Productivity Obsession

I don’t know about you, but I have a difficult time admitting when I’m bored or allowing myself to sit with those emotions. When we were growing up, my dad used to snarl, “If you’re bored, go learn something.” Depending on his mood, leisure was seen as something that didn’t have very much value, or in the most extreme cases, taking too much leisure was a sign of moral failure.

Bored white man sitting at a desk next to a laptop, writing in a notebook.

Those were my beginnings, but I also had plenty of cultural reinforcement for my feelings. From a young age, my generation—and the generation before—was pushed to perform. Sliding back meant “wasting your potential.” Laziness was akin to sin and the term “couch potato” was a common insult levied mercilessly at the “unproductive” adults in our lives.

The presence or absence of academic or professional success was a ruler that people used to judge each other.

Fast forward to today, and this moralizing of productivity has reached a peak. The prevalence of “hustle” and “grind” culture has led to a glorification of workaholism. Additionally, you must not only strive for success, but you must also look successful. There is pressure to maintain the appearance of success in the form of fancy clothes, cars, and houses. Also, since obesity has long been societally correlated with laziness, there is pressure to maintain a slim, toned body and a visage of youth and healthfulness as you do so.

The idea for years has been that if you work hard enough, you can “achieve the American dream” and if you fall short, you are simply not working hard enough. Some people are stepping away from this idea by refusing to participate in hustle and grind culture and choosing to give up on the American dream entirely. This coincided with others making thousands of hours of content based on the tagline “I don’t dream of labor.” The idea behind this movement was to push back against the popularized idea that having a job be your “passion” is a necessary part of a meaningful life.

Meritocracy is a word for an ideology that expresses that those who deserve it—those with the most “merit”—make it to the top and others who don’t fail. It presupposes that greater effort always leads to greater results. On the surface, it sounds plausible, but let’s examine it further.

For example, who works harder: a coal miner who labors hours underground in deadly conditions or a lawyer pulling 70 hours a week in the office? Do their incomes reflect the level of work that is put in? Who “deserves” to succeed more in this case and who doesn’t?

Or what about the mother who works at Wal-Mart as a cashier for 36 to 40 hours a week? Does she work harder or less hard than the social media influencer with millions of subscribers who plasters images of her “perfect” family across the internet? Who do you think earns more money? Who do you think has greater access to healthy food, more time and energy to practice healthy habits, and access to better health care?

An insidious side effect of our productivity obsession is that it leads us to make moral judgments not only about our peers’ level of success but also about how they achieve their success. It also hampers our ability to show compassion to those of us within society with disabilities that make it difficult for us to work or study. We make moral judgments about others based on their ability to “contribute to society.” The “couch potatoes” we lambasted may have been that way because of undiagnosed depression. Our overweight co-worker who we thought of as lazy may not have been in a financial position to afford healthy food.

Another side effect is that because we want to occupy every moment with outwardly meaningful activity, we never allow ourselves any time for introspection. In doing so, we never give ourselves the opportunity to examine our own biases. We never give ourselves the opportunity to examine our own desires and find out what we really want. We never give ourselves any time to genuinely relax and enjoy leisure without feeling ashamed or guilty.

The question remains though, don’t we have a moral responsibility to better ourselves? Shouldn’t we be seeking a better life for ourselves and our children? Is it wrong to spend your leisure time on activities that are not intellectually stimulating? Does the adage “TV will rot your brains” not also apply in a world inundated with YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok?

I do believe that we have a moral obligation to better ourselves and to be informed citizens of our democracy. However, I also believe that success is subjective because we all have different values. Some people’s greatest value is financial security, while others’ value is in having enjoyable experiences, and others still value family relationships over everything else. My problem with productivity obsession is that it takes a narrow value and blanket applies it to everyone within the society, including those who would never be able to meet its expectations.

Some people work incredibly hard and are unable to achieve traditional markers of success. Villainizing them for “vegging out” during the small moments of leisure time they have is unhelpful. We not only moralize our productivity, but we moralize our downtime as well. Our friends post pictures of their rambunctious social outings and elaborate vacations, and we immediately experience an acute fear of missing out.

There is a hierarchy even to our hobbies, with television being singled out as negative first, then video games, then social media. This hierarchy ignores how the hobby is interacted with. Sitting and watching television all the time is unhealthy if it leads to a lack of exercise, but what type of media is consumed is an important facet to consider in how fulfilling the activity will be. Video game addiction is a legitimate disorder, contrasted with enjoying video games in the company of friends or for personal enjoyment. Social media can legitimately be used to keep people in touch across long distances, but endless scrolling can be an addictive and unrewarding habit.

My point is, that the hobbies we choose should not be governed by moral constraints if they are safe and do not harm us or other people. Thinking of hobbies as “good” and “bad” sets us up for guilt and shame. In the end, most of us will need to perform some type of labor to survive, but all of us need an occasional reprieve from life’s struggles. Basing our self-worth solely on productivity is a pitfall that we must avoid.

So, if you get the chance, allow yourself a few moments to be bored. Allow yourself to do something mindless and fun—without feeling like you are “wrong”—just because you can. Life is already difficult enough as it is. If you want to chase traditional markers of success, I’m sure you’re already doing so, and you certainly don’t require my permission. My goal has been to make you and others aware of your options. We do not all have to strive for the same things, and it is my sincerest desire that you find meaning in your own way.

Image credit: RODNAEproductions at

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