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Self-Care Belongs on To-Do Lists: Teens Are Dealing With Toxic Productivity More Than We Know

By: Sophene Avedissian

Struggling to keep my eyes open, I cannot help but feel tired despite my persistent urge to keep working. The voices inside my head urging me to prioritize checking tasks off of my to-do list over my mental health overwhelm me. As my family watches a movie in the next room, I feel disconnected from them and more importantly, myself. Who am I and what are my values if I spend hours at my desk working instead of bonding with those I love? All I want to do is close my computer and throw a blanket over me while I watch television with my family. But, I can’t; I want to, but I can’t. Every time I want to take time to enjoy myself and relax, I convince myself to continue spreading myself thin. As I rub my eyes and turn away from the bright computer screen, I tell myself, this can’t be normal; it shouldn’t be like this.

Though I allowed the negative thoughts inside my mind to convince me that my self-worth is defined by my accomplishments, I was in the right when I knew that it shouldn’t be like this. Little did I know that some of the“attributes” people ascribed to me – determined and passionate – may also be signs of toxic productivity concealed as something innocuous. And I’m not alone. Though often categorized as solely a problem for adults, toxic productivity does in no way discriminate. Everyone, including teenagers, is vulnerable.

Hustle culture started with praising individuals’ hard work. Since then, it has evolved immensely creating phenomena such as toxic productivity - the persistent desire to be productive at all times, which has continued to greatly affect me for years. “We see many people wearing their unhealthy behavior, i.e. working seven days a week, as a badge of honor,” said Dr. Anika Petrella, a psychotherapist and research associate at the University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, in an interview with Vogue.

Ever since elementary school, I have always pushed myself to work harder and constantly meet the high expectations I set out for myself. The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated my need to be productive, as the activities I could do for enjoyment were suddenly limited. With so much free time during the pandemic, I felt that I needed to use my time “wisely,” and that translated into my working more. While the pandemic exacerbated the pressure for adults to be constantly working, the pandemic also led to students feeling more compelled to study and participate in activities.

After a year in quarantine, I was finally forced to tackle my toxic productivity. A year had gone by of me working myself to my breaking point, and I finally realized that I couldn’t sustain this lifestyle. I was simply sacrificing too much. In such a difficult time, I needed to prioritize self-care and not my productivity.

My internal reflections led me to realize that I needed to change.

When I first confided in the adults in my life about how I was trapped in a never-ending cycle of toxic productivity, they brushed my experiences off as minor and insignificant. But, I don’t blame them. Society makes it seem as though students are supposed to prioritize their grades and completing assignments over everything else. Students are supposed to work tirelessly until they can barely think straight. Students are supposed to care about their futures. How would they know anything different?

“Don’t worry too much. You’re just a very hard-working student. It’s something to be proud of,” I was told. Though society teaches teenagers to work diligently, relaxing and taking care of oneself are often neglected and treated as unimportant. Only after feeling incredibly stressed and dissatisfied with myself did I begin to realize the importance of self-care.

Working hard is something I’m meant to be proud of, I told myself whenever I questioned my unhealthy habits and tendencies.

And so, I continued equating working with happiness and fulfillment.

Learning to understand that my well-being is more important than an arbitrary to-do list was hard; it seemed impossible. But, I soon came to understand that if I continued to neglect my mental health and treat self-care as “a waste of time,” I would quickly lose motivation and not be able to pursue all of my aspirations. Before anything else could happen, I would need to value self-care, despite it not being a task unfinished on my to-do list.

Journaling, reading, spending time with family and friends, and going for walks began to fill up my schedule more and more. While I continued to work on school work, I always remembered to take a step back when I needed to, whether I relaxed by going on a walk or listening to my favorite music. I no longer viewed these activities as unnecessary or unimportant. And since then, I have not gone back. I have not gone back to a lifestyle where I work to no limit. But reaching this point was not easy. The process of escaping the cycle of toxic productivity required me to value self-care above all else.

I know that my struggle with toxic productivity is not unique. I know that a countless number of other teens feel that they need to be productive to be worthy. I know that others wonder why they have a constant need to work. As a society, we need to begin treating toxic productivity as a prominent issue so that teens’ symptoms are not pushed aside anymore. Emphasizing self-care and no longer associating work with happiness are essential to preventing toxic productivity among teens.

Self-care belongs on to-do lists.

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