No Gain, No Shame
Escaping the Trap of Toxic Productivity
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc upon the world -- and our mental health. Beyond the more obvious effects that the threat of disease and the loss of loved ones has had, the ways we adapted to these threats has also contributed to or exacerbated depression and anxiety.
The social isolation. The changes in our lifestyle. The longer, more hazardous hours for essential workers. The sedentary existence of cloistering yourself at home for remote or laid-off workers. And, of course, uncertainty about the future.
But there was a more insidious attack on our mental health that masqueraded as a healthy coping mechanism. I like to call it "toxic productivity."
We all saw the memes about how we're all garbage human beings for not making the most of the "free time" we had and the posts about productivity hacks.
This guilted people into trying to be productive all the time. To ignore their mental health so they could burn themselves out on learning a new language or starting a new side hustle only to fail when maybe, just maybe, time and discipline weren't the only obstacles. It also shamed those, such as essential workers or people with disabilities or mental illnesses, who didn't have the time or ability to be as productive as others.
Don't get me wrong. I fell into this trap too. I worked remotely during the pandemic and during that time I took online classes (and finished nearly half of a TESOL certificate), practiced learning new languages (Spanish, Portuguese, and French), wrote a children's book, finally finished the first draft of my first novel, and developed a conference presentation about toxic productivity (yes, I'm aware of the irony).
Granted, it's important to be productive to make an income and take care of ourselves. And I should acknowledge that the pandemic did help start important conversations about mental health and wellness.
But productivity, like all good things, are only good in moderation.
I've noticed that these conversations about mental health framed wellness as important for making us more productive in the long-run. Not because it's inherently valuable. Not because we deserve to be well just as human beings. But to help us produce more.
For those of you in college, think about the last time you heard this study tip:
The ultimate end-goal isn't to make you well. It's to make you study more.
This is not sustainable. This is not healthy.
So here's how I plan to escape the toxic productivity trap in 2022 and beyond.
Seek projects that are fulfilling for me.
I think many of us saw productivity as a coping mechanism for the pandemic. If we were focused on doing something all the time, then we didn't have to think about how awful the entire situation was.
But at some point, you have to ask yourself, "I want to be productive, but to what end?"
Why are you being so productive? What do you want to produce?
There are many reasons for productivity: to generate income, to learn something new, to do something enjoyable, etc.
There's nothing wrong with making a little extra money on the side or to try something new that you've always wanted to try. And in most cases it may be really fun. Sometimes, however, it stops being fun.
So why keep doing it?
For example, a lot of the projects I picked up during the pandemic were very fulfilling for me. I enjoy writing, so I wanted to work on some passion projects like my first novel. I am an English teacher, so it made sense for me to start working on a new certificate that could open up new career opportunities.
But I also tried things I didn't like. Like French.
I enjoy learning languages. I already know a lot of Spanish, so it made sense for me to keep practicing. A lot of my family speaks Portuguese, I have family living in Portugal, and I sometimes travel there. It makes sense for me to learn Portuguese.
But French? Sure, I've been to Canada. Once. But the language isn't really fun for me to learn and I probably won't use it as much as the other two. So now I focus on practicing Spanish and learning Portuguese.
I'm not telling you to quit your 9-5 or to abandon something that may be useful for you. Think about it responsibly. Weigh the pros and cons.
If you're not happy at your job, shop around for other employment before you quit. Make sure you have something to fall back on. If you don't like learning a new language, but you need it for work or school, try limiting your practice time without stopping entirely so that you don't burn yourself out.
Basically, take a good look at how you spend your time and see where you can make extra time for yourself.
Only do extra work if I want to.
For most of us, doing work is an important part of our lives. Like I said, we need some money to get by and we need to do chores around the house to take care of ourselves and our families. Those of us who can't do these things or struggle doing these things are still valuable as human beings.
And for those of us who can do these things: it's okay if you don't do them perfectly or right away.
I've often fallen into the trap of doing all the chores when they're right in front of me or of trying to get as many things done as possible in one day. But there are days when I just don't feel like doing all of it. And instead of beating myself up over it, I'm trying to teach myself that it's okay.
If the laundry or the dishes are piling up, it's okay to do it a little bit at a time so I have enough clean clothes or plates for the next day. If I'm at work, it's okay if I don't get to everything on my to-do list before I clock out so long as I take care of the priorities.
That's the key: prioritize.
Do what you need to first and foremost. And if there's still some stuff that can get done, do what you want and only what you want.
The same applies for the optional stuff that you want to do. I like writing, and I've signed up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) several times and never met my word count goal. But that's okay. And that's not to say that NaNoWriMo is bad -- it works really well for some writers.
But for me, I've learned that if I try to follow all the advice online that says I need to write 1,000 words per day in order to be a "serious" writer, writing stops being enjoyable for me. And if I don't enjoy what I'm writing, then what's even the point?
So do what you have to do to get by. And do what you want, but only when you want.
Listen to your body and your mind, and trust it when it says, "Enough."
Do things I find enjoyable even especially if they're "pointless."
The one major mental habit I've had to break is to stop berating myself for doing something that isn't productive.
If I have a day off, then why shouldn't I sit on the couch and watch Bones or Golden Girls? If I want to unwind after work, then why shouldn't I play an online game with friends? Hell, why do I have to be exhausted to enjoy a video game or a YouTube video?
And I can't tell you how many times I've heard people shame others for enjoying certain things.
"Why would you watch someone else play a video game if you can just play it yourself?"
"Video games are turning kids into morons."
"You spend all your time just staring at your phone."
Just because you don't enjoy something, doesn't mean it isn't valuable for others. Just because the only function is entertainment, doesn't mean it's worthless.
We should let people enjoy things that are just for fun. Our main purpose in life isn't to just keep producing. We should remember to enjoy life too.
For me, that means watching Markiplier videos (thanks for keeping me sane through the pandemic, man), reading YA fiction, writing, spending time with family, and playing Payday 2 and Phasmophobia with my friends.
What does it mean for you?