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How toxic is our notion of productivity?

Out of various social qualities that human beings possess, one pertains to the art of comparison. We always try to achieve more; it is when we start comparing our achievements with others, the problem begins. As a result, ‘quantity’ becomes the judging factor. Today, we are at a stage where we have declared productivity to be directly proportional to the quantity in which tasks should be performed within limited time frames—and our mental health is at stake.

Technology has made it possible for people to be reachable all the time. As a consequence, one is expected to function all day, at any hour. The COVID-19 pandemic has made ‘work-from-home’ an integral societal phenomenon, which is undoubtedly and unfortunately here to stay.

Being overburdened by professional or academic demands isn’t a novel occurrence—balancing work, classes and personal life has always been an issue. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially included ‘workplace burn-out’ in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), specifically confining the definition in the occupational context. The definition emphasized mental well-being in the workplace, which affects professional efficiency.

On one hand, it’s the organizations that could be held responsible for overburdening their employees; on the other, the individuals themselves should also be accountable for choosing excessively time-consuming roles, thereby disturbing their own mental peace. Today, it’s a race—an unending marathon to be productive, to spend hours engaging in valuable tasks, to be as hard-working as the ideal. Human beings love to compete, and today’s competition is to decide who amongst us can qualify in the list of most productive individuals.


During the initial phases of lockdown, people (at least the ones who were privileged enough) had ample free time due to the sudden shutdown of the world. Inside the walls of their comfortable homes, they decided to engage in their hobbies and try out new interests. Hence the internet was full of accomplishments, which in the beginning, induced positive encouragement. Later, this resulted in our fellows analysing their self-worth and self-potential whilst adopting the art of comparison.

It was good, for a start. Pushing oneself to improve and utilise time in productive ways is one of the smartest steps to take. However, people tend to set unrealistic targets for themselves. Whether they manage to achieve their short-term goals or not—out there, there will always be others who have climbed higher and better. To harbour an unhealthy and extreme obsession with productivity is when you have entered the realm of toxic productivity. It is insatiable, and once in, one may not know when to draw the line.

It will seem good at first—to be preoccupied with tasks, all the while upskilling yourself. The realization comes later when you won’t have time to spend in recreational or relaxing activities, with your loved ones. The cycle then seems to become toxic, thereby affecting your mental as well as a physical being. While going to bed at the end of the day, you’ll already be preparing a mental to-do list for the next day, yearning for a break at the same time. You’ll also slowly grasp the fact that you have adopted the hustle culture, which isn’t good at all and is still promoted by the ‘successful’.

“We live in a society where overworking is praised, and it needs to change.”

– Hannah Tiongson

You’ll feel guilty for relaxing, for taking breaks in between. Already trapped in the online medium of education, another opinion forced upon us students is that of online education not being stressful and hence, side-hustle should be a daily routine. The resultant, again, is the race to try and learn new things, upskill the knowledge, and be productive.

Credits: i-D

The other end, where we get so overwhelmed by our feelings that it becomes a hectic task to even focus on a small assignment, is dangerous too; but at least, it’s not encouraged. Similar to everything else, a balance needs to be maintained here as well. It all comes down to how we are treating ourselves, whether or not we are questioning our worth based on the quantity in which we opt for productivity.

It’s good to challenge oneself, but not to the extent of over-exhaustion. Embrace the in-between idle moments; toxicity is what we should be sceptical of.

Zaina Shahid Khan is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Diptarka Chatterjee

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Written by Zaina Shahid Khan

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