Illustration by Hannah Robinson

Ask a student how they are and I am sure, more often than not, they will quantify their current status with an answer about levels of productivity. It’s one of society’s favourite buzz words: productivity, productive. There is a whole corner of the app store dedicated to apps to help you be more productive, countless youtube videos devoted to the subject, and innumerable podcasts breaking down what really is the secret to productive success. We are swamped with this ideal – this suggestion that productivity is the be-all and end-all of a fruitful career, education and even lifestyle. But how far is this obsession with productivity actually helpful? 

As a student in the final year of my degree, I am well aware of the allure of productivity. It’s that warm feeling you get when you’ve actually concentrated on something for more than 20 minutes, or the relief of bunking down and completing that essay. I actively enjoy responding affirmatively to questions such as “productive day?” or “did you get a lot done?”. I think that’s normal. But there have been times when I haven’t been able to respond to this question exactly as I would have liked to. When I’ve sat down to work and procrastinated or wasted time trying to understand a topic. I’ve beaten myself up for the hours spent unable to focus, whiling away the time on my phone, staring out the window, or even just trying and failing to get stuff done. My expectation and my ideal is that all time spent sat at a desk in the library should be dedicated to completely focused, concise studying. I feel inadequate and dejected when this doesn’t happen. 

This internalised sense that we should always be working has ostensible consequences. We feel guilty for not doing uni work, so much so that it seeps into social situations, extracurricular activities and that all-important time for self-care. Instead of focusing on and enjoying the present, we become somewhat obsessed with the idea that we should be working and that any time not spent working is somehow invalid. Slogging in the library all day is incredibly draining. Sustaining concentration, in an environment which is not exactly conducive to relaxation, is exhausting. Even just being around others working hard, all frowning at computer screens or staring intently into textbooks takes its toll. Still, it has become a pervasive attitude that this act or performance of productivity directly aligns with our sense of success within the machine of university study. 

As always, social media does not help. A common recurrence on Instagram is the precisely engineered displays of a productive “study sesh”; a laptop, a coffee cup and some textbooks, all neatly arranged with some sort of caption telling followers, “back to the grind” or “so done with this”. When we see others being productive, or at least giving off the impression that they are, our feeling of inadequacy increases, fostering a sense of guilt or eating away at the tiny scraps of motivation we were lacking in the first place.

But this obsession with productivity is ultimately counter-intuitive. It takes the passion and excitement out of learning and renders studying a methodical action. I am no longer studying for my degree because I hope to learn more about my chosen subject, I am studying because, otherwise, I will look like a failure. I will miss out on the successes afforded to my peers as a reward for their being productive. 

So, it’s time to get a little bit of perspective. While productivity does serve a purpose, striving towards that feeling of satisfaction after a long day in the library should not become one’s ultimate goal. It’s when productivity becomes prioritised over self-care, relaxation, or even sleep that things begin to get dangerous. Ultimately, productivity is a construct and an ideal, set up to ensure that – for the most part – we feel inadequate. It is blatantly untrue that if you don’t put in a solid eight hours in the library each day, then you are not going to be successful or aren’t keeping up with your peers. Productivity is a useful tool, but it is not the fundamental principle. Work at your own pace and take care of yourself. One’s fruitfulness does not quantify one’s worth.