The link between productivity and self-worth—and how to break it.

by Kylie Adair

Every day at 5:15pm, my phone dings with a notification that asks: “How are you doing?” No, it’s not a kind friend checking in; it’s a robot. The message comes from an app I’ve downloaded called Youper, which prompts me to track my daily moods and the factors that contribute to them. Each day, I tell the bot whether I’m feeling excited, joyful, anxious, insecure, or any of the other 19 pre-set emotions, and then I input the specifics of my circumstances: whether I’ve gotten enough sleep, whether I’m by myself or with others, the types of food I’ve eaten, and more.

After a couple months of using this system, I noticed something interesting. Whether my mood was positive or negative, whether I was extremely anxious or very happy, the factors were always at least partially related to work. More specifically, at least one of the factors was always related to how many items on my to-do list I’d crossed off on any given day—how productive I’d been.


I downloaded Youper after a period of what I can only describe as intense brain fog following the death of a family member last year. As I navigated the emotional minefield that is the grieving process, it felt like my brain decided it would be more pragmatic to build a barrier between it and the outside world, to stop experiencing life so intensely. I had a hard time focusing on anything—everyday conversations, my beloved reality TV shows and, most devastatingly, work. I was showing up and meeting deadlines, but I definitely wasn’t meeting the high standards I had for my work. I was ending every day completely deflated, disappointed in myself and my inability to get it together.

In an attempt to figure out what the hell was going on in my mind and why, I downloaded the app as a way to step outside myself and into the analyst position. What I found is that my mental health is completely, problematically, dependent on both the quality and quantity of what I produce. I’d likely always been this way, but was only forced to confront it when I could no longer maintain the level of productivity I’d become accustomed to.

It’s no secret that many of us base our worth on our productivity. But at the same time, it feels like we’re collectively starting to realize this is an unsustainable way to live.

Talina van Essen is a university financial administrator and life coach who posts refreshingly insightful content on Instagram stories. Scrolling through my feed one day, so anxious about the items I’d left unchecked on my to-do list that day that I needed to numb myself with social media, I came across one of her posts—and it snapped me out of my fog.

“I had a conversation with a friend tonight and she called me a productive person,” van Essen wrote. “I laughed and I said I wasn’t a productive person at all, but rather, that I had small creative windows that I (sometimes) used.” And then, in all caps, “LET’S UNPACK THAT A LITTLE, SHALL WE?

“Capitalism has seeped into every nook and cranny of everyone’s lives. Even into how we value ourselves and others. We constantly think we need to do/produce more to be happy, when the reality is we probably need to do less.” She wrote that she no longer feels the need to produce for productivity’s sake.

Unpacking what productivity means to you, and how it makes you feel, is the start of our generation challenging the negative effects of capitalistic society.
— Talina van Essen

I reached out to van Essen and asked how she got there. What kind of internal work does it take to achieve that kind of peace? She wrote back and told me she’d worked with a meditation teacher to uncover the patterns that had been set in her psyche from very early on. “What I found out was that growing up I remembered receiving love and attention from my parents more often when I brought home a good grade, completed a chore, or took care of my brothers. As I’ve gotten older, this has turned into excelling at work, keeping a clean house, and emotional labour for people in my life.”

Psychologist Dr. Kristin Neff is someone who studies this difference—between self-worth that comes from external validation and the self-worth we’re sometimes, with practice, able to feel inherently. She originated the concept of self-compassion, which encourages us to extend the same compassion we have for others, regardless of their achievements and failures, to ourselves.

A major component of Neff’s work is making clear the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion. We’re taught from early on an emphasis on self-esteem, and to base it on external markers of success: professional achievements, awards, good grades. We’re told we’re special because we’re gifted students or we’re talented athletes or we’re uniquely creative artists. This might seem reasonable, but the problem is that this kind of success isn’t constant. If we base our sense of self-worth on these markers of success, what happens when we inevitably, at some point, fail?

When I failed, for a while, to produce the quality and quantity of work I wanted produce, my self-esteem went away—when I needed it most.

Self-compassion, by contrast, is there during these times, said Neff. “The idea is that you’re just kind to yourself and you care about yourself because you’re a human being,” she told me. “We know from the research that a sense of self-worth that’s linked to self-compassion is much more stable over time.”

