Toxic productivity: learning to handle hustle culture

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The past month saw me entangled in a web of commitments. I had the responsibility of Frep duties, setting up a brand-new society, various executive roles, and, of course, I had to adjust to in-person lectures. Despite having barely taken a breather – my apartment still looks like a makeshift furniture sale – I’ve found myself feeling guilty for not maximising my time. It seemed that I had an unhealthy obsession with keeping busy, acting subservient to the notion of toxic productivity, or ‘hustle culture’. 

Hustle culture is often celebrated in the media. The reality, though, is that when you measure your self-worth against someone else’s level of productivity, the effect on your mental health can be detrimental. Thankfully, I don’t believe that this epidemic pertains in Durham, or perhaps I’m just surrounded by the right people. While Durham’s nightlife is somewhat limited by the small handful of clubs here, students seem to enjoy a good work-play balance. That’s not to deny that a lot of students still feel the pressure to ‘hustle’ as I do. With all the events that university life throws at you, it’s hard not to spiral into an obsessive pursuit of productivity. However, is a university environment the only factor to blame for the rise of toxic productivity?

People tend to display a filtered version of their lives.

Seeing that toxic productivity is so prominent with our generation, the root must stem from something that a lot of young adults interact with on a regular basis: social media. People tend to display a filtered version of their lives. This is understandable – not everyone wants to let the world know they’re binge-watching Squid Game in their pyjamas. As a result, your feed can become saturated with productive content. We see socials and study sessions and sports training back-to-back when these moments are actually interspersed by undocumented downtime.

There was a surge of ‘studygrams’ in my circle a few years back. I remember feeling extremely inadequate watching others log their daily study sessions or boast about their aesthetic lecture notes. With blogs like these, it’s important to keep in mind that everyone learns in their own way. Trust me, I tried bullet journaling in a vain attempt to feel productive, but maintaining the journal became more of a hassle than an aid. 

Whilst ‘day in the life’ content is usually promoted with good intentions, most of it is staged to portray a much more polished and packed version of someone’s schedule. This creates unrealistic expectations, especially for younger audiences who are still fine-tuning their judgment of the world. Even for those who avoid social media, it’s hard to ignore the modern world’s fast pace. It’s extremely easy to feel left behind if we’re not constantly on the grind. 

There is so much more to you than what a résumé can cover.

Finding the right balance between productivity and rest is a work in progress for me. Acknowledging that your mindset is toxic is the first step, then comes prioritising your wellbeing. Are you hustling because you enjoy getting involved in everything? Or is it just to make yourself look busy? Is your workload proportionate to your personal capacity?

I’ve suffered from burnout after taking on multiple projects all at once. Although I was straining myself, I kept going because it seemed like everyone else was trudging along just fine. I soon learned that this was a big misconception. Everyone has their own capacity, and needing more time to recharge is not a sign of weakness. Learning to set personal boundaries and limits is, if anything, an act of regaining control over your life. The next step is to examine the commitments you have in the Marie Kondo-way and drop those that don’t spark joy. For compulsory items like your degree, consider the idea of working ‘smarter’. Reading through 80 pages of academic English in one sitting may yield lower productivity than watching a Ted Talk on the same topic (unless said academic English is part of your essential reading).

To end on a light-hearted (though generic) note, the moral of the story is to stop comparing yourself to others. When we work at our own pace, we set our own parameters for measuring productivity, instead of letting society define them for us. Never forget that you are worth more than just your achievements. There is so much more to you than what a résumé can cover.

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