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Idolizing “The Grind” Is More Toxic Than You Think

Chances are that if you’re a college student, you most likely know someone who’s gotten through the week on five cups of coffee a day, bragged about pulling all-nighters or dedicated their whole weekend to catching up on assignments or side projects. Maybe a few of your friends come to mind, or maybe reading this even sounds like I’m calling you out. If it does, you’re not alone — you’ve just been affected by the normalization of productivity culture.

What is productivity culture?

neon quote saying "go up and never stop" on a black background with an arrow underneath the words
Photo by Fab Lentz from Unsplash

You’ve probably heard of productivity culture before. Often called grind culture or hustle culture, it’s the idea that you need to devote as much of your time and energy to getting work done as possible in order to be successful at anything, whether that’s related to your career, school, or any personal projects. Anyone with this mentality might devote extra time to meticulously planning and organizing their schedules in order to make their days as busy as possible.

Even though it’s not a bad thing to stay busy and organized, it becomes a problem when you start prioritizing this kind of thing over your mental and physical health. With your basic needs such as food or rest not being met, you start feeling drained and exhausted, which in turn makes you less task-oriented and affects the quality of whatever you’re producing. Suddenly, you feel like you haven’t gotten enough done, so you try extra hard to “embrace the grind” again, and the toxic cycle pretty much continues from there.

Hustle culture on campus

Overhead view of Students In Class
Photo by Mikael Kristenson from Unsplash

As a Drexel student, I switch between attending classes and interning in a position related to my major every six months. A couple of months into classes, and before you know it, I’m updating my resume and preparing for the next round of interviews. My campus organizations, dance ensemble rehearsals, and independent art or writing projects keep me occupied enough to always be looking towards my next event or deadline. In between all of that, I try to hang out with friends and family as much as possible and take care of myself on my own time, which I rarely have enough of. It’s a lot to handle, and I would be lying if I said my work-life balance was always a “healthy” one.

Many of my friends on campus are even busier than I am. Whether it’s applying to law school or juggling student ambassador duties, almost everyone I know has something going on that fills up most of their free time. More often than not, it’s normalized for college students to pull all-nighters, work overtime at their part-time jobs, and stress over final projects. Even though we’re all running on fumes most of the time, we still feel like we have to out-perform ourselves, like the amount of studying or work we get done is never enough.

So how did we all get sucked into this toxic mindset, anyway? A lot of it has to do with the competitive nature of university culture, especially at a school like Drexel where each term flies by after 10 weeks and students are pushed to fill up their resumes in order to secure the best co-ops. Because we’re all trying to gain as much experience as possible and keep our grades up before graduation, we end up feeling the pressure to constantly be on top of our schedules and devote enormous chunks of our time to getting work done.

Hustle culture in the digital age

woman working on her laptop at desk, with notebooks, flowers, and coffee on desk
Photo by Anthony Shkraba from Pexels

With the enormous amount of media we consume affecting our daily lives, it’s very easy to get caught up in productivity culture. Social media especially plays a huge role in this. Scroll through your Instagram explore page, and chances are you’ll see at least a few influencers glamorizing the “grind,” walking their followers through their packed daily routines, and posting inspirational quotes about how if you just work hard enough, you’ll achieve your dreams.

While most content creators are putting out positive and even true messages, there are still so many different ways to succeed that their posts don’t always touch on. Still, we all want to be successful, and the more media we consume that shows us this singular version of success, the more we feed into it. 

Our society also really values entrepreneurs and self-starters, and that extends to social media. While anyone who’s started their own business absolutely deserves to be celebrated, not everyone is going to want to take the same path to become successful. Hearing the same advice all the time can make us feel like we have to push towards a specific goal that might not be in our best interest. Success looks different for everyone, whether that’s finishing college, climbing the corporate ladder, starting a business, or just finding something you’re passionate about. Just as all types of success shouldn’t be boxed into one category, neither should the paths we take to reach it.

COVID-19 and toxic positivity

yellow smiley face stickers
Photo by Nick Fewings from Unsplash

Not to sound like every news station ever, but we can’t forget about the role that the Covid crisis is playing in all this. The pandemic’s toll on the population’s mental health has deeply impaired our ability to bounce back from factors that may prevent us from getting as much work done, and we might not be as productive in a completely virtual setting. 

Even though it’s already hard to motivate yourself to stick to your packed schedule while working from home, it seems like everyone is adopting the mindset that because we have more hours to ourselves, we should be learning more skills and magically bettering ourselves all the time. While this sounds motivational, it’s actually toxic positivity: the belief that no matter how dire or unmanageable our situation is, we should maintain a positive mindset. More often than not, this is the unhealthy side of hustle culture. Our individual situations are always going to be different from one another, so expecting the same level of “good vibes” and self-improvement from everyone just doesn’t work.

Over the past year, chances are that you’ve had a few hours before your next Zoom meeting and not known what to do with yourself in the meantime. Maybe you felt like you were wasting time by taking a break at all! It’s happened to me way too often, especially when I was anticipating the tasks I still needed to get done. One of the downsides of constantly being productive is that you start forgetting how to give yourself proper rest. The stream of toxic positivity you’ve been seeing during Covid-19 might make you feel like as long as you commit to the grind, you don’t ever need to take time off.

The truth is that no matter how busy you are, everyone needs leisure time, especially during the pandemic. You don’t need to be starting a new project or learning a new skill every single day – sometimes, it’s enough to just get up in the morning and finish what needs to be done.

The background are leaves with the hot pink neon sign "breathe"
Photo by Fabian Moller from Unsplash

As someone who naturally thrives under pressure, I can’t say I’m against productivity culture altogether. There are definitely upsides to embracing the grind – you’re able to motivate yourself to work harder, people respect you for your effort to check off your goals, and you might even be more successful in the long run as long as you remember to take care of yourself. But if you’re taking on more than you can handle and pulling yourself in different directions to the point where you’re losing sleep over your overflowing to-do list, you might want to reconsider taking a different approach. 

Instead of sticking to such a rigid schedule and trying to get a certain amount of work done every day, try putting your mental health first and see where that gets you. Take the time to get some fresh air with a friend or family member, treat yourself to a good meal, and don’t forget to catch up on sleep if you feel like you’re running on fumes.

(Oh, and take a day off if you can. You probably deserve it.)

Anna is a sophomore public relations major at Drexel University. Originally from right outside of New York City, she is currently living and working in Philadelphia. She loves art, writing, photography, performing with Drexel's dance company, and exploring what the city has to offer.
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