It started at the beginning of the year. I had made list upon list about what I wanted to achieve in 2020. Getting my driver’s license, going for a jog EVERY morning and saving enough money to go to Cape Town for my best friend’s graduation ceremony were a few of them. Then the pandemic hit, and things had to change. But instead of simply postponing certain goals, I felt an overbearing urge to replace them with new ones.

The concept of people, both young and old, striving to better themselves, be it academically, physically, professionally, or socially is not a new one. It is very normal for people to want to create a better life for themselves and their families. In the 21st century, however, this ‘want/need’ has become, in many ways, unhealthy. Stress, fatigue and burnout are direct results of ‘hustle culture’- a phenomenon promoting one-dimensional productivity in which people find it admirable to devote as much of their day as possible to “getting things done.”

Social media plays a huge part in all of this. It allows people to broadcast the best of themselves, like getting a promotion, looking picture perfect or reaching a personal goal – a highlight reel that makes their lives seem practically perfect. Even if you aren’t compelled to showcase your achievements, your friends showcasing theirs may lead to a sense of failure on your part. This constant comparison and competition feeds into the propagation of toxic hustle culture and begs the question of whether we really do things because we want to or whether it’s all just for show.

In the wake of COVID-19, hustle culture is more alive than ever.

We are literally in the midst of a global pandemic, yet people are still prioritizing, not only their job, but their side hustle, and even taking on learning new skills. While some may find this to be both doable and commendable no matter the circumstances, there seems to be a more profound collective pressure to do something ‘productive’ during this time. Many have taken on the burden of signing up for extra online classes, learning how to cook gourmet French cuisine and committing to losing those last stubborn  5lbs.

My Instagram feed is currently littered with pandemic-themed posts on how people are using this time to organize their pantry, start weightlifting or get an extra qualification. I constantly see articles suggesting how one can effectively work from home, do a full workout routine indoors, or take up hobbies like knitting or learning a new language to pass the time. Their intentions may be good, it’s no secret that productivity is healthy. However, when the world is in literal chaos, it is okay to do nothing but be okay.

I’m guilty of it too. When I first found out that my source of income as a bartender was being put on hold, I immediately started brainstorming ways I could fill that time. I had around 30 webpages regarding different online courses or transcribing jobs bookmarked for me to browse through when I felt like taking on a new project. I realized, however, that (as a tutor, full-time student, and now an editorial fellow) taking on more is not only irresponsible, its also a betrayal to myself.

As much as learning new things and stepping up your exercise game may be of help to your state of mind, simply remaining calm and resisting the urge to “do more” may be equally (if not more) beneficial. Though exhaustion has become a status symbol of sorts, your self-care should take precedence over ticking something off a to-do list. This is a pandemic, not a productivity contest. 

  • Kajal Premnath is a journalist, writer and editor based in South Africa. She enjoys interrogating the ways in which representations of diverse cultures and social justice issues in popular media affects everyday life. Kajal is obsessed with dogs, hates cheese, and believes "Jane the Virgin's" Rogelio de la Vega to be her alter ego.