At the end of every semester at the UofA, finals season descends. Thousands of caffeine- and adrenaline-fueled zombies wander in and out of Mullins Library at all hours of the day and night. Three papers. Six tests. Four Red Bulls — or was it five? There are palpable feelings of stress and dread which drape themselves over every student like a chain-mail blanket. Such feelings are undoubtedly accompanied by a self-imposed mandate to be productive at every moment — to be nearly superhuman.
Although final exams increase the pressure for productivity, it is not a phenomenon limited to one time of year. Many people I know, myself included, have made comments about personal productivity on countless occasions: “I was so productive today. Aren’t you proud of me?” “I am so behind on assignments. I need to be more productive.” These kinds of conversations are probably familiar to most college students. There is an unspoken sentiment that if you are not studying, working out, volunteering, cooking, cleaning, running errands or doing something else of the sort, then you are wasting time.
While being productive is not inherently bad, the expectation to constantly be doing something of quantifiable value is unrealistic. Human beings are not meant to be going, going, going, every day, all the time, and yet we think we should be able to. This so-called “hustle culture” has created an environment in which rest is neglected and overworking is praised.
Case in point: many people have made a name for themselves by showing off their productivity on public platforms. Search for “productive morning routine” on YouTube and be prepared to scroll through thousands of videos on the topic. Many “influencers” — people who have a significant number of followers on social media — have built their careers around productivity, sharing tips and tricks on how to stop procrastinating, become more organized and cultivate new habits.
Again, this kind of content is not necessarily a bad thing — it is probably helpful to some people. But I try to remain wary of prescriptive advice. When someone tells me that by doing this one thing, I can be more productive and change the course of my life, I usually find that trying to do that one thing adds to the existing pressure I have put on myself. I somehow manage to fall short every time. I just get tired.
Buying into “hustle culture” inevitably leads to burnout. There have been many times in my life when I have tried to focus on school 24/7. Under the guise of “productivity,” I skip dinner with friends or decline an invitation to a birthday party, simply to exist in the same area as my study materials. I get distracted and procrastinate. I stare at my computer and scroll on my phone. I remain unfocused and unmotivated, and I ultimately get less done than if I had simply allowed myself to rest or do something fun when I needed to.
The issue here is not valuing productivity. It is undervaluing what society has deemed to be “unproductive” activities. In one study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2021, researchers found “believing leisure is wasteful undermines enjoyment of enacted leisure activities,” and that such beliefs are “associated with poorer mental health outcomes, including lower reported happiness, and greater reported depression, anxiety, and stress.” Seeing leisure as a waste of time makes both leisure activities themselves and other parts of life less enjoyable, resulting in an overall decline in quality of life.
On the other side of the coin, seeing activities with unquantifiable value as valuable has increased my well-being. Watching cooking shows with my family instead of working on a school project would certainly be considered “unproductive” by many — but that project isn’t due for a couple of days, and my family doesn’t get to be together as much as we used to. Sometimes, choosing happiness over productivity is the best thing you can do.
So next time you feel like you’re being “unproductive,” sit with that feeling, and let it pass. Let yourself rest without guilt. Chances are, it will take a lot less time than you think to feel ready to go, and you won’t waste any time procrastinating like you might otherwise. It’s okay to need rest. It’s human — and so are you.