Toxic Productivity, Creativity and the Endless Pursuit of Perfection

By Katherine Tweedie

If you’ve maintained any sort of online presence over the past few years, you’ll likely be familiar with the term ‘hustle culture’. Hustle culture is the notion that you always need to be ‘on the grind’, romanticising working ludicrous hours in order to get ahead – sentiments which have been largely pushed by social media. In reality, the number of people acquiring this attitude indicates a growing problem with how we as a society perceive discipline and work culture – and how we’ve commodified ourselves in the process.

We live in a society that not only permits overworking, but actively encourages it. Working yourself to exhaustion is seen as a moral victory, while taking time to indulge in hobbies that don’t have any visible monetary or cultural value is perceived as lazy. When people face financial instability and lack of job security, a perceived lack of hard work is often blamed, despite exhaustive evidence that suggests otherwise. It’s not enough to simply indulge in activities for your own enjoyment – you’re now expected to channel that into a ‘side-hustle’ for monetary gain.

I’m not saying that we should all throw in the proverbial towel on self-improvement or productivity, or that using your hobbies to generate a little bit of cash on the side is a bad thing. In fact, I’m a huge advocate of picking up new skills at any stage of your life – despite the perpetual good-natured ribbing from my family, I haven’t spent six years at university just for fun. But when you start thinking that everything you do has to be profitable and practical – and that you have to be good at it to boot – you might start to run into some trouble.

For one thing, the length of time that you work is not necessarily representative of your productivity. The reality is that there’s usually no amount of work that will make the average person a millionaire. Some research also shows that productivity and work quality actually decrease with the amount of time that you spend working. White-collar workers with longer work hours reportedly have worse mental health and lower sleep quality, while lack of boundaries between work and home life can lead to burnout in students and workers alike. That’s not even touching on the fact that many of the most notorious perpetrators of toxic productivity are already in positions of power. In other words, the folks at the top of the exploitative food chain generally are not the ones actually doing the work.

The culture of toxic productivity – the notion that we need to be constantly productive and/or working, at any cost – also has detrimental effects on creativity. Consider how we view our own creative pursuits: how many times have you tried to create something – whether it be music, writing or any other artistic activity – and been plagued by thoughts of your own supposed inadequacy?

We don’t come out of the womb being hyper-critical of ourselves; for example, I used to love drawing and writing short stories as a child, with little care for how the product turned out. Both hobbies I thoroughly abandoned in my adolescence; some part of me felt like if I wasn’t good enough to make these hobbies a career, or at the very least good enough to receive external validation, I might as well quit while I was ahead. Self-expression, enjoyment – these were extraneous factors that I barely stopped to consider.

Reflecting on my own experiences, I feel like it’s our results-driven society that sets these expectations for what creating should look like. Through continuous exposure to social pressures, we come to believe that other people’s enjoyment and perception is the only measure of whether something is worth doing. In a society that encourages us to define ourselves based on output, whether this be work-related or creative, not being ‘good’ at something can feel like a moral failing.

The truth is that the concept of being ‘good’ at something is not only highly subjective, but also completely unnecessary. In fact, when we’re frozen by our fear that we’re ‘bad’ at something, or that we’re wasting time by not commodifying our hobbies, we’re losing out on all the other things that we gain from the creative process itself.

If you were to conduct a cost-benefit analysis for buying into hustle culture, you’d likely come out at a loss. Poor mental health and burnout are very real risks of attempting to live your life on a perpetual treadmill of productivity – focussing on quantity over quality isn’t always beneficial in the long-term. Your hobbies don’t need to be productive or useful. Frankly, they don’t even need to make sense. You don’t owe anyone an explanation as to why you have your hobbies, and you certainly don’t need to justify refusing to commodify every second of your life.

There’s a time for work, yes – but there’s a place for other things, too. In a world that’s so focussed on production and generating capital, it’s more important than ever to do things for the joy of it.

Katherine Tweedie is the current Publishing blog editor and a final year Master of Publishing and Communications student at the University of Melbourne. She’s passionate about accessibility in publishing, her cat and borrowing too many library books at once.

Cover photo by Tara Winstead on Pexels.