The Epidemic of Productivity-Based Self-worth

Christina Vanvuren
Mar 25 · 6 min read

As I lay there in a darkened room, on a yoga mat surrounded by 10 other people immersed in their own breath, I felt the weight of so many years of perfectionism. With every breath I pulled in and released, I could feel my mind fighting against itself — you’re not doing it right, you’re supposed to do it faster, why can’t you get this right?, if you’re not going to do it right why do it at all? It was in these few moments at the beginning of my first Sacred Breathwork Circle that I realized just how strongly my mind has attached to the belief that my worth is directly tied to my productivity.

I’ve known for a long time that this is a problem for me, though I guess I never understood just how deeply ingrained it still was. I mean shaming myself for potentially not breathing right? That’s a new level, even for me.

But what this experience gave me was an opportunity to witness the way I was keeping myself small and actively choose a different path. I couldn’t distract myself with work or TV or Instagram — I was fully there in that moment and I could choose to suffer or I could choose love and compassion instead.

I focused on my breath and allowed the negative self-talk to pass through my mind, as if I was watching storm clouds pass across an otherwise blue sky. When I felt myself start to grab for one, I deepened my breath even more. After 15 minutes or so, I was breathing so deeply and rapidly that my fingers were tingling and I could feel negative energy being released through my body.

When I shared afterward in circle about this experience of feeling like I needed to get it just right, The nods and murmurs of understanding signaled that this was something others struggled with, too.

Why do we tie our self-worth to our productivity?

Thanks to society, we’ve all been brought up with the idea that our self-worth is directly correlated with things outside of ourselves. For some of us, the status of our romantic relationships can make us feel more or less worthy. For others, it’s financial success, or physical appearance, or weight, or popularity among a certain crowd. Far too many of us look at how much we accomplish in any given time period and base our self-worth on how well we think we did.

Why do we evaluate our self-worth by our productivity? It’s a very American ideal. Spaniards take 2–5 pm off from work to nap. Germans have the shortest work week of any country. But in America? If you work hard, you can be, do, and have anything you want.

We live in a time where middle schoolers are starting profitable businesses, 5-year-olds have million-dollar YouTube channels, and if you don’t have at least one side hustle are you really even a productive member of society?

And I don’t say this to undercut the value and beauty of these things. It’s incredible how technology has given so many people the opportunity to follow their passions, make a difference, and become financially successful. It’s just that the productivity pandemic has been so ingrained in our brains that for a lot of us it’s difficult to identify where doing ends and being begins.

This obsession we have with productivity is directly due to capitalism and our desire to keep our capitalistic society functioning. Burnout rates have been steadily climbing since, dare I say it?, the Industrial Age. The advent of technology has only spurred this on by creating a system where the lines between work and the rest of the life have been definitively blurred. For people who work in high-pressure careers like medicine — did you know physicians suffer the highest suicide rate of any profession, with the U.S. losing a doctor a day to suicide? — or finance, and for people who run their own businesses, this is especially prevalent.

My experiences with productivity, burnout, and self-worth

I was 12 the first time I remember tying my worth to how productive I was. I cried to my mother, I’m turning 13 and I’ve done nothing with my life! It only spiraled throughout the rest of my life. But instead of feeling the pressure and working hard to achieve all the things I thought I was supposed to achieve, I shut down that part of myself.

Slacking off was the name of the game. I made lofty plans and daydreamed endlessly about all the things I’d do one day, but never actually got around to taking first, second, or third steps toward them. I’ve come to believe this was my way of proving what I believed to be true about myself: that I wasn’t worth much. If being productive made me worthy, and I already didn’t feel worthy, why bother trying? Of course, this created a horrible feedback loop that I still have to actively work toward freeing myself from.

When I was a freelance writer, my work days consistently ended at the 12-hour mark. It was just all part of the price of having the…freedom…to make the kind of money I wanted and not have a boss to answer to. After two years (which was admittedly a long time to go at the rate I was but I was on fire for my new life purpose), I hit a wall of burnout. I didn’t want to wake up and work. I found myself procrastinating the days away. I cried a lot when I was working. The worst part for me was beginning to resent the one thing I’d loved all my life — writing. I’d finally gotten around to being productive and it was making me miserable — and for what?

Thankfully, I have a job at an agency I love, doing work I adore with people who consistently inspire me. When I first started, I remember my therapist telling me that I’d need to find ways to celebrate the progress that wasn’t measured by finishing things. Agency work often doesn’t have firm endpoints; with the work ongoing, I was finding myself frustrated that I had nothing to show for my time and energy. I learned to celebrate other things: positive feedback from clients or my team, Friday, feeling excited to work on Monday, and lifestyle milestones like having a flexible work schedule that allowed me to travel in Peru for two weeks or take off in the middle of a Tuesday to go to lunch and yoga with friends.

I don’t experience burnout much these days with work but I still have to reel myself in from filling all of my time with projects that somehow prove — to myself or others — that my time is valuable, that I’m valuable. I often feel guilty for resting, even when I know my body and/or mind needs it.

10 ways to stop glorifying productivity right now

  1. Stop responding to “how are you?” with “sooo busy” like it’s some kind of trophy.
  2. When you meet someone new, ask them what they like to do for fun, not how they earn a living.
  3. Stop working after hours. Turn notifications off for your work email, and set boundaries for when you will and won’t respond to clients or colleagues.
  4. Schedule downtime into your calendar every week, or every day if you can.
  5. Affirm to yourself that you’re already doing enough and that you already are enough.
  6. Say no to taking on projects you don’t have the time or energy for, or that you just don’t have interest in. Leave them for someone else who does and will get far more out of it.
  7. Take breaks. This means you need to stand up from your computer regularly throughout the day and take those vacation days. Instead of spending your breaks hunched over your phone, give your eyes a rest and go outside.
  8. Stop apologizing for not getting back to people quickly. You don’t have to answer texts right away.
  9. Congratulate your friends when they take breaks or pursue self-care activities. Celebrate their ability to disconnect their worth from their productivity, and help them counter anything that may make that difficult for them.
  10. For the love of all that is healthy and happy in this world, have hobbies that don’t make you any money at all. Stop trying to turn everything into a side hustle.

Untangling your inherent worth as a human from how productive you are is a process and practice — one that I may have to actively choose for the rest of my life. It’s hard to change beliefs that are still being shoved in your face every time you open Instagram or your inbox.

But it is possible to come back to yourself with the truth: that you are worthy based on nothing more than your existence. You don’t have to accomplish anything to deserve love or acceptance. You’re already worthy.

Originally published on

Christina Vanvuren

Written by

Queen 👸🏻of #healthcare events. Writer, editor, and brand publicist at Uncommon Bold. Also, making books 📚Procedure Press. Mental health advocate | ♊️