Why toxic productivity culture is harmful and what we can do about it

During lockdown, time has never felt more fluid. Days that are indistinguishable from the next melt into one other. Whole weeks last the blink of an eye and are simultaneously excruciatingly long. The details of our daily activities are drops in an ocean of amnesia. But at the end of it all, that vague feeling of regret that comes with spent time: what could I have been doing instead? 

“What could I have been doing instead?” | Luis Villasmil/Unsplash

Surely, this is the very definition of ‘wasted time?’ Some of us might have started with grand ambitions. Many perhaps saw lockdown as a time for self-improvement, developing new skills or the mastery of old ones. But, if you’re anything like me, these ambitions were empty promises. The vague desire to learn French has fallen by the wayside. Time meant to be spent learning an instrument has instead been taken up by lying in bed watching Netflix. Attempts to write more frequently (this article, in my case) have been met with the vacuous stare of an empty page. 

But outside of lockdown, is continually trying to improve ourselves always a valid use of our time? Is a mindset of hyper-productivity, the idea that we should always be learning or developing skills, really a healthy one? And is time spent doing nothing really ‘wasted’, in the way that our culture would have us believe? 

This philosophy of productivity has existed for a long time. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber suggests these ideas were imported into England from Protestant Europe during the English Reformation of the 16th century. He argues that due to Protestantism’s emphasis on individuality, as opposed to the feudalism associated with Catholicism, social progression was increasingly seen as more important. The effects of this social movement are still reflected in western culture today. 

Often with the speed of modern life, we fail to place ourselves in the environment around us

Most students would agree that modern society is obsessed with results. Having been through at least two series of exams before entering higher education, with university places dependent on your performance, it can often feel like the certificate is more important than the inherently beneficial quality of education. However, while most the generations before us might have felt similarly about their exams, increasingly students’ free time is being commodified as well. As well as experience and education, employers are increasingly judging candidates on ‘soft skills.’ Therefore, activities such as volunteering, sports, and hobbies have high currency on students CV’s, and many feel that in order to land top jobs, they have to constantly be developing these skills.

Also, as much as social media is used as an easy scapegoat for society’s problems, there is definitely something about its reduction of personalities to listable characteristics that makes us question how we spend our time. Anyone who has had to write an Instagram bio, or a Tinder profile, knows the difficulty of finding something interesting to say about yourself and summarizing it in limited words. Meanwhile, with envious eyes we might look at profiles with seemingly endless photos showing off their talents, opulent holidays and their endless amount of friends, making it all too easy to view yourself as simply a less interesting person. 

I think it is fair to say, then, that the pressure to always be doing something is an anxiety that many young people feel. As a result, while I agree that it is sometimes necessary to commit to things that we do not necessarily enjoy in order to gain a foothold in employment under the current system, I believe that we should try to end the unnecessary guilt we feel in simply doing nothing. In fact, ‘wasting time’ might actually be beneficial.