First Published: April 10, 2024 | Last Updated:

The gist: Learn how to break free from Hustle Culture’s toxic productivity and learn how to be productive without sacrificing your mental health or self-care.

When most of us think of productivity, our minds often jump to a version that can only be described as “brute-force productivity.”

Think about something like how we describe focused work. It’s often intense, aggressive, almost violent.

Or think about how much productivity culture equates getting things done with relying on discipline and self-control.

Finally, think about how common it is to use negative self-talk like shame and guilt to try and force ourselves into being productive.

This is toxic productivity in action.

And it used to be the only way I knew how to get work done.

But after going through enough therapy to notice this, I started paying closer attention to whether or not it actually helped me do the things I was shaming and guilting myself about.

And holy crap, was that enlightening.

I realized that not only did brute-force productivity NOT help me get more done in the short-term, it was also actively harming both my productivity and mental health…in both the short- and long-term.

Once I figured that out, I started wondering what the complete opposite of brute-force productivity could look like, and how it could work.

I started building a new productivity toolkit.

One based in empathy and self-compassion, instead of shame and self-flagellation.

Right now I’m calling it gentle productivity, and I can’t wait to talk about it more.

The problem with brute-force productivity

Hustle Culture teaches us that nothing but our productivity matters, especially not things that make us “weak,” like sleep, disability, or mental illness. 

This encourages us to pay less attention to, or even completely ignore, other areas of our lives, like health and wellbeing. It also convinces us that we should expect ourselves (and others) to perform like robots, working at the same optimal efficiency at all times, no matter what's going on in our surroundings.

All this conditioning means we end up ignoring a lot of the most important factors that can impact our productivity.

Things that are essentially prerequisites to being focused, productive, and feeling good.

Things like being well-rested, well-hydrated, fed, and in a stable emotional state.

And then when the lack of those things starts to hurt our productivity, instead of investigating why we’re struggling in the first place and trying to address the root problem…

We just try more of, try harder at, the same productivity tips and tricks that aren’t working, until we’re stuck in a productivity shame cycle.

The productivity shame cycle

The productivity shame cycle goes like this:

  • First, we notice we’re struggling with our productivity.
  • Then, we feel shame and guilt about not being productive enough.
  • So we react to those feelings with negative self-talk and punishment.

This only makes our productivity worse, so the cycle continues.

It took me too long to realize I was doing this to myself, but once I did, I was shocked at how I spoke to myself and treated myself in ways I never would to someone else.

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

Sign up to get weekly tips and stories to help you create your OWN definition of productivity working better and brighter.

The alternative: gentle productivity

What I now call gentle productivity is about getting things done without treating yourself horribly. Treating yourself how you would treat friends or colleagues.

Gentle productivity is about getting things done and improving your productivity by addressing the actual root causes of our productivity struggles (like burnout or a health issue—physical or mental) instead of trying to brute force push through them.

And it's about doing so with self-compassion, kindness, and empathy

I had been experimenting with this approach for awhile when I learned about the concept and pillars of gentle parenting, and saw a lot of parallels between the two, hence the name.

And where gentle parenting has 3 pillars, I’ve come up with 5 principles of gentle productivity:

  1. Self-care
  2. Mindfulness
  3. Self-compassion
  4. Flexibility
  5. Thinking small

Here’s a quick rundown of how each of them ultimately play into productivity:

Principle 1: self-care

First of all, we need to recognize (and accept) how much self-care and health factors impact our productivity.

To understand that things like how much sleep we’ve gotten recently, our emotional state, and how hydrated we are often impact how much we can do in a day, more than any time management or productivity technique.

Gentle productivity is things like not expecting too much of yourself after a shitty night’s sleep, when you’re sick, or when you’re in a strong emotional state (either positive or negative).

It took me a long time to fully realize that the better I take care of things like that…the better I tend to my self-care, the easier it is to be productive without any tricks, hacks, or hateful self-talk.

Yes, as people like The Nap Ministry's Tricia Hersey crucially emphasize, things like rest, self-care, and play have so much value beyond improving your productivity. And only recognizing their value in relation to productivity is Hustle Culture at play.

But also, they really do improve your productivity. 🤷🏻‍♀️

So when that’s what you’re struggling with, consider how well you’ve been tending to your self-care.

Principle 2: mindfulness

Another important factor in all this is mindfulness.

It takes self-awareness to understand your body and mind, what they need when, and what’s really preventing you from being productive, the real root problem.

And that takes cultivating mindfulness, learning to slow down and pay attention to what’s going on with yourself.

This can be the hardest part, especially if you're neurodivergent and have alexithymia, or have a chronic illness or disability that's taught you not to trust your body's sensations.

But that also only makes it more important to practice.

You want to be able to recognize when a productivity problem isn't really a productivity problem, and you need to look for a deeper issue at play

Principle 3: self-compassion

The third principle is self-compassion, inspired by the work of Dr. Kristen Neff.

From her website (which has a lot of great resources):

Self-compassion is about being more compassionate to yourself “in instances of perceived inadequacy,” instead of “just ignoring your pain with a ‘stiff upper lip mentality.”

There are 3 main elements to it:

  • Reacting to those perceived inadequacies with self-kindness instead of judgement
  • Recognizing our humanity, as opposed to the isolation of perfectionism
  • Practice mindfulness (there it is again!) to reduce over-identifying with certain thoughts, feelings, or parts of your identity that might not be helpful

Self-compassion is required to fight things like the internalized ableism, judgement, and shame fueling the productivity shame spiral we talked about earlier.

Principle 4: flexibility

Another important part of gentle productivity is approaching your tasks, responsibilities, and commitments with flexibility.

Recognize that getting the important stuff done matters more than stuff like when, where, and how you got them done.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re following “productivity best practices,” like time blocking your day or working with lofi music or silence.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re working in a way that looks productive to other people.

What matters is that the balls that can’t get dropped, don’t get dropped.

And when you’re dealing with limitations on your time, energy or health, that means being very flexible about how things get done.

Most of the time, it will look far from perfect.

Principle 5: think smaller

Finally, I am once again telling you to think small!

Or at least, smaller than you’re probably accustomed to.

It’s important to be realistic about what you can do in a day, and remember that we’re all prone to time optimism.

Setting your expectations too high can end up putting too much productivity pressure on yourself, which is more likely to become self-sabotage and make things even worse, than actually make you more productive or effective.

It goes back to the productivity shame spiral again.

If you keep your expectations low, you’re more likely to get a motivation boost from exceeding them, than to self-sabotage with unrealistic plans.

When in doubt, break things down to make them smaller. Both concrete plans, and your expectations around them.

When things are hard, just focus on one thing at a time for as long as you reasonably can.

These mindsets and habits can help you go easier on yourself, get to the real root of your productivity struggles, and address those instead of pushing through problems.

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

Sign up to get weekly tips and stories to help you create your OWN definition of productivity working better and brighter.

Be gentle with yourself

As you move forward, remember that being productive doesn't require you to be an asshole to yourself.

Try implementing these principles in your daily routine and see how your relationship with productivity changes.

You might just find that putting less pressure on yourself to be productive will actually make you more productive anyway.