There’s a lot of toxicity in productivity culture, really.
I might be particularly susceptible to it. But I notice that when people talk about staying up particularly late to finish something or waking up particularly early when they’re eager to get back to it—generally speaking, skipping out on sleep—I am jealous. It’s not really a possibility for me. I am not a functional person without my psychiatric meds. I have to take them every night—even one skipped or reduced dose can wreak psychotic havoc—and they knock me out. I will not be doing anything once I take them (you should see what happens if I need the bathroom) for a minimum of eight hours. Sleeping less than eight hours a night is not an option. And… boo hoo, right? I must sleep a normal human amount, consistently, and I have a lifestyle easily built around this fact! So why am I so jealous of the occasional all nighter?
Meanwhile, I’m recovering from an eating disorder. Not only is that another great reason to take my meds and get my sleep, but, right now at least, I’m logging three meals and three snacks at set times, to share with my team, per day, among other tasks. Yes, this element is more forgiving, but if I want to recover, I ultimately have to stick with the program. No skipping lunch because I’m in the zone, which I miss terribly. Boo hoo. I must eat enough to fuel my mortal body, consistently, and I have a lifestyle easily built around this fact! So why am I so jealous of people skipping a meal for the sake of flow?
Toxicity in productivity culture.
There’s romanticization of self neglect in almost every story of success—how a business was built on all nighters and more caffeine than food. There’s competitiveness—especially in demanding environments—the, “Oh, you slept for four hours last night? I only slept three.” There’s endless advice to be found on how to reduce your need for sleep, or “research” on why you really only need six hours. There’s an assumption that productive people are cutting corners on self care to squeeze out more work. You’re supposed to be both an early riser and a night owl. To skip breakfast on your way out the door and give up your lunch break.
Sure, plenty of productivity books will say you should prioritize self care—in the name of productivity, forget your happiness and health—but if you read between the lines, there’s the assumption of work first, you later, and that you are here because you are interested in being a productive person, so you’ve obviously at least dabbled in skimping on your needs. It’s like purposefully missing the memo about self neglect makes you self absorbed.
But that’s not going to keep you healthy or happy. And productivity wise, it’s not sustainable. It’s better to sleep and eat enough now than to spend months too burnt out (and miserable) to work worth mentioning later. I ran myself into the ground trying to craft the perfect college application, only to burn out and drop out in tenth grade (psychotic break aside). My wife tried to launch a business in an impossible amount of time, only to take an ambulance ride to the emergency room (which is, by the way, expensive). The risks are real.
Plus, those demanding environments are social nightmares. It can feel close knit (dare I say cultish), but whom do you turn to for real support when everyone laughs at you for getting more than half of the sleep you need? (And how are you going to develop boundaries?)
I don’t want to get into healthism or condemn the occasional, voluntary skipped lunch or late night—but the underlying idea that it’s required, constantly? That’s something worth examining. I’m certainly still fighting it.
And let’s take a little detour into creativity. There are endless articles and more on the link between creativity and mental illness. You’ll find ones that say that mentally ill people make better art or more art. That most artists are mentally ill, or that most mentally ill people are artists. Then you’ll find an article that debunks the one you just read. And then—
The idea of this link between mental illness and creativity is everywhere. There’s some subtle, toxic incentivization for artists to become and stay mentally ill. And messages that good art is created via trauma and disorder, rather than by putting in the work of practice.
Don’t get me wrong. I write on this subject myself—but I speak anecdotally about my own experience. The idea is worth examining. But we still should consider health, happiness, and sustainability as well as creativity and productivity. I want to consider these concepts and links for myself as someone who is, incurably, a schizophrenic, and is, incurably, a writer, not make people want to live with a disability or view trauma as a shortcut to great art. And I still generally focus on prioritizing my wellbeing and putting in the work.
Ultimately, we should remember that we are our own best asset, and take care of ourselves the way we take care of our favorite calendars and pens. Yes, it may make us more creative and productive, too, but also, we should just do it for ourselves.