We Can’t Be Productive Every Day—So Why Do We Continue to Glorify It?

Less is more.

By Isabelle Eyman

Like many women, I’ve always had a problem with comparison (also related: perfectionism). In the past, it was difficult to feel confident in my creativity or ideas because I knew there was always someone smarter and more accomplished out there. To fuel the fire even more, I’d compare my own progress against the expectations I’d set for myself. And I always seemed to come up short. And unfortunately—with many of us turning to the digital sphere for connection—this has only grown in our post-pandemic world. The result? Burnout, mental exhaustion, and the anxiety that what you accomplish will never be enough. We’re always giving ourselves a reason to strive for more.

I’ve long been puzzled by the word “enough.” It’s inherently subjective, fully dependent on our—or other people’s—definition. It points to the fact that in pursuit of something so vague, we’ll inevitably miss the mark. By chasing an indeterminate endpoint, we keep wanting more. And a toxic cycle of productivity continues until we reach a breaking point due to the fleeting satisfaction from success.

Today, we’re talking about the causes of mental exhaustion and sharing ideas for how to escape the push to be productive for productivity’s sake. It’s time to leave the #girlboss and hustle culture behind—let’s move on toward a new era of contentment.

Featured image of Ashley Robertson’s home by Matti Gresham.

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and we recommend that you always consult with your healthcare provider.

working on laptop, mental exhaustion
Image by Michelle Nash

What is mental exhaustion?

I’m sure we can all relate to the occasional desire to stay in bed all day. But when mental exhaustion hits, taking on the day can feel impossible. Mental exhaustion can materialize for a number of reasons. There’s, of course, the stress of a demanding job. Or, perhaps you’re a caregiver for little ones or an aging parent. Whatever the cause, mental exhaustion is on the rise—particularly since the pandemic began. Almost 75% of workers reported feelings linked to mental exhaustion. These symptoms include:

  • Inability to focus or get work done
  • A lack of motivation at work or in your personal life
  • Low mood or a sense of hopelessness
  • Feelings of overwhelm or anxiety
  • Fatigue no matter how much sleep you get

In an article for BetterUp, Certified Integrative Wellness & Life Coach Allaya Cooks-Campbell likens the causes of mental exhaustion to physical injuries as a result of overuse. Tennis elbow and carpal tunnel both develop from repetitive stress. Mental exhaustion is similar, only that you’re over-stressing your mind.

Saying Goodbye to the #Girlboss?

Before the 2020 reckoning of many female-led startups, the idea of the girlboss held strong. Coined in 2014 by Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso, the girlboss was meant to stand as a powerful contrast to the patriarchal structures of work. But as Samhita Mukhopadhyay wrote in The Cut, the term quickly “became synonymous with ‘hustle culture,’ with a feminism-lite twist: the optimistic, almost religious desire to get ahead at work and in life.”

And though the concept of girl-bossing has largely been dismantled, the hustle still holds in many circles. While we’re told to prioritize self-care, we simultaneously work long hours at our main gig and put in extra time to build our side hustles. So, the narrative feels like an inescapable double standard: you become a project alongside your work.

reading, mental exhaustion
Image by Michelle Nash

How can we let go of hustle culture when it’s all around us?

I’ve long felt that hustle culture evokes a new era of the American Dream. What does constantly striving and pushing ourselves get us? Closer to the promise of reaching your dreams. It’s the 2023-ified version of the white picket fence: we’re after not only financial security to compensate for our efforts, but also the self-worth and image of value that we associate with success.

But through this constant hustle, instead of a deeply rooted sense of fulfillment, we often feel something closer to an existential worry: Is this really all there is? Enter: the hedonic treadmill.

The Hedonic Treadmill

The hedonic treadmill defines the experience of sprinting toward a goal only to chase the next pursuit after you meet it. The result is that you’re never happy with the present. No matter what you achieve, you’ll always want more.

This is where the frustrating vagueness of “enough” comes back in. It’s clear that by the way the hedonic treadmill functions, enough is only an ephemeral pipe dream. So what do we do? It’s time to re-think our priorities and pour into what truly brings us a sense of contentment.

woman reading, mental exhaustion
Image by Michelle Nash

How to Heal From Mental Exhaustion and Seek Contentment

To escape the hedonic treadmill, we have to learn to find meaning in other areas of our lives. Whereas we may have once wrapped our identity entirely in our ability to check tasks off our to-do lists, it’s time to seek purpose beyond the hedonic treadmill. (Because that’s the cycle keeping us stuck.)

Easier said than done, of course. But satisfaction can be cultivated when we learn to appreciate what’s around us and express gratitude for what’s currently, inextricably ours. Let’s look at the things that will help us connect deeper with our values and prioritize what’s truly important to us.

Take a gentle pause

If possible, stop. Are you in the middle of your workday? Give yourself five minutes or so to step away from your computer, pour a glass of water, and take a few deep breaths. If you’re putting in extra time without a pressing deadline, shut things down and sign off for the night. The first step to coming back into alignment is to create a moment that’s physically separate from the stress. It’s hard to meaningfully reflect when you have Slacks and notifications pulling you back into your screen.

Reflect and refocus

Now that you have space for yourself, ask: What truly fulfills you? What are the activities and rituals that make you light up when you think about them? Pull out your journal or start a digital document making note of the feelings that are coming up for you when you compare how you currently spend your time to how you’d like to be filling your days. Oftentimes, when mental exhaustion is at play, the two can look very different.

Several years ago, a friend shared with me the best advice I’ve ever received: Trust that you never have to prove your worth.

Let social media work for you

When we go on social media, we’re inevitably met with the highlight reels of other people’s lives. While we may know that everyone saves the bad moments for IRL, seeing so many picture-perfect clips and images can make us feel inadequate. No matter if it’s a friend or an influencer, unfollow or mute the accounts that make you feel that way. Remember: you’re in charge of the content you take in.

Enjoy the process

The way we think about growth often has us laser-focused on the end goal. Yes, we might be aware of the steps that it takes to get what we want, but we think about grinding our way through them in lieu of a process we actually enjoy. When you think about your goals, take into consideration not only the objective itself but the journey of reaching it. Ask yourself: Will I like the ways that I’ll change along this path? Do I like the process of learning, of supporting others, of working with new people? Reflection can help you get clear on why you’re prioritizing certain goals and if they’re really representative of the the life you want for yourself.

Connect with the present moment through gratitude

Gratitude helps us build a sense of awareness of all the good currently in our lives. And if there’s one way to escape the hedonic treadmill, it’s by letting ourselves connect more deeply with the present. In reflecting on your journey, express gratitude for the ways you’ll grow as you move toward your goal. This helps shift your focus away from the outcome and toward the here and now.

Remember: You are more than what you do

Several years ago, a friend shared with me the best advice I’ve ever received: Trust that you never have to prove your worth. Over the years, she had watched as I chased more and more work and took on every opportunity presented to me. But in speaking with her, I learned that I was searching for a way to carve out an identity for myself. I wanted to present myself as a person who was competent, productive, and successful. That, I thought, was the only way I could find—and truly deserve—my place in the world.

Little by little, I’m beginning to learn that I’m someone apart from what I produce and the work I put into every day. Each night, when I shut my computer, I remind myself that no matter how much I accomplished, I still have inherent value. And though it’s been a process, little by little, I’m seeing signs of my growth. And I suppose that’s my goal, isn’t it?

P.S. Looking for a realistic morning routine? Let Camille’s AM rituals inspire your own.