the increasingly louder and conflicting voices of those who want stay-at-home orders to be lifted sooner than later and those who want to err on the side of caution and see a slower return to business as usual. An April 2020 article from The New England Journal of Medicine lists some emotional effects of quarantine on mental health (based on past quarantine cases): “stress, depression, irritability, insomnia, fear, confusion, anger, frustration, boredom, and stigma.” The article also suggests that the differences between states in ending stay-at-home orders “will most likely intensify distress.”

It’s important to take stock of how we’re feeling during this time. To be honest, there have been times where I’ve turned on Netflix to distract myself from my feelings during this quarantine. And sometimes, that’s been the best way to spend my time. But it’s also good to get a real read on how we’re doing by taking a walk, talking with a close friend or a therapist, journaling, or taking a few minutes for silence. And then, we can better embrace the unpreciousness of the present moment. For example, it’s become really difficult for me to even think of going to the grocery store in recent weeks. So instead of forcing myself to go, I am trying to take stock of how I feel—am I extremely tired from another long work week? Am I nervous about navigating the store? Am I struggling with other worries and fears alongside this one? The next question is, do I even need to go today, or am I expecting myself to go because this was my pre-quarantine routine? Huge during this time is giving myself and others grace—empathetic understanding that we all work through difficult things in our own ways. What’s functional for me is not necessarily functional for others.

02. Redefine “productive.”

We’re enmeshed in a culture that has habitually defined “productivity” with how much we can accomplish in a day, and has shamelessly attached our worth to this definition. A quick Google search of “productivity and quarantine” reveals many articles on ways to stay productive when working from home, but to my delight, there are also a few articles that say we don’t need to be productive, at least in the way that productive has traditionally been defined. One USA Today article begins, “It’s OK to be tired right now. We promise.” In an early response to COVID productivity, a New York Times article entitled “Stop Trying to Be Productive” says that “staying inside and attending to basic needs is plenty” when it comes to what a person is “accomplishing” each day.

Questions about how life will be different in a post-COVID society are now beginning to circulate, and though many news outlets, pundits, and policy makers have described for us what they think life should like after quarantine in broad strokes, chances are that things will look different for individuals. My hope is that our idea of time becomes a bit more unprecious—that we will slowly begin to see breaks, rest, and leisure as a normal part of life and don’t pressure ourselves to make every moment “profitable.” And just as we’ve begun to see renewed value placed on the jobs of essential workers during this time, my hope is that that we also begin to better see the value of other groups, especially our most vulnerable, to see that the poor, the elderly, and the sick are just as important as those who in the eyes of the world accomplish many things.

03. Allow yourself to return to “normal” at your own pace.

I cringe a bit at the word “normal” these days, as we can’t completely return to what life was like before this virus. However, as businesses reopen, stay-at-home orders are lifted, and life begins to take on its old responsibilities, I hope our return to aspects of our old lives can be unprecious, and that we each feel there’s no rush to return to everything that was on our plates before. A friend and I have had a couple conversations about our differing comfort levels in returning to group functions we were once a part of. I’m none too eager to fill up my social calendar or to say “yes” to plans as easily as I did before.

It’s important to realize that this quarantine’s effects on our habits have taken hold and that it will take many of us a few months to readjust to the return of things we did so easily in the past. Some people may never feel completely comfortable in large crowds or dining out, and I hope that we respect these feelings in those around us. Just as individual states vary on when they lift their stay-at-home orders, people will vary in their responses to life after COVID. There’s no timeline, and for many of us, there will be a lot of emotions to sort through as we begin this reintegration process.

Whether you’ve viewed COVID and the response to it as full of hidden blessings or an unmitigated curse, it’s important that we do not pressurize this time for ourselves or for others. Let the time be unprecious. Let it serve you. There is no “doing the quarantine right.” If making sourdough bread during this time has brought you joy, awesome. If taking a bath after a grueling day at work has added a little calm to your evening routine, wonderful! Our lives, like a house built to fit the way we live, are meant to support our living. My point is simply this: however you fit the quarantine to your needs was (or is) time well spent. Your life is for you, not for society’s limited definition of productivity.