The Counter-Productivity of Being Productive

Society has a productivity obsession. It’s the reason we feel guilty for taking time to ourselves, and the reason we feel so accomplished when we complete tasks. The need to be productive is drilled into us day after day as we’re told to “work harder” and not to “waste time.” When we were given the stay at home order, many of us didn’t know what to do with all of the time we had. Many started home renovation projects, small businesses, side hustles and new hobbies; anything that could give us something to do, because we only feel good about ourselves when we’re being productive. Those months we spent inside without as much to do to fill those deep-rooted societal pressures of productivity really opened my eyes to this obsession that has fueled us for so long, and made me aware of how harmful it can be. 

woman sitting in front of Macbook Photo by energepic.com from Pexels

Productivity isn’t necessarily a bad thing unless it becomes toxic. “Toxic productivity” describes an unhealthy obsession with productivity, which is never-ending and also never enough. When we get to the point where we find ourselves in a constant competition with ourselves, trying to check as much off of our to-do lists as we can, spreading ourselves too thin, and then feeling worthless when we can’t get everything done, we can start to recognize when our productivity obsession has become toxic. This is a situation in which we can begin to see the counter-productivity of being productive. Although downtime is frowned upon in our society, it is necessary. We have to take time for ourselves to relax and practice self-care. Getting to the point where we’re so overworked and are dedicating all of our time to being productive can cause mental health issues and end up limiting our functioning. Toxic productivity and workaholism can lead to not only a harmful mental state, but a situation in which we’re unable to reach our full potential when completing tasks. That’s why it’s important for us to practice time management and learn to be productive in not only the work world but in our self-care journeys as well. Scheduling in time for reading, relaxing, watching movies, art, or anything that makes you feel happy and human is essential to battling toxic productivity, and to avoid productivity becoming counter-productive. 

So, why are we so obsessed with being productive? Well, like most things, it all comes back to capitalism. Living in a capitalistic society, the labor of workers is what produces value. So, when we’re not working, we’re not producing, which makes us feel invaluable and worthless. Taking days off makes us feel replaceable and makes us fear that we’re not enough. But that’s not true. It’s important to remember that we’re not machines, we’re human beings. By cutting out relaxation, shaming ourselves for self-care, and saying we’re spending “too much time” doing the things that make us happy, we’re limiting ourselves to what machines are capable of and taking away the things that make us human. Without those things, we limit our functionality and we're unable to put our best foot forward. American society is so infatuated with the idea that in order to be worth anything we must produce and achieve. We’re told to turn our hobbies into side hustles, and that nothing is worth doing if it isn’t making us money; however, a lot of us find that once we start monetizing the things that make us happy, a lot of the joy goes away. 

Journal opened to September Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

We look to the millionaires, who we consider “successful” since they’ve made so much money, and we see how they’ve monetized their hobbies and talents. It’s easy for us to look up to the most successful people and correlate their productivity with their success. It’s normal to want to know their routine, their secrets to success, and to try and get tips and tricks so that we can be millionaires too. We can look to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg who wear the same thing every day, or to Elon Musk who plans his days in 5-minute increments, or we can match our diets to Oprah’s. We can go on YouTube and fall down rabbit holes watching content that promotes efficiency and productivity, but no matter how many “day in my life” videos we watch, no matter how many bullet journal spreads we create, no matter how many schedules and daily planners we buy, no matter how early we wake up, the truth is: there is no singular “right” path to success. Although that content is so beneficial and teaches so many people things that help them accomplish more throughout their days, we need to be able to recognize that we need to do what works best for us. If you’re not able to get up at 5:00 a.m. and start your day, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. If you haven’t updated your bullet journal since last February, that’s fine, neither have I!

The key to staying healthy and sane in this productivity-obsessed world is not to copy the people who seem like they have their lives together, but to do what works best for us individually. Making sure to find that healthy balance is essential. Being productive keeps us motivated and helps us feel accomplished, but it can be very draining and can induce a lot of harmful feelings. By celebrating the small tasks that make us feel accomplished and delegating time for what we have to get done while still making sure we have downtime, we can make sure to function and thrive, no matter how daunting our to-do lists may look. So yeah, we have a productivity obsession. But it’s nothing to be afraid of. Just do your best, and your best will always be enough.