Aristotle and toxic productivity

Catherine Yackira ‘24

I’m a big fan of this one philosopher, pretty mainstream guy you’ve probably heard of him: Aristotle. I particularly like his writings on virtue ethics, which focuses on virtues and moral character rather than rules or consequences. I may butcher this explanation, so I recommend that you take one of the many classes at HC that cover philosophy; it is well worth your time. From what I remember of my political philosophy class (and Google), virtue in Aristotle’s eyes is sort of a sliding scale. On the one end, you have a deficiency, on the other excess and in the middle, the sweet spot, is the golden mean– this is where virtuous actions lie. For example, honesty is a virtue. You don’t want to be deficient and lie all the time, but you also don’t want to be excessively honest and hurt people. Rather, you should try to find the midpoint— the golden mean. One virtue that I have noticed people have in excess, especially in college, is productivity. I used to be a believer that “you can’t be too productive”! Then I read Aristotle. Well, that’s not true. First, I totally burned out. Then I was too productive again and burned out, and the cycle continued. Then I read Aristotle. Thinking of productivity in the sliding scale that Aristotle provides hasn’t fixed my pattern of being over-productive then burning out with no productivity at all, but it has helped me conceptualize how I can fix it. 

Productivity is something we are all taught that we should strive for—it’s a virtue of the highest order. The more productive we are, the more we can get done, the more we can get done, the more money/better grades/more praise we can get. When you aren’t productive, you are wasting your time— more than that, while you’re not productive, other people are, and they are getting ahead of you. So it’s best to wake up an hour earlier so that you can get a jump start on your day, cut your lunchtime so that you can do some more work, and do anything to make you more productive. But the problem is that this idea of “productivity” leans heavily towards the excess of the sliding scale than the golden mean. There is often a toxic culture of bragging about pulling all-nighters, working long hours, etc. But this shouldn’t be the norm. It is unsustainable and can cause that dreaded burnout most college students know all too well— according to the Mayo Clinic, this is a “state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity”. So now, you’ve gone from the excess of productivity to being deficient in it. Bouncing back and forth on that sliding scale of excess and deficiency is not fun. That’s no way to lead the good life! 

Of course, getting to that golden mean is much easier said than done: the first is to stop comparing yourself to other people, the second is to take a break. Speaking from experience, when I see other people working hard, I often feel guilty and convince myself that I am not productive and that I should be trying harder. I feel like I am too deficient in my productivity, and I need to make up for that in EXCESS. And this goes hand in hand with the second point, taking breaks is essential. Taking a break is okay, in fact it’s more than okay, it’s non-negotiable. You cannot be productive if you’ve worked yourself to the point of burnout. Taking breaks isn’t being lazy; it’s taking care of yourself and trying to balance out to meet the golden mean. Whether that’s reading or working out, talking with friends, meditating- whatever works for you. Again, much easier said than done. The goal of this article isn’t to try to fix everyone’s habit of working too hard and burning out; only someone like Aristotle could accomplish such a feat. But it might be nice to think about this sliding scale, especially during finals season when it is so easy to get absorbed in tests and projects and papers that the golden mean seems to disappear entirely. So, as funny as it sounds, think about Aristotle: take care of yourself during this stressful time when toxic productivity is an easy trap to fall into and try to stay in that golden mean. 

Photo Courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica

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