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The Pressure of Productivity

We know that overworking is harmful for us, but what about being over-productive?

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Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash
Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash

Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

The pressure to be perfect is often talked about. Less discussed is the pressure to be productive

In the age of social media, it is easy to fall into a state of hyperawareness about the actions of other people.  

While this can have a positive, inspiring effect, it can also have a negative one.  

Upon opening Instagram there are many stories in which people are at the gym, in the library, taking extracurriculars, listening to educational podcasts. Logging into Facebook there are personalised adverts about personal efficiency courses, the best ways to invest one’s money, new organisers to buy that will help one prioritise one’s daily activities and fit more into one’s day

On their own, these are not bad things. Unfortunately, they are part of a larger narrative. Being productive has become the latest measure of success. 

The pressure of constant productivity is something that I have experienced myself lately. Like most people, I am at university in order to get a good job. I hope that my studies will give me both relevant knowledge for fields that I am interested in, and important transferable skills that employers look for.

From this perspective, I find it easy to get bogged down comparing my own efforts to that of my friends and peers. Getting a degree does not feel like enough: Everyone gets a degree now. What can set some people apart is the amount and type of extracurricular work that they do, the number of languages that they speak, their impressive knowledge of current events in interviews.

Again, none of these things are bad on their own (indeed they are very good), however it is important to remember that no one can embody all desirable qualities. While three different people might champion one of the extracurricular activities mentioned above, it is unlikely that anyone does all three to a high standard. So why do we feel that we must? 

A potential answer to this can be found in David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity (1989). In this book, Harvey argued that globalisation has caused a time-space compression. As technology advances and becomes faster, people are forced to keep up. Similarly, as technology becomes available to more people, the perceived distance between those with it becomes smaller as global networks expand.  

For productivity, the effect is twofold. First, in pursuit of life’s ever-increasing pace we feel that we have to do more in a shorter space of time. Second, the nexus that we compare our efforts with grows exponentially. Consequently, it can feel like we always have to be working towards bettering ourselves in some way, because if we are not doing this, then someone else will be, lessening our own chances of success. 

However, it is impossible to be switched on all the time. Thrive Global was founded after Arianna Huffington realised this for herself.  

Being constantly engaged with work is an unrealistic and potentially harmful goal. Yet it seems that being constantly productive could have the same effect. If the stimulus for burnout comes from pressure to succeed, then an equation of productivity with success could lead to a similar outcome. 

Little research has been done into the link between productivity-pressure and burnout, but with reported levels of stress increasing for younger generations (i.e. those who experience a greater time-space compression due to technological advances) it seems a worthwhile line of investigation.  

In the meantime, it is important to cut ourselves some slack. Go for a walk, watch Netflix, put on a mindless YouTube video of cats being silly. Allow what you are doing to be enough, because if you try to make yourself do too much, you may hinder yourself in the long-run.  

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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