Productivity culture is making me miserable

Productivity! Who doesn’t love it? Who doesn’t want that feeling of doing something useful, something valuable, something constructive? Bettering ourselves and driving the economy? It’s the dream, right?

The idea of getting more done at work is nothing new. But lately the entire concept of being more productive has become increasingly fetishised, to the point that it’s gone well beyond the 9-to-5 into some sort of aspirational lifestyle.

Lately I’m starting to realise just how much the Cult of Productivity has infiltrated my life. It spoils my free time, it controls my hobbies, and it’s even messing with my emotions. And I’m thoroughly sick of it.

Hustle hell

A lot of this cultishness comes from the hideous hustle-harder, keep-grinding, always-on bullshit spewing from websites like Medium and LinkedIn. In this world, the virtuous soul gets up at 5am not to watch the sunrise, but to catch up on emails and consume nutrition shakes. Hustle Culture wants us all to become efficient machines of productivity.

There is some allure to this. Hustle Culture tells us that if we just optimise our lives, they will be better, and we will be better. We will be smarter, healthier, richer. We will show up at the high school reunion with an expensive suit, fluent in 6 languages that we learned from Duolingo, and when someone asks what we do for fun, we can tell them that we spend our weekends working on our #entrepreneur #sidehustle rather than binge-watching Netflix. Others will see us as well-rounded, accomplished, impressive.

I don’t think Hustle Culture would exist if our society didn’t make existence so precarious for so many people – in a world of insecure, badly-paid jobs, it sells the myth that everyone can grind their way to stability, or maybe even luxury. If your situation continues to be bad, Hustle Culture says, it’s your own fault for not hustling hard enough. Work those extra hours. Maybe try this multi-level marketing scheme.

Productivity vs free time

The other downside of this crap, aside from perpetuating a sort of capitalist mythology, is that every non-productive activity becomes a source of guilt.

At the start of May, I took a week off work with the intention of just doing nothing. I was going to do all the things I enjoyed about being on holiday, just from the comfort of my own home. I was going to read, go for walks, watch some films, and cook some long, leisurely breakfasts. Inspired by Daniel Kanter of Manhattan Nest, I called it “Weekend Week”.

My Weekend Week went to shit pretty quickly. “You’ve got all this time off,” the voice of my inner Productivity Demon whispered. “Why not… make the most of it?” And before long, I had a lengthy to-do list including filing tax returns, working through 200 pages of a Java textbook, planning meals and exercise routines, replacing the washing machine, deep-cleaning my flat, and building up a backlog of blog posts.

Suddenly Weekend Week had become Admin Week. I immediately felt resentful. This was not the holiday I had planned. But I didn’t want to allow myself to do the really fun things until I’d done the productive things, so instead I procrastinated on the productive things by doing only-kinda-sorta-fun things. The result was that I spent several days doing nothing and beating myself up about it.

On Thursday, I scribbled out the entire to-do list and immediately felt better.

Productivity vs hobbies

You may have spotted the blog post backlog in that to-do list.

I started this blog partly for fun, but also because I thought it would be good for me. It would be a creative but sensible hobby that would develop my writing skills. It would be a practical exercise in expressing my honest opinions on things (something that doesn’t always come naturally). It would let me output words into the world in a way that felt more wholesome and intentional than Twitter. I had no illusions about making any money from it whatsoever, but blogging still felt… say it with me… productive.

To maintain blog productivity, I write “blog post” on my weekly to-do list, and when I fail to publish something – because I’m busy, or I’m unhappy with what I’ve written, or I just don’t feel like it – then I shame myself for my lack of discipline.

I know the stakes of not publishing a blog post every week are incredibly low. This blog is not my job and does not contribute towards my career. My last post currently has zero views. But part of me still considers not updating it to be a failure, and the Productivity Demon hates that.

(Based on this, you could ask whether blogging is actually good for me. I don’t know. Yes, I am partly writing this because I wanted to rant, but also because it’ll let me check something off my damn list and then I’ll get that little boost of accomplishment from clicking the ‘Publish’ button. I don’t want to stop blogging, but maybe it’s time to stop forcing it.)

Productivity vs me

I recently realised just how much I’d internalised this “productivity is all” message when I started to think about how it affected my emotions.

