Productivity seems to be society’s obsession. Whilst a strong work ethic is a desirable quality, a fixation with it can lead to a mindset that is dangerous and harmful to our wellbeing. Perhaps we are left with a feeling of guilt no matter how much work we get done, or perhaps we become so overwhelmed with these thoughts that we are unable to work at all. Productivity is a spectrum, and ‘toxic productivity’ actually lies at both ends; mental health nurse Emma Selby defines the term as ‘an obsession with radical self-improvement over all else’, a goal which is ultimately unachievable.
But what has led to this worrying preoccupation with work rate? As well as the modern pressures of social media, we live in a ‘hustle culture’ where so-called workaholics are idolised and motivational quotes are more stress-inducing than encouraging. We are drawn in by the imaginary ideals of meritocracy and the promise that hard work can make any dream come true, therefore we glamourise and celebrate overworking to the point of burnout.
However, it is clear that events of this year have accelerated the phenomenon of ‘toxic productivity’. Lockdown and being stuck indoors seemed to heighten the pressure to be productive – what excuse was there now not to learn that language, to write that novel, to crack out those running shoes? Whilst keeping busy undoubtedly helped people through this difficult period, the insistence that we needed to transform our lives unfairly ignored the frightening backdrop of the global pandemic that had trapped us inside in the first place. When the country shut down, most found themselves working from home, with any separation between work and play disappearing as quickly as the plans in our diaries. Bedrooms and kitchen tables doubled as offices and desks, with this blurring of boundaries leaving our homes – and our mindsets – in a constant state of limbo. When do you stop working and start relaxing if there is no physical cut off point?
This is an issue that university students face at the best of times; there isn’t necessarily the structure of a school day or a traditional 9 to 5, plus for many courses, independent study is the main method of learning. We need to be entirely self-motivated, yet the deferred gratification of a degree makes this difficult. Both the university application process and the increasingly crowded job market tend to perpetuate an expectation to overachieve, and a desire to stand out. The struggle to find motivation combined with the pressure to perform is a hidden problem and highlights the prevalence of ‘toxic productivity’ amongst the student population.
Here are a few tips on how to combat ‘toxic productivity’:
- Recognise this mentality – Acknowledge that the discourse surrounding productivity has the potential to be problematic and harmful and discuss it with others. We often get the impression that we’re not achieving as much as others and are therefore being left behind, but it’s likely that many of us are feeling exactly the same – we just don’t talk about it!
- Manageable to-do lists – Whilst a good method of planning what needs to be achieved each day, if used in the wrong way this can also feed into and reinforce the destructive mindset. For example, overloading a to-do list with too many tasks is unrealistic, and can lead to feelings of disappointment and guilt when not everything gets done. Think about making a smaller list, with maybe three main goals, and remember to include a couple of self-care activities too!
- Minimise the self-criticism – If a friend was struggling, you would be encouraging and supportive towards them, so remember to treat yourself with the same love and kindness. Recognise that you are enough, and that productivity is not and should not be a measure of self-worth. This is more important than ever in 2020 – try not to feel guilty if all you did this year was get through it, that is more than okay.
– Erin Zammitt
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