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Toxic Productivity

I was listening to a chapter of “untamed” where the author explained that she used to feel angry and frustrated when she saw her wife relaxing in the middle of the day. In her head she knew that her wife was a grown woman and could do whatever she wanted with her time, but her body told a different story. 

I have found myself in this exact situation – my husband has been relaxing on the sofa on a Saturday afternoon and I feel annoyed – I might start angrily cleaning around him, for example, and when he asks what’s wrong I may respond “nothing” in a sharp, fully loaded tone. 

Like the author, I had no logical reason to be upset – my husband works damn hard and rests even harder! But something deep inside my body made me feel angry. As the author says, layering a judgement on top of a feeling doesn’t change the feeling.

I’d feel like I was internally rolling my eyes at him for ‘wasting his day’ or for ‘not having any drive’. I felt he should be doing something useful, something productive. 

The author then went on to explain that her anger response stemmed from a deep rooted belief that had been programmed into her as a child – resting is laziness and laziness is disrespect. Worthiness and goodness are earned with hard work and hustle. 

This struck a chord with me. Yes. As a child I would work hard in school and then spend my time at home doing homework and creating extra assignments and projects for myself. I couldn’t understand those students who didn’t do their homework. I wanted to be a good student. 

At college I spent countless hours improving my music theory knowledge outside of the classroom to ensure I passed at the highest grade and achieved higher than my peers. 

I spent hours upon hours in the library at University researching for essays and presentations, whilst other students were out partying and having fun, to ensure I got my First Class degree, because anything less wasn’t good enough.  

And even when doing my school teacher training, I would come home from my part time care work job and spend my waking hours improving my subject knowledge and working on lesson plans. I was exhausted, but I needed to achieve an outstanding grade on every aspect of the course. Anything less wasn’t good enough. Anything less meant I wasn’t enough.  

I continued to listen. 

The author said when her wife was resting in front of her, outside of ‘pre approved’ resting times, she was challenging this deep rooted belief. When she looked at her wife relaxing, the feeling she had was more nuanced than anger, it was more of a bitter yearning…

“It must be nice to feel worthy about the space you take up on the earth without hustling every day to earn it…It must be nice to rest and still feel worthy…I want to be able to rest and still feel worthy too”. 

Yes. This is it. I base my self worth on how successful I feel I am. I rate my success on how productive I feel I have been or how much work I have done. I want to rest and still feel worthy too. I want to rest and feel worthy. I want to feel worthy. 

After going through what I can only describe as burnout in 2018 and 2019, I became a full time yoga teacher and life started to look a little different. Rather than working in school from 7am till 6pm and then coming home and continuing to work till 10pm, my days became much freer and less structured. Whilst running my own business did require some planning, I found myself with much more time available. This was wonderful and very much needed at first, but I eventually started to feel a bit lost. 

I would look at other yoga teachers’ posts about how busy they were, how they had these huge business goals and future plans, and feel like I wasn’t doing enough…and honestly, I would feel a little jealous about how busy they were! 

What could I do with my ‘spare time’ that would make me feel productive, and therefore worthy? 

This led to me planning out every hour of every day –  filling my ‘free’ hours with extra planning, constantly checking emails, writing copious lists etc – anything to make me feel like I was being productive. But none of this really had a positive impact on my business or teaching – as my husband often reminds me, I would be “working harder, not smarter”. 

I would fall into the trap of “Busy Bragging” – I would post my daily schedule and plans on my Instagram stories, being sure to fill every hour slot with something ‘productive sounding’ and would feel almost a sense of pride when people would say to me “gosh you are busy aren’t you”? 

This relation of self worth to productivity really came into fruition during lockdown. Suddenly most of my classes stopped and therefore the incessant planning and ‘admin’ slowed. I found myself even more lost – spending days, weeks and months without anything to show for my time. I started to see productivity as synonymous with “purpose” and suddenly felt a real lack. I tried to create this purpose through more “doing doing doing” – creating Youtube videos, trying to start my own subscription service, researching SEO algorithms…all of which I had no passion or desire for and that led to me feeling exhausted and fed up! 

I even started exploring other jobs, including going back into school teaching – a job that had not long before led me to burnout – and took on two volunteering roles! 

This eased somewhat when things started going back to normal again, but my struggle with allowing myself time to rest and recover is still very much apparent. 

Some days I come home from teaching 4 or 5, hour long classes, and feel like I haven’t done enough because I didn’t get anything ticked off the to do list, or I didn’t get any of the ‘admin’ or computer based work done.

Somewhere deep inside there is this deep rooted belief, likely from years of education and teaching, that the ‘actual’ work is the planning, the typing, the emails, the admin – what society sees as the grind, the hustle! 

There’s a belief within me that spending an hour guiding children through movement and breathwork to help them learn to manage their big feelings isn’t ‘productive work’; that holding space for a group of adults to become more in tune with their bodies and minds isn’t a worthy enough career. That allowing myself time to rest in the day before 3 back to back classes in the evening is somehow lazy – I could be using that time to get a few more things ticked off the to do list!

Whilst on a Pregnancy yoga course, I was ‘busy bragging’ about how I’d gone home from that days studying and taught 2 classes, and then had taught another this morning before the 9am start. The teacher looked at me, concerned, and asked me when I’d last had a holiday. I laughed! She stayed quiet, continuing to look concerned, and I realised I hadn’t had one since I became a full time yoga teacher. She asked in a kind tone “and how are you supposed to teach people about the importance of tuning into their bodies and minds when you’re not prioritising this for yourself?” This upset me, but she was right. 

Working hard is important. A strong work ethic has got me where I am today and helped me to maintain a lifelong passion for learning and development. 

But resting is equally, if not more, important. 

My productivity anxiety is unhealthy. It stems from a deeper feeling of not feeling worthy, of not being content with just being or sitting with my thoughts and emotions. It’s led to needing to keep myself busy all the time to feel I am enough, and has created a subconscious sense of guilt or shame about resting. 

And talking to others about this has led me to realise I am not the only one that feels this way and is part of the reason I decided to share my thoughts. 

We live in a society that sees being busy as a badge of honour. It values always pushing, hustling, doing the work to do better and to reach higher. Our education system teaches children that nothing we do is ever enough as there’s always the next step, always more to be done, always a higher grade to achieve. Our culture idealises toxic productivity and confuses this for success and achievement. 

I am trying to be much more aware of this day to day. When I catch myself about to “busy brag”, I take a deep breath and realise it’s likely I need to schedule some rest. When I’m relaxing with my husband and my dog and feel the bubbling “I should be doing this or that”, I remind myself that rest is not wasteful – down time, especially with the people (and dog) I love is so important, so special. When people tell me about their jam packed schedules and how there’s just not enough time in the day, rather than internally glamourising that, I try to feel compassion for them and hope they find time to rest and recover. 

This is only the start of my exploration into all of this and it’s already proved to be quite challenging as my identity is so wrapped up in being productive. But it’s something I will continue to be mindful about day to day and will explore further in my meditation and journaling practices. 

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