The psychology-backed reason you don’t feel productive in isolation even though you have a routine

If you’ve stuck to a pretty good schedule while in social isolation and still find that feeling of content productivity elusive, there’s a reason why, according to psychologists.

While no one should feel pressured to be at their utmost productive right now, if you’re like me and like to checkboxes to feel comfort, you might be struggling to reach the good emotions associated with achieving goals and tasks. That’s large because we’re achieving most things in place, according to the self-complexity theory, which was referenced in BBC‘s conversation with Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead.

The self-complexity theory says that we all have multiple aspects to our self-representation, or how we view ourselves in our minds. Those aspects include context-dependent social roles, activities, goals and relationships. Variety is healthy, according to Petriglieri. It helps us feel like “ourselves” and like active players in the different spheres of our lives. And limiting the complexity of our self-representation by taking away our contexts and relationships can be devastating to our self-representation and self-esteem, even if our goals and activities are completed.

For example, even if you have done yoga every day since being in quarantine, doing yoga in your living room — where you are also doing, say, professional work and maybe where you’re being a mom or a wife or a roommate — removes the context of your yoga studio or gym, where you switch “on” to be a yoga student and imagine yourself as one. Removing your yoga teacher and fellow students from the picture ruptures those relationships that provide context to your experience, diminishing your view of yourself as a yoga student even further. So, even if you’re getting the yoga done and reaping the physical and mindfulness benefits, you may not feel as accomplished at the end of class. Now, apply that to everything you’re used to doing outside of the home that you’re now doing in your personal space. Then, imagine how graduates — who are used to the context of a stage surrounded by their peers to process their accomplishment — feel!

Basically, our self-representations have been flattened during social isolation, which can lead to “more extreme… swings in effect and self-appraisal,” according to research done in Social Cognition. We may experience more negative feelings and more significant drops in self-esteem, even if we’re completing our goals.

This isn’t to say our routines are a moot point. Many experts have pointed to the ability of routines to structure our days and give us feelings of meaning, especially when we complete tasks that we can reap the physical or mental benefits of, like meditating or learning something new. Some tasks we’re very used to doing from home or outside, like running or doing the dishes, so we can find extra comfort there.

But, if you’re feeling like a lousy friend or colleague or yoga student, or if you aren’t getting the same high from giving a presentation or attending a networking event, this may explain why. Also, it’s worth mentioning we’re living during an incredibly stressful global event — that can kill the feelings of positivity that come from an accomplishment, too.

Remember to be gentle with yourself. Try asking for recognition for the things you’ve accomplished. And, if possible, add some variety to where you’re living your life. Even doing HIIT outside instead of in your bedroom may help it feel like a newly accomplished goal.

A version of this post previously appeared on Fairygodboss, the largest career community that helps women get the inside scoop on pay, corporate culture, benefits, and work flexibility. Founded in 2015, Fairygodboss offers company ratings, job listings, discussion boards, and career advice.