Toxic Productivity: You don’t need to be perfect in a pandemic

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Like many, I was in a state of denial about the scale of the pandemic. ‘Trinity might be cancelled!’ was half-heartedly thrown about as justification for another round of drinks at the college bar in eighth week and when my parents did pick me up at the end of term –  a few days earlier than anticipated after an unsettling email from our college master regarding Covid-19 – I still confidently stuffed everything I could into the little box in my room of things we can keep at Oxford over the holidays. Even though the announcement of the UK’s lockdown was expected, and even criticised for coming too late by many, when it eventually came it completely and utterly floored me. I spent the next few days in bed, mindlessly alternating between a variety of different social media sites on my laptop and phone screens. I needed time to process everything before adapting to the ‘new normal’ thrust upon us and had decided that pushing my Screen Time daily average into the double figures was one way of doing so.

As I scrolled, I started to notice a trend in the type of content that would come up: fitness videos on getting ‘shreddy’ post quarantine, articles on how to maximise your productivity at home,  and guidance from influencers on how to paint, garden, cook or start vegan/keto/clean dieting. Alongside this sea of commercialised ‘self-help’ content was the opposite: memes about weight gain in quarantine, self-deprecating TikToks about sleeping in till 3pm or the occasional Instagram post recommending Netflix shows rather than exercise reps.

While I had been wallowing, it felt like the rest of the world had either embarked on a radical ‘self-improvement’ journey or were feeling awful because they hadn’t. Why, in the midst of a global pandemic that has brought so much collective pain and suffering, have we all become so obsessed with maximising self-optimization? When I phoned a friend recently and asked him about this, he nonchalantly responded, “Well once this is all over people will be asking what you did with your time won’t they?”. The thought of everyone in the pub weighing up how productive they were during the pandemic almost makes me more scared than another three-week lockdown extension.

Why, in the midst of a global pandemic that has brought so much collective pain and suffering, have we all become so obsessed with maximising self-optimization?

Of course, there is genuine positivity behind these bursts of productivity. With our schedules abnormally clear, we actually have the time to start creating healthy habits and it has been a real joy to see how many people are finding silver-linings to quarantine. A friend whose trip to Berlin was cancelled has started learning German so that when they eventually visit, they can truly immerse themselves in the city. Another has started a podcast and I most likely would not have considered getting involved in student journalism in other circumstances. Moreover, busying ourselves is a needed distraction from the turmoil around us and the temptation of the outdoors. Oxford life is defined by its intense academic and social calendar, so it is no surprise that many of us have attempted to recreate this environment at home with new hobbies. Throughout the lockdown, I have been acutely aware that it is an enormous privilege to be able to use this time to even consider ‘maximising productivity’ as for many people, from key workers to those with sick loved ones, this pandemic has laid claim to all of their time and thoughts.

However, I think there is a big distinction between the ‘self-improvement’ advertised and actual self-care. Self-care shouldn’t result in you feeling guilty for not using all your time ‘productively’, yet many corporations promoting quarantine products are aware they can profit of your insecurity. Perhaps I am overly cynical, but what they market as self-care seems more like self-destruction, especially when it insidiously makes us rate our self-worth alongside our productivity. This sort of ‘toxic productivity’ feels particularly pronounced at the moment. Working effectively has never been so difficult as we have to adapt to studying at home, remotely and with a constant stream of bad news and feelings of uncertainty about the future. Yet, simultaneously, we are hit even harder by the commercialised ‘self-help’ machine as more and more of our lives are moved online.

What they market as self-care seems more like self-destruction, especially when it insidiously makes us rate our self-worth alongside our productivity.

Even if it is particularly acute now, this excessive stress on self-optimisation has always existed in our society. It’s part and parcel of consumer capitalism itself, stemming from ‘hustle culture’, a term coined by journalist Erin Griffith to describe a cultural obsession  ‘striving’ which is ‘relentlessly positive and devoid of humour’. We all know a hustler – that glamorous social media influencer with six different jobs who documents their workaholism through rose-tinted Instagram filters, or that successful tech startup hipster who boasts about drinking Huel because they ‘literally have no time at all for a proper meal’. Oxford University itself is an epicentre of hustle-culture; people are always chastising themselves for not working enough, complaining about working too much or boasting about working into the early hours of the morning. None of this is sustainable or healthy, but being excessively busy is still treated as a sign of success. I hope I am not alone when I admit I can get caught up in this too.

It is great that people are using lockdown as a way to better themselves. Our lives have been changed beyond recognition by the coronavirus and I admire everybody capable of converting this change to something positive. However, as we try to detoxify our diets or cut out procrastination, perhaps we can try change the way we approach work and productivity too. In fact, although it may seem like this virus has completely destroyed how we get things done and ‘grind’, maybe it is time to consider if our work habits were already broken.

Photo credit: Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

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