Are We Being Crushed by Productivity Culture?

Teddi René, career coach and mom in Maryland, feels the need to constantly be productive. Although she tries to fit rest in, René admits that doing so takes a very intentional effort. “Because there are so many things to be done, and I have the ability,  I feel like often it’s selfish not to do it,” she says. “It’s this, ‘there’s no time to waste’ feeling.”

Even before the global shutdown—due to the spread of the novel coronavirus—we knew one thing for certain: We as a culture like to remain busy. Between full-time and part-time jobs, side gigs and passion projects, 24/7 productivity has become normalized.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, productivity has increased 77 percent since 1973, but wages have decreased significantly, and Small Business Trends says 69 percent of small businesses start at home. We often need fulfillment outside of our primary employment, which suggests we should be doing something else on the side (53 percent of women have side gigs). Pair that with the expectation to monetize a hobby and the pressure compounds. There is an enormous burden to do.

Many women find themselves in the productivity trap, operating in high productivity or busyness long-term, to provide for their families (68 percent of Black mothers are heads of household compared with 40 percent of Latino women and 37 percent of White women). For many women, it’s innate to take action, but access to what friends and peers are doing via social media may also affect them. 

There is an unspoken rule that you must be in a state of action at all times, even during a global pandemic.

Some women—like ESSENCE Senior Editor Joi-Marie McKenzie, who’s also a writer—are frustrated about the expectation to produce at such an unpredictable time. “I’m starting to resent everyone saying it’s a great time to be a creative or why don’t you write a book during social distancing,” she said in a recent tweet. “A lot of creatives are empaths and anxiety and confusion isn’t the best recipe for quality output.”

Farah Harris, a Chicago-based licensed therapist and workplace wellness advocate, says social media makes it easy to get caught up in the trend of capitalizing on current events. Experiencing FOMO (fear of missing out) when you don’t act and produce can add undue stress to your plate. “Be careful not to internalize the message that if you aren’t producing something right now that you are a failure,” she says.

Stress can quickly snowball into burnout, a syndrome—identified by the World Health Organization (WHO)—often associated with occupations. However, you can experience it in every aspect of your life. When left unchecked, burnout can lead to physical and mental exhaustion, increased blood pressure, insomnia which also impacts cardiovascular issues, according to Thrive Global.

Black women are feeling it, but many are taking proactive steps to turn the tide. Janene Tate, a higher education communications director in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, says her job and other community activities keep her busy, but she’s begun deep meditation practice to balance her mental and physical health. Kemberlee Gray, a Memphis-based elementary school teacher, has limited her social media use to avoid comparisons in productivity.

But how can you move at your own pace and avoid the productivity trap altogether?

Loading the player...

Think about your “why” more than your “what” to drill down on your purpose. Do you need extra income? Do you want to feel empowered in a particular area of your life?  Or are you doing a thing because it’s what everyone else is doing?

Harris gives more advice:

Set and enforce healthy boundaries:

Harris notes that accessibility and availability are not the same. “This means that not every text, call or e-mail needs to be immediately responded to.”

Use your voice:

Once you’ve set your boundaries, honor them by saying no to things that don’t align with your “why.” If you need help managing, ask for help.

Listen to your body:

Make time for rest, hydration and nourishment. Don’t let busyness cause you to forget to take care of your physical well-being in the name of productivity.

Your destiny does not hinge on adding another item to your to-do list.