If you’ve been using Instagram religiously over the past few years, you’ve probably had at least a couple posts promoting a level of productivity that seems impossible, creep onto your explore feed. For me, I see one roughly once a week and I’m not sure which of my interests would lead to the algorithm showing me them – which makes me certain that everyone else is probably seeing them once in a while too.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with promoting productivity. These conversations are important in the workplace and I understand the need for productivity related tips and advice with an increasing amount of people working online where it’s a little bit harder to be held accountable and make sure you’re making the best use of your time. But toxic productivity isn’t your boss holding productivity workshops or people trying to learn how to create good working habits while working from home.

Toxic productivity culture is a cultural trend defined as an obsession, or addiction, to being productive which results in one’s self worth being measured by their level of productivity.

The reason toxic productivity is defined as a cultural trend is because it’s a relatively Western phenomenon. Traditionally, a mark of success came from the ability to comfortably relax. Being able to sit back and take some time off from work without worrying, or going on luxurious vacations was something to strive for. Once someone got to the point in their career where they could do this, they were probably pretty successful. It’s still that way in most cultures, but in North America, that idea has been replaced with the belief that the more busy someone is, the more successful they are.

About productivity culture on fastcompany.com:

“Over the course of several studies our research with Georgetown professor Neeru Paharia found that the majority of Americans today consider being busy a status symbol. When asked to review hypothetical descriptions of people, Facebook posts, and letters from friends, subjects consistently associated indications of busyness with being more competent and ambitious, more sought-after in the job market, and having greater wealth and social status. This thinking seems to be culturally dependent, however, as a group of Italians we tested held a more traditional view linking leisure and free time with higher status.”

Social media’s obsession with productivity culture has become increasingly dangerous for a multitude of reasons but this post will focus on two of them.

Reason #1: Using the COVID-19 pandemic to prey on those who are not working or finding financial success.

The presence of productivity culture has gained strong traction during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. I’m not sure what explains its popularity during this time, but my guess is that while people were feeling like they were doing less, they began seeking out inspiration to be more productive to make themselves feel better about social and recreational lives being at a stand-still. But, maybe these productivity bloggers and influencers felt like it was the perfect time to prey on people who didn’t feel like they were doing enough, when all of us were doing less than we were used to. Using the pandemic to grow a business and preying on people’s fears and vulnerabilities wouldn’t be exclusive to productivity vultures, but the emergence during this time causes an impossible predicament for social media consumers who are likely already in a rut due to the nature of the pandemic. 

 

These accounts don’t just aim to inspire people to be more productive in their work or give them an extra boost of motivation to achieve their goals. Instead, what’s being promoted is a level of productivity that isn’t only unattainable but it’s also counterproductive. The message that’s conveyed is that you need to be productive every waking moment, that you shouldn’t be taking any days off, and that if something isn’t directly helping you reach your goals, then it’s a waste of time. These ideas will make people feel guilty for any amount of self care or indulgence that they partake in. And honestly, we seem to be forgetting that during a global pandemic, just surviving is enough. People don’t need to be fed the lie that every minute of unproductivity gives someone else the chance of being better than you and doing more than you, and that if that’s the case it means you’re not worth as much as they are. Our worth isn’t measured by our accomplishments. We need to stop letting people on social media dictate  that we should be comparing our accomplishments and our productivity to that of people who are at different points in their journeys. Feeding someone the idea that the CEO of a company got to where they were by working 16 hours a day and that they’ll never be where they are if they don’t do the same is a tireless and toxic deception. 

Reason #2: A shift towards productivity culture content catered towards vulnerable women.

The second reason why the influx of productivity culture on social media is problematic is because of its shift to targeting women. If you rewind to Instagram in 2018, there were abundances of productivity culture posts targeted towards men. These accounts mainly focused on “gym gains” and finances, with imagery that featured male models, cars, expensive watches, etc. However, the majority of productivity culture that has risen since the beginning of 2020 is centered around the #girlboss movement. 

In an article on Vox.com, they describe best the shift of the term “girlboss” from “noun to a verb that describes the sinister process of capitalist success and hollow female empowerment.” There’s so much wrong with the girlboss movement that it’s hard to even know where to start. Where it has to do with productivity is the way in which these productivity accounts are forcing women to believe that their worth is directly related to their success and that taking care of themselves and their mental health is secondary to “growing their businesses” or “creating an empire.” 

This leads to women wasting time and money on get rich quick schemes, online guides and courses that sell them beautifully packaged lies, or joining multi-level marketing schemes that promise they can “be their own boss” and make money from home. If you’re unaware of the manipulation tactics that MLM’s use, I suggest searching “anti-mlm” on YouTube. The one that is most concerning when it comes to productivity culture is how MLM’s typically target women who are the most vulnerable. Usual targets include stay at home moms who can’t make an income working a traditional out of the house job, women who’ve recently lost their jobs or gone through a divorce, or women who can’t work for other reasons. My own mother has been unable to work and living off of disability since a MS diagnosis in 2019, and my biggest (and most realistic) fear for her is that because of her vulnerability she’s the perfect target for one of these schemes. I fear that her desperation during hard times where she’s unable to work will lead her right into the trap. It hasn’t happened yet, but unfortunately for millions of women a year, they do fall into the trap and they’re usually the ones who can’t afford the hefty start up fees or the monthly requirements. But the truth is that a tiny percentage of people who join will make money and most won’t even break even on the startup costs.

Productivity cultures shift toward targeting women puts those women who are already most vulnerable at an even higher risk of falling behind. These ideals are toxic in general and there’s evidence that suggests taking regular breaks makes work more productive, so it’s hard to understand why the constantly productive lifestyle is still being sold on social media. However, this media is especially toxic for vulnerable women who just want to make their lives better and for anyone who’s feeling bad about their progress being halted because of the pandemic. 

The truth is we live in a society that puts so much pressure on career advancement and while I won’t argue that having a successful career is a great goal – there is so much more to life than working constantly and financial gains. If you’re not taking care of yourself mentally and physically, how will having a lucrative career benefit you? We should all be striving to do something that we love and to make income in a way that brings us joy and passion. Not to work constantly on whatever someone on social media has told us will make us the most successful.

You don’t need to be CEO of anything unless that’s your dream! 

You don’t need to be a #girlboss to be worthy.

FInally, you definitely don’t need to be working constantly during a global pandemic or any other time to feel like you’ve accomplished something. If all you’ve done over the past two years is survive, that’s more than enough.