How to Resist Toxic Productivity
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Why are we so obsessed with productivity?
My generation has glorified ambition as a lifestyle. It seems like everyone my age has three jobs and seven side hustles.
Why? Capitalism, of course.
Under capitalism, the labor of workers produces value. Because the capitalist owns the means of production, they hold the power and can exploit workers, who are dependent on their jobs.
Most workers are replacement level and are treated as disposable. So to retain a basic sense of self-worth, we feel obligated to work longer and harder.
Meanwhile, we get assaulted by advertisements all day, which emotionally manipulate us out of our money, and contribute to lifestyle creep. We see lavish lifestyles portrayed on social media and feel pressured to keep up with the Joneses. We hear politicians on the news calling unemployment recipients ‘lazy’ and we read articles worshiping the brilliance of billionaires.
Over time, we begin to tie our self-worth to success and wealth.
This has created an environment when we only feel good about ourselves when we’re productive.
Do you feel guilty sometimes just for relaxing? I know I do.
This might be why Americans feel guilty for taking vacation time. Just 28 percent of American workers max out their vacation days.
It might also be why so many of us brag about how busy we are. If work = success, then someone who dedicates all their time to work must be very successful, right? Indeed, 77 percent of Americans work more than 40 hours per week.
And if you just wanted to work yourself to death, you probably could. While 134 other countries have laws setting the maximum length of the work week, the U.S. does not.
The productivity gap and hustle culture
The gap between productivity and a typical worker's compensation has increased dramatically since 1979. Workers are more productive than ever before but aren’t being compensated to match.
As the gap between productivity and compensation increased, more people became underpaid, requiring them to either work more hours, get a second job, or start a side hustle.
In my corner of the world, side hustle culture really began taking off around 2013-15. I got really involved in entrepreneurship and business circles online during this time and it was part of what prompted me to start my own business.
The intention behind these communities was overwhelmingly positive. But there was something systemically grim beneath the surface.
Don’t get me wrong—Entrepreneurship is in my blood. I live for creating new things. I love innovation and creativity. But a big part of what fueled innovation in that era was a response/reaction to the Great Recession and increasing wealth inequality.
Unlike previous generations, we monetized our hobbies because we had to.
In a 2016 paper, a team of social scientists found that Americans born in the 1940’s had a 90 percent chance of earning more than their parents had earned at the age of 30; for those born in the 1980s, the chance of that had dropped to 50 percent.
In the last 40 years, executive pay increased dramatically, the social safety net eroded, and regressive policies shifted the tax burden to the middle class. Since the 1980s, the tax rates paid by the top 0.1 percent of American earners fell from about 65 percent to 35 percent. Ninety percent of the American population has gained nothing since then, either in wealth or income. All gains have gone to the top 10 percent, most to the top 1 percent, inverted pyramid-style.
Would we all be girl-bossing and hustling hard if we didn’t have to monetize literally every second of our existence?
There’s nothing wrong on the surface with encouraging people to be productive or start businesses. This type of content can be really helpful! But social media can often pressure us to set unrealistic expectations for ourselves, leading us to burn out and frustration.
Burn out can literally make you sick
I have experienced burn out to the level of nervous breakdown.
Ten years ago, I quit my job unexpectedly and took an eight-week career sabbatical, traveling up and down the Pacific Northwest.
I decided on a Sunday morning that I’d do it, purchased my plane tickets that afternoon, and put in my two-weeks’ notice the following day. I’d been working 60-70 hour weeks (sometimes more) on a $45,000 salary for months despite begging ad nauseum for a reduction in my workload.
I woke up that Sunday morning in a panic attack because I’d finally reached my breaking point. It’d been several years since I’d had a vacation. My adrenals were completely shot. I was breaking down.
I didn’t really have the money to quit my job without anything lined up, let alone take eight weeks off of work and gallivant across the country, but I did it anyway. Because if I had to work another year in that condition, I just knew I’d have a heart attack.
Fast forward another five years and I was overdoing at work AGAIN—this time as my own boss.
Because I, too, am susceptible to societal conditioning, I tied my self-worth to the success of my business. As a result, I tried to grow it too quickly, which led me right back to burn out.
Rest is productive. We are humans, not machines. One of my favorite yoga teachers used to say, “we are human beings, not human doings.”
Being > Doing
We need to be kinder to ourselves. The desire to ‘live to work’ is self-sacrificial. We don’t need to do anything prove our inherent worthiness.
Also—it’s important to ask—are we overworking or keeping ourselves busy as a form of dissociation or escapism? I’ve done it.
These are my tips for fighting toxic productivity
I know resisting productivity anxiety and unlearning a lifetime of societal conditioning is no easy task. It takes time and persistence, but here are a few tips that helped me.
Develop work boundaries
Protect your relaxation—schedule it if you have to. Remember that rest is productive.
Create buffers in your schedule
Don’t give yourself rest as a reward for hard work because you are so much more than your output, how much money you make, or how many followers you have.
If you want to get the satisfaction of doing something while still resting, think about reading a book, creating art, or learning something new.
Remember that the cultural love of money over all else is toxic. Rather than blindly following cultural trends/paradigns, I find it’s helpful to ask ourselves if we are organizing our lives/habits according to our values. What and whom are we serving?
I love this passage from Valarie Kaur’s book See No Stranger:
"I had been made to believe that overwork was the only way to make a difference. I had come to measure my sense of worth by how much I produced, how well I responded, and how quickly. I had worked for so long, and so hard, and at such great speeds, that I had become accustomed to breathlessness. I could not remember the last time I had a long night of rest. Or gazed at the night sky. Or danced. I told myself that it was for good reason, that the need was so great, and our work too important. Perhaps you too have felt this way.
This is what I want to tell you: You don't have to make yourself suffer in order to serve. You don't have to grind your bones into the ground. You don't have to cut your life up into pieces and give yourself away until there is nothing left. You belong to a community and a broader movement. Your life has value. We need you alive. We need you to last. You will not last if you are not breathing."
RIP Seamus Ulysses Beane
April 13, 2006 — January 5, 2022
I love you forever.