When I experienced an unwanted emotion – when I was sad, or angry, or anxious – my first impulse was to try to turn that feeling into something useful. I’m upset, but what has made me upset? Could I change any of these circumstances? Could I have done anything differently? What can I learn from this experience?

Some things you cannot learn from. Sometimes you just feel bad and the reason is outside your control. In this case, my response was to label the feeling as pointless and try to repress it. Or, when that failed, berate myself. This feeling isn’t useful – why am I wasting time dwelling on it?

Obviously this is not a healthy way to deal with emotions. I recognise this and I’m working on it (along with a lot of other stuff). But I can’t be the only person on the planet who has found themselves in this loop.

The fact is that self-improvement comes a lot more naturally to me than self-acceptance. For a while, I didn’t think this was such a bad thing. Improving yourself is admirable, right? And it wasn’t like I was saying I hated myself or anything – I’d just like myself more if I was a little better.

And self-improvement is productive – it feels like progress on some measurable level. And productivity is self-improvement – you are improving your skills, your situation, your worth. The two are very closely linked.

But self-acceptance is recognising that you are OK just as you are, even if you are not currently grinding or hustling or creating. Even if you are just sitting around doing nothing – that is fine! You are enough!

My inner Productivity Demon hates this idea. It wants me to always keep moving, to keep improving. It would like to think that I can take any experience or emotion and harness it to become something constructive, and that sounds like a nice idea. But when it’s reached the point that I interpret my own sadness as weakness, then it’s gone way too far.

Something else I’ve been working on is doing things because I feel like doing them, not because I feel like I should do them. Chasing this feeling of “being productive” is something I always feel like I should do. But enough is enough. Right now I would like to do less doing, and more just being.

3 thoughts on “Productivity culture is making me miserable

  1. So much truth in this: ‘every non-productive activity becomes a source of guilt’

    I have been struggling with that feeling for most of my adult life. At one point I even felt guilty about sitting and reading for several consecutive hours, which is ridiculous as reading more was one of my goals.
    Being OK with ‘being’ is very important and very difficult.

    Keep fighting the good fight!


    1. I’ve totally had the same thing with reading, even down to making it a goal – then I just stress that I’m spending too much time on one thing and neglecting the others. Or not reading books that are serious and “worthy” enough. It sounds silly but it does show just how deeply this stuff is drummed into us. Hope you keep up the fight as well.

      Also, I didn’t realise you had a blog! I loved your posts about freelancing and treating yourself like a Sim.


  2. Great publication, thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience!

    I’ll share with you a bit of my own current experience on this topic.

    I am lucky to finally have a job in a sector which generally sees/respects workers rights a lot more than the customer-service roles I worked at for so many years – I am now working in IT, as a software tester.

    Everything you talk about is something I have felt in other roles, but somehow I feel like within IT culture, the hustle culture is indeed very palpable and promoted…to toxic levels.

    This has made me see and understand how much a mental break between/in-middle-of a task is so important: allowing to relax my mind for a few minutes and then returning to work has enabled me a much nicer mind-frame, helps train my focus, re-analyse the task with a more straightforward and simple analysis of what is really relevant and has brought overall much less anxiety when performing the tasks.

    My main enemy arrives when I end a task and have to update the mandatory time-sheet (and it is funny how I have found your blog-post thought reading this one here: ):
    this is where my evil-mind-goblin starts questioning if I am being honest enough with my employer for booking 15min of pure non-work time – where I have been watching a funny youtube video or browsing 9gag or having a relaxed video-call with a work colleague – as part of the work time for that task. My honesty-goblin annoys me for this and my goblin-that-sees-the-bigger-picture tells me to book it! So I have been forcing myself to accept it and book that time as work, because after all I know that: if I had not used those 15min for a mental break, I would have taken a lot longer in completing the work assignment as a whole without taking any breaks, as I would have been forcing my mind to focus in a time where it was screaming for a pause and relaxation.

    Hustle culture is toxic and time-sheets are evil bastards! I’ll continue working where I am as all conditions are overall pretty great, but I will be pressing for those time-sheets to be gone, for sure!

    Thanks again for this publication! And may we be able to choose taking care of our mental health, over taking care of how others will perceive us when we take our breaks (or when we get those Weekend Weeks <3)


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