We have to be above average to feel okay about ourselves, and I think that is definitely amplified by social media. You’re comparing yourself to idealized versions of other people’s lives, making the pressure even greater.
— Dr. Kristin Neff

I wondered whether self-compassion could actually be a useful tool in productivity, in a roundabout way. Of course, productivity can’t be our goal from the outset, but if we were to become less uptight about success and failure, if we were to lift some of the paralyzing anxiety that comes with external success-based self-esteem, would we end up getting more done?

Van Essen wrote in her Instagram stories that, yes, this is how it went for her. “Once I realized I wasn’t worthless if I didn’t do X or Y, things shifted for me. When I alleviated a lot of pressure off of myself to perform, I actually started to have mental space to be creative because it wasn’t clouded by a to-do list that didn’t really matter.”

Neff’s research backs this up. She said self-criticism, a tool we often use to motivate ourselves, can actually undermine our efforts to be productive by creating an internal cycle of performance anxiety. We worry that if and when we fail, we’ll be mean to ourselves, “whereas, with self-compassion, you don’t need to fear failure because you’ll be kind to yourself even if you do fail, and therefore people are actually more motivated—they have less performance anxiety and they’re more motivated to keep trying after they fail.”

Another pillar of Neff’s self-compassion method is treating ourselves the way we’d treat others. When someone I love fails, I show them compassion. I’d never speak to them the way I speak to myself internally when I fail. This is an idea many of us are familiar with—I’ve seen it grace many an inspirational Instagram graphic—but I also wonder if our compassion for others isn’t actually as unconditional as we’d like to believe. “And now on another tangent,” van Essen continued in her Instagram stories, “once white, able-bodied, fiscally privileged folks start rejecting capitalist thought processes and doing the internal work that comes along with it, we might be onto something. If you’re judging yourself for being a lazy POS when you are stuck in a producing mindset, you will 100% judge marginalized groups who are (in your eyes) not participating in capitalism. Cue racism, cue socio-economic disparities, cue prejudice. IT STARTS WITH YOU.” She added a mind-blown emoji. “Everything is political,” she told me when I followed up. “I think that when we operate from a place of fear or insecurity, we judge to make ourselves feel safer or better off than others. I truly believe that starting with unpacking what productivity means to you, and how it makes you feel, is the start of our generation challenging the negative effects of capitalistic society.”

IT BECOMES A CYCLE: we feel insecure about our own ability to meet capitalist standards of productivity, which prompts us to judge others by the same criteria, which inhibits our ability to practice self-compassion by turning the compassion we would otherwise feel for others inward, which means we, again, base our self-worth on our productivity.
Social media and the way we perform productivity (#hustleharder #thegrind) on it doesn’t help. “Self-esteem is linked to social comparison,” Neff said. According to the criteria of self-esteem, “we have to be above average to feel okay about ourselves, and I think that is definitely amplified by social media. You’re comparing yourself to idealized versions of other people’s lives, making the pressure even greater… In self-compassion, you don’t have to be better than anyone. You just have to be a flawed human being like everyone else, so it’s much more achievable.”

Neff was clear that none of this is to excuse unearned entitlement, which can still be based on comparison. “Someone who’s entitled might feel like, ‘I don’t have to try and I’m still better than others and I still get what I want.”

It’s also not to say we shouldn’t be ambitious. “If you care about yourself, you’re going to want to meet your goals,” Neff said. “The whole difference is—how do you treat yourself when you don’t meet those goals?”

I’m certainly becoming kinder to myself when I have days (or weeks or months) when I’m less productive than I’m used to, but it’s a process. I’ve spent my whole life building an identity around achievement and, like van Essen’s friend’s perception of her, being a “productive person.”

But I’ve had moments of clarity—moments when I’ve allowed myself a minute to breathe and spoken kindly to myself when I’ve failed. And what I’ve noticed is that, yes, I am actually becoming less paralyzed by the internal pressure and thus more productive. But whether or not I’m a productive person, whatever that means, also doesn’t matter as devastatingly to me anymore. I feel a little lighter.


Kylie Adair is the editorial director at kaur. space. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and human rights and a miniature schnauzer named Dot.