How Toxic Productivity Took Over Our Entire Lives - Working 24/7, Monetizing Hobbies, & More

We all love the feeling of being productive. But what happens when productivity turns a little… toxic?

“There’s nothing we can’t do if we work hard, never sleep and skirt all other responsibilities in our lives.” Parks and Recreation

Workaholism and “hustle culture” are certainly nothing new, but in recent years it seems like things have somehow managed to ramp up even more. Now it’s not just about being efficient at work, but reworking every aspect of your entire life to be “productive.” There’s a pervasive feeling that nothing in life is worthwhile if it doesn’t count as being productive – but productive pretty much always boils down to financially lucrative. In a world where making ends meet feels harder than ever, we’ve all been pushed into framing our lives around chasing capital and “maximizing our profits” like we’re over-the-top venture capitalists and not just… people trying to live our human lives.

“So it’s a cliche I know, but why do you want to work here?” “I don’t, because I need money to live.” Extraordinary

So let’s take a look at this modern streak of ‘toxic productivity’, the media and pop culture it evolved out of, and how we can best try to combat it and take back our hobbies and peace of mind.


While social media has been great in many respects, allowing us to chat with people around the world and find engaging new communities, it also has had the downside of allowing us to see what feels like everyone else doing better than us pretty much all the time. And as much as we remind ourselves that social media isn’t a reflection of reality and people curate what they show so that we only see their wins… it’s still really hard not to feel like you’re falling behind.

“Hey, maybe the real power is just being yourself.” “That is the dumbest f*cking thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” Extraordinary

And this isn’t just about our jobs anymore – though of course there are still plenty of messages about how we’re not doing enough either. Now, we’re being told we need to be “productive” in every aspect of our waking lives… and our sleep. You need to be organizing (and color coding) your entire schedule, elevating your skincare, enhancing your love life, and getting a raise at work, while also fitting in exercise, cooking all of your food at home (from scratch, of course,) and improving your mind. You can’t just be comfortable with where you are or what you have because there’s always something to level up or improveand then there’s the worry that everything could be swept out from under you at any time, so you need to get even further ahead to prepare.

“You’re allowed to make one mistake.” “No, no, actually, I’m not. I’m not allowed to make any mistakes. People like you are allowed to make mistakes.” “What the f*ck does that mean?” “Mistakes are a privilege.” Industry

In the very first episode of HBO’s Industry, we see the devastating results that can come from this need to succeed at all costs: Hari, desperate to prove his worth at Pierpoint, stays late and comes in early every day, or often doesn’t even leave at all and just sleeps in the office. The stress, combined with the substances he was taking to try to keep him awake so that he could work more, leads to him having a heart attack and passing away. And, in the end, business at Pierpoint just continues on as usual because no matter how much of yourself you give, the machine will always just find another cog.

“Productivity” is pretty much never tied to anything fun or fulfillingunless of course, you can monetize it. Whether it’s reading not for the joy of it but to pump out content for BookTok, or knitting not for yourself but to sell on Etsy, today there is a huge push to monetize every hobby. People who just do a hobby for fun are often met with shock that they aren’t trying to make money off it – because what’s the point of having a skill or thing you enjoy doing if it isn’t in service of capital?! But this is also a difficult line to walk for many of us because sometimes it feels like monetizing the few things you enjoy is the only way to make ends meet. But focusing your entire life around being “productive” is, in the end, a fast track to burnout.

“There’s this weird pain right above my eyebrow.” “It’s called a stress headache. I got my first one when I was four.” Community

So… how did we get here?!


The idea of toxic productivity has deep roots in American culture in both the Protestant Work Ethic and the “American dream,” which places a high value on “working hard” – a term which includes the expectation of long hours, sacrificing personal time, and disregarding work-life balance – to achieve financial success.

American workaholism can be seen in the way our culture valorizes periods of intense and extreme work during times of crisis, such as when the United States worked tirelessly during WWII to keep up with manufacturing demands.

“Existing companies changed their lines from consumer goods to war materials, and new plants were constructed strictly for the creation of products for the war effort.”PBS Learning

And while not uniquely American, this workaholic nature is especially evident in comparison to the way Europeans view work. Americans historically don’t even take their (much lower amounts ) of allotted vacation time and are often overworked.

In recent years, Toxic productivity has expanded on the historical roots of workaholism through both social media and influencers. The modern trends of toxic productivity and wellness are both intertwined and in tension online. Influencer archetypes like “that girl,” “momfluencers,” and “wellness gurus” preach self-care and wellness, but actually turn this non-work sphere of life into yet more work, and add to anxiety about not being productive enough or doing enough for your physical health, mental wellbeing, or family. These wellness and lifestyle influencers promote a glossy, edited version of both self-care and productivity, which can make the average viewer feel like they’re failing on both accounts to live up to such a highly curated image in their own life.

The rise of toxic productivity was also heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. While life and work were previously more separated, the necessity for remote work blurred those lines. And despite living in huge amounts of uncertainty, stress, and grief during the pandemic, there was immense pressure to use the “excess” of free time provided by remote work effectively.

