By Lucy Osborne
Toxic productivity is the ugly stepsister of COVID-19, the annoying side character that was never wanted. It can be explained as an inexplicable desire to better oneself with radical self-improvement; needless to say however, this is an entirely unattainable goal. This is a new age epidemic that was sweeping across the globe long before COVID-19, with the year long lockdown exacerbating this obsession.
With the media now available in bitesize chunks, with the introduction of TikTok and Instagram reels, toxic productivity has now crept further into our consumption of media from the native ground of YouTube. A relatively new phenomenon of 2020 and 2021 has been ‘dark academia’, a form of academic aesthetic centralising around gothic architecture and imagery. It projects a startlingly unhealthy work-life balance as it encourages ceaseless revision and a viciously academic life without rest bite. These kinds of videos have stumbled onto my home page on TikTok as I lie on my bed scrolling, making me feel both inadequate and stupid, simply because I haven’t read every book ever to be considered a classic. In mainstream media, people are like a bat out of hell to criticise the unrealistic beauty standards pedalled by the likes of the Kardashians and Hadid’s, yet they are reluctant to instil the same blasphemy towards academics.
At the beginning of the first lockdown, TikTok viewers were happy with their whipped coffee and ten second dances. Yet it is now scarily easy for people to curate and carefully edit minute snapshots of their day into something seemingly perfect, without a moments rest. I often feel exhausted just sat watching them. What is so dangerous about this subverted reality is it projects the ideology that you are not successful or working hard unless you are working 100% of the time. Due to the increase in the intimacy of parasocial relationships (between creators and their audiences) over the past few years, it means the audience feels even more responsible to replicate the life they see on their social media. As we know however, this reality is not attainable - to live a life without breaks or pleasure is to not live properly.
The community of 'Studytube' is seemingly to blame for the vast growth of toxic productivity. A few years ago during A Levels, my YouTube home page was incessantly broadcasting ’12 hour study with me’ and ‘how to study for ten hours in a day’. Attempting to study for this long without breaks is dangerous and counterproductive. It is easy to question why people attempt to follow these influencer’s lifestyles, if it is so obviously toxic. We must consider however, that the Studytubers also publish their lavish abundance of perfect results and grades; this unfortunately portrays to their audience that participating in this toxic productivity is the only way to achieve these grades. It is important to mention too that your grades absolutely do not define you. They are merely a by-product of society, regardless of what the media portrays to you.
It is not all doom and gloom however, as the pandemic did cause a handful of Studytubers to acknowledge how toxic the community is. Two in particular who stood out to me were Eve Bennett and Eve Cornwell. I had followed these two incredibly successful women for a few years, taking inspiration from their ‘study with me’ and ‘vlogs’. I found it very inspiring to watch such ambitiously driven women a few years my senior; it did however, begin to make me feel somewhat hateful towards myself because I wasn’t achieving the same grades as them or spending as much time studying. During the pandemic, they have now released videos discussing the toxic nature of Studytube and productivity. Through both of them acknowledging they too have bad days and how normal it is to not be productive all the time, it will allow members of their audience like me, to finally feel some peace.
I hope this article has allowed you to find some comfort if you too have fallen foul to the claws of toxic productivity. I would recommend downloading the app ‘Headspace’ for when you’re feeling especially stressed out, it can help lead you through meditation or remind you of breathing techniques. Try to schedule your relaxation as well as seemingly ‘productive’ tasks. Taking care of your brain and your body is the most productive thing you can possibly do.
Truthfully, there is no singular attainable and perfect life. Everyone has a different definition of what they would attribute the perfect life to be. Ultimately, as long as you are happy that is all that counts. So go and run yourself a bath and listen to ‘Vienna’ by Billy Joel. As the legend says, “Take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while, you can afford to lose a day or two”.