My Problem with ‘Productivity Culture’

By Virginia Thomas-Pickles, GLOBUS Correspondent

We live in a society constantly talking about productivity: the need to ‘hustle’, accomplishing tasks on your endless to-do lists. But is this really how it should be? 

Let me start this article by saying I am a self-confessed workaholic. I love my degree in Global Sustainable Development and enjoy the breadth and depth of topics we cover. However, as with any degree, there is always work that could be done- be it reading for seminars, attending lectures, or preparing for and writing assignments. This can make it so difficult for students to stop and do the other things we love. Ironically, we can end up procrastinating our hobbies in order to use time ‘productively’. 

Near the end of our first lockdown, all my university assignments were completed and with little else to do I returned to my hobbies. This reminded me of how much I enjoyed them and had actually missed them over the course of the academic year. Yet, I felt a pressure to use this time for self-improvement- so many people were learning new languages or getting into Couch to 5K, but I was doing nothing new. I was feeling like I was wasting my time even though I was enjoying what I was doing. 

At the same time, the pandemic has reaffirmed the importance of family and friends. I began thinking about all the trips to the pub, or coffees I had turned down as I had not been ‘productive enough’ that day so could not spare the time. But who says spending time doing hobbies and seeing the people you care about is not productive?  

This realisation is where I began to question the productivity culture I was so caught up in. 

So, let’s consider the meaning of productivity. Out of the many definitions, the one that resonates the most with me is from the Cambridge Dictionary, saying productivity is ‘the rate at which a person… does useful work’. The word ‘useful’ caught my eye here. ‘Useful’ is so subjective, so personal. From an employer’s perspective it is about getting a good quantity of good quality work from their employees. But for the employees, ‘useful’ work is so much more than this. It encompasses activities outside the workplace: family commitments, exercise, and even relaxing. It is relaxing and unwinding that I feel is extremely overlooked in productivity culture. The feeling of guilt for not working or not studying, and that you are wasting your time. By obsessing about work when we are not working, we are undermining the rest and relaxation we are doing (and need). In many ways, ‘we live in a political and social climate where our sense of self-worth is often reduced to our productivity’. In reality, there is so much more to life than ticking things off a to do list, and your down time is still ‘useful’ work- it helps you stay motivated and helps you avoid burning out. 

The aim to be more productive can also negatively impact your health in the long-term. There are many health implications from working constant, long hours– the prolonged inactivity increases cardiovascular and diabetes risks, among others, and increases the likelihood of mental health conditions. Let’s consider the long hours we work. For many of us, some of this time is spent checking social media, glancing through the news, or even daydreaming. Think about social media, scrolling through and seeing how ‘productive’ other people are being, sometimes accomplishing more tasks in the space of a morning than you have all day. This adds to your guilt- guilt for wasting your time on social media in the first place, and then guilt from the comparisons you have made with others. 

Now imagine if we conducted focused work without distractions instead- we may well end up getting more things done in a shorter space of time, meaning more time can be spent with friends and family, and doing hobbies. Plus, you can get rid of that guilt- you will have done all the tasks that would usually take you all day, just in a more focused time frame. 

So enough is enough. I am done with this cycle of constant ‘productivity’, of feeling guilty whenever I am not working. This pandemic has opened my eyes to what I value most, and whilst my degree is still high on that list, so too is seeing my family and friends, and continuing with my hobbies. That is why I am no longer listening to productivity culture and the health risks it presents. In doing so, I may inadvertently become more ‘productive’, but more importantly happier too. 

Header Image by Green Chameleon via Unsplash 

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