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What’s all the Hype Behind Productivity Culture?

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at American chapter.

The traditional two-week American vacation is long gone, replaced by micro-vacations and staycations. In 2019, Forbes reported that 57% of Americans “took leisure trips of no more than four nights.” The Harvard Business Review, noticing the same trend, stated that “All of us are too steeped in productivity culture to value doing nothing. ” 

Doing nothing is self care and self love, but it does not produce anything, which nowadays seems to mean that it cannot possibly be fulfilling. 

On the contrary, the Harvard Business Review claims that, “Statistically, taking more vacation results in greater success at work as well as lower stress and more happiness at work and home.”

As Geraldine Walsh of the Irish Times explains, this no-break, toxic productivity began with hustle culture.

“And so, toxic work culture was born as longer hours, and intensive self-criticism played on our need to meet high standards but quietly did not value the individual,” said Walsh.

Walsh emphasizes that what other experts, like Aoife O’Brien, have pointed out is that this productivity culture often mistakes being productive with being busy, constantly doing more and putting rest, sleep and time for meals on the back burner. 

Productivity culture or “hustle culture” seems to have pushed people to focus their energy on doing what produces the most material gains, forgetting the importance of gaining a sense of personal fulfillment. This idea of productivity entails the production of value, usually monetary value. 

The New Yorker discusses the term “productivity” in its economic context, going back to when it was used by Adam Smith in “The Wealth of Nations.” Smith described productive labor as “labor that added value to materials,” reports the New Yorker.

In macroeconomics, productivity means creating surplus value, by increasing the output produced per unit of input. Surplus value is able to allow the economy to grow, which can raise standards of living if the growth is distributed.

However, material gains are not intrinsically conducive to happiness or emotional gratification. In an article on hustle culture, The Guardian gives examples of people who found a feeling of accomplishment only after the pandemic forced them to enter completely different sectors of the workforce, often in volunteer work.

In 2019, multiple books began pushing against this productivity culture. The New Yorker mentions the Times bestseller by Jenny Odell, “How to do Nothing: resisting the Attention Economy,” as well as Celeste Headlee’s “Do Nothing: How to break away from overworking, Overdoing and Underliving,” in which she explains that “humans were not wired to maximize activity.”

With productivity culture, work was no longer just a means of sustaining a desired lifestyle. Work became a way to change the world, the company you work for replaced a family to invest all your resources in. Technology only facilitated the task.

As explained by Cal Newport, associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, in an article in the New Yorker, productivity in the workplace was at first concerned with the optimization of systems of production, namely in factories. Optimizing the system, each workers’ skillset was ultimately made smaller, their job becoming evermore monotonous. 

Meanwhile, there was a shift towards knowledge work in the American economy. With this, the responsibility of increasing productivity was placed on the individual worker and no longer on the system.This is a great burden to impose on the individual. 

“Even more troubling is the psychological impact of individualizing these improvements,” said Newport. 

At the very least, maximizing personal productivity creates a toxic internal conflict of personal vs professional.

However, Newport does not oppose productivity altogether. His solution is not to resist growth, which can be beneficial to all, rather it is to change the way in which productivity and growth are achieved. In his opinion, by shifting this responsibility away from the individual and onto the system again. 

Being what we think is productive can help us gain a sense of control, which the pandemic greatly disrupted, as Geraldine Walsh reminds. But, pushing down our emotional and physical well-being leads to burnout. 

“We forget that we need rest, time out, and the space to do nothing, which can coincidentally aid how productive we are,” said Walsh.

Even Forbes, the business-focused global media company recently published an article against the toxicity of productivity culture.

 “You deserve rest. You need rest to function. It is vital to your health and growth as a person,” wrote Sarah Jeanne Browne for Forbes

The hustle leads to burnout, not success because it becomes harder to be motivated and remember the purpose of the pursuits we began. Time to rest helps us process our lives, our emotions and our knowledge. The most important theories came from rest, which allows the mind to wander and be creative. Ideas and solutions to problems come to us when we have space to think.

With the pressure of always being productive and always doing more, rest is often compromised, making it hard to continue functioning and leading to an uproductive spiral. 

If nothing else can convince you, the Harvard Business Review published an article in 2016 stating that “If you take 11 or more of your vacation days, you are more than 30% more likely to receive a raise.”

Flavia Marroni

American '24

Flavia is a junior at American University majoring in International Relations with a minor in French. She is from Rome, Italy, but is now living in DC, and is fluent in Italian, English, French and Spanish. Flavia is currently a contributing writer for HCAU, focusing on gender equality and women's rights.