“You can still have fun, even if you’re wasting time.” “That’s absurd. Productivity is what makes things fun. That’s why humans go to work.” “Is it?” Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Even now that people are returning to the office or continuing to work hybridly or remotely, we’re having trouble shaking off that mentality of needing to be constantly available. But especially as social activities have become possible again, that’s no longer doable, and leads to increased stress and anxiety as people take their work home with them every day. Similarly, the fully online nature of work nowadays also contributes, as communication is instant and tasks are expected to be handled immediately.

Our Changing Views of “Productivity”

We’ve seen toxic productivity in film and TV before – but what’s changed in recent years is exactly how it’s portrayed. Andy in The Devil Wears Prada ends up becoming a model of toxic productivity. Even though she starts her job at Runway Magazine with no interest in fashion and finds her boss Miranda’s demands unrealistic and extreme, she eventually subscribes to the toxic ideology of her workplace. She sacrifices her personal relationships and free time to advance in her job, despite feeling fatigued and overworked.

“You know, in case you were wondering - the person whose calls you always take? That’s the relationship you’re in. I hope you two are very happy together.” The Devil Wears Prada

But Andy eventually realizes that being productive isn’t everything, and manages at the end of the film to quit Runway to pursue her passions and preserve her personal life, and her journey is given a positive spin as a learning experience that helps her get her next job.

“I got a fax from Miranda Priestly herself saying that of all the assistants she’s ever had, you were, by far, her biggest disappointment… And, if I don’t hire you, I am an idiot.” The Devil Wears Prada

A similarly “positive” view of workplace productivity is embodied in characters like Leslie in Parks & Recreation or Amy in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Even though they experience stress and anxiety when work doesn’t go to plan or they feel like they’re not accomplishing enough, these workplace sitcoms put a positive spin on toxic productivity because they focus on social dynamics within the office. The need for a work-life balance is almost erased, because their most meaningful relationships – including romantic relationships – are with their colleagues. But this still isn’t necessarily healthy – and even if you love your job, you could still find yourself falling victim to toxic productivity by failing to establish boundaries between your personal and productive time.

As we’ve seen toxic productivity rise on social media, we’ve seen a similar rise in more negative portrayals of being productive in film and TV. Severance, a workplace drama which focuses on employees whose brains are literally “severed” between their work and home selves, shows how toxic productivity isn’t sustainable. The “innies,” who work nonstop, are fatigued, bored, and yet made to feel guilty when they’re doing anything that’s not explicitly productive.

“Forgive me for the harm I have caused this world. None may atone for my actions but me, and only in me shall their stain move on. I am thankful to have been caught, my fall cut short by those with wizened hands. All I can be is sorry, and that is all that I am.” Severance

Aside from critiquing corporate culture at large, Severance also shows that we need a work-life balance to thrive – and that subsisting on work alone will likely lead to disastrous consequences.

Despite shows like Severance showcasing the negative side of productivity, social media continues to try to make it seem more appealing than ever. The difference between toxic productivity and hustle culture or traditional “workaholism” is that it has become an aesthetic. TikTok is full of videos showcasing pretty planners, stationary, scheduling templates, or work apps that glamourize productivity. And because productivity itself isn’t inherently bad, it can be difficult to identify when it becomes toxic. It’s important to ask yourself if you’re actually being productive and feeling good about it, or if you’re just enamored with the idea of being productive. This can still be harmful, as you might be spending less time on the tasks you actually need to accomplish and more time performing productivity.

“Everything we do here is important.” “It’s important because it actually is or because you’re saying it is?” Severance

Alternatively, you may be productive but at an unsustainable cost.

So… What Do We Do About It?

So toxic productivity is a societal problem – but how do we combat it, especially when it seems like everyone is going the extra mile?

Working feels bad and I don’t ever want to work another day in my life.” Search Party

One of the most important ways to combat toxic productivity is establishing clear work boundaries whenever possible, and making time for breaks. It’s also important to make an effort to say “no” when work tries to break through those boundaries – many times, a task can wait until tomorrow, but we feel an immense amount of pressure to handle everything immediately. This is, of course, easier said than done since sometimes that “no” can come with some negative consequences from bosses who expect everyone to follow their lead without question. But even just preparing yourself to pushback sometimes can end up having a net positive effect on your work life and mental health. In a similar vein, we can practice “professional detachment,” which constitutes making a conscious effort to separate yourself from your role and having an emotional detachment from work.

You can also ensure you’re doing things efficiently rather than feeling the need to overcomplicate or take up more time to be “productive.” In workplace sitcoms like The Office and Parks & Rec, we can see how workplaces can often add banal or tedious tasks that could be accomplished much more efficiently otherwise. And similarly, your boss or manager cares less about you appearing to work than your actual results. As HR consultant Laurie Ruettimann said, ““They’re wowed and impressed by your accomplishments, by your deliverables ― they don’t care how many hours it took to get it done. They don’t think about the difference between 40 hours and 50 hours of work. They just want good work.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that toxic productivity isn’t sustainable and will lead to burnout, hurting your chances at profession and personal success in the long run.

“When people feel supported, they will literally explode with productivity.” Parks and Recreation

To be the most productive, you need to take breaks, make time to relax with friends and family members, practice self-care, and take time to do nothing. Despite what pop culture might have us believe, no one can be productive all of the time – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

“We need to remember what’s important in life: friends, waffles, work. Or waffles, friends, work. Doesn’t matter, but work is third.” Parks and Recreation