• arielprag

Perfectio nism and Productivity

I want to take a second to talk about perfectionism and chronic/mental illness.


Since leaving Rosewood I’ve had a hectic week that has felt like an entire month. It’s been difficult to eat properly due to suddenly losing an externally enforced daily schedule. In the past I would have meticulously curated a daily schedule, detailed to the minute, which would be unrealistic to expect myself to follow without fail. I would then beat myself up for not being able to stick to my own plan; why can’t I do anything right?! I can’t even follow my own directions!

You may be thinking that you’re not a perfectionist because you don’t spend hours a day trying to reach unattainable goals. That is not the issue at hand – at least, not the root issue.


Perfectionism is a problem when you find yourself feeling guilty or even ashamed for not doing what you think you “should” be doing. Perfectionism is the horrible voice telling you that you’re worthless when you watch Netflix instead of reading. It’s the nagging dread you feel when you put off an assignment because you know the work you do won’t meet your ideal expectations. It’s the gnawing guilt that washes over a day of relaxing with friends that replaced doing laundry. Perfectionism comes partially from personal anxiety. I believe much of it comes from the societal ideal of productivity.


It’s so easy to get caught up in basing happiness upon how many errands you run, tasks you complete, or hobbies you practice each day. These activities are entirely optional. Yes – they are optional. You don’t need to do a 10-step skincare routine. You can do so and you can choose to honor your needs in whatever way you see fit. Taking a nap [1] and getting Taco Bell when you’re tired is a great thing! You are meeting your needs – eating and sleeping – and setting healthy boundaries with yourself. Maybe one day you nap and get Taco Bell, and the next day you wash your face, put on a facemask and hydrating serums, and do yoga. Both types of days days are options you are empowered to choose, and neither is morally superior to the other.




What's wrong with this image? When you search "chronic illness productivity" so many results come up extolling the financial cost of illness on economic productivity. Neither studies on the loss of quality of life nor sites explaining how to meet your basic needs come up. Instead, we are bombarded with a series of articles reinforcing the idea that economic productivity is the greatest goal in life.


Capitalism dictates to us that our productivity determines our worth as individual people. If we’re not contributing to society with every breath or bite of food, if we fall short of mimicking the industrial factory environment in our daily lives, if we take care of ourselves, we’re unproductive and therefore worthless to everyone. Why do we feel guilt over not being living robots? Why do we feel ashamed for having needs? You know, like how people have basic needs?


It starts with our society's ideal work ethic.


The moralization of productivity (at least in the US) largely comes from the Protestant work ethic that pervaded colonial America. Sociologist Max Weber wrote about [2] the glorification of self-deprivation and personal industriousness in the early nineteenth century, when the Industrial Revolution took over the West. "Waste of time is thus the first and in principle the deadliest of sins. ... Loss of time through sociability, idle talk, luxury, even more sleep than is necessary for health, six to at most eight hours, is worthy of absolute moral condemnation. " In other words, our socioeconomic system tells us that using your time to do anything other than being a so-called productive member of society means you are BAD. That is why you get the feeling that you are a bad person when you're socializing or resting instead of working.


I feel guilt over messaging friends rather than creating a detailed daily schedule. Thanks, Adam Smith!


Challenge that for the sake of your health. You don’t have to go about living as if you’re on an assembly line. Your life is not a series of production quotas that you need to meet by the time the bell rings.

When you have a chronic illness, disability, or mental illness, the shame that comes from being unproductive intensifies. We are often unable to work as much as our abled or non-ill peers, or we are unable to work at all. Our capitalist society vilifies those who don't work, as explained above. As a result, many disabled or mentally ill people fall into poverty or homelessness. When that happens many view it as the fault of the individual for not adhering to the ideal work ethic – even if doing so would kill them.


If you are chronically ill/disabled/mentally ill and find yourself deep in shame over not working the amount you want (or at all), ask yourself why. Of course we want to be able to support ourselves. That is an instinct

difficult to shake. But if you find yourself in shame and self-judgement every time you allow yourself to rest, ask yourself if the feeling is yours or if it belongs to a society predicated on an ethic that sees work for profit, rather than love, as the greatest good.



Remember that the ultimate goal is taking care of your mind and body, through whatever means fit you best in the moment. Perfectionism is one way to strive for this goal. Just remember it’s not the only way.


Sources / Works Consulted / Further Reading


[1] Ebba, A. (n.d.). I Have a Chronic Illness. Daily Naps Actually Make Me More Productive. Retrieved April 8, 2019, from https://www.healthline.com/health/productive-daily-naps-chronic-illness#1


[2] Weber, M. (n.d.). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/weber/protestant-ethic/ch05.htm.


• Drucker, P. F. (1994, November). The Age of Social Transformation. The Atlantic, Volume 274, No. 5, pp. 53-80. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/95dec/chilearn/drucker.htm


• Gregg, M. (n.d.). The Productivity Obsession. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/11/be-more-productive/415821/