Freelance Journalist

As a young journalist, the pressure to succeed has never been more apparent, especially during a global pandemic where newsrooms keep downsizing and freelance budgets are being cut. With a smaller pool of opportunities available, I feel the need to always be on. When I’m not studying, working or volunteering, I’m constantly wracking my brains for pitch ideas.

Even when I’m trying to scroll Netflix during my free time, I’ll be tapping away on my laptop simultaneously, unable to tear myself away from emails for even a second.

While committing to personal growth is great, it can become an obsessive endeavour – am I up to date with everything? Am I wasting time by not doing more? It seems young journalists, especially, are susceptible to becoming trapped in this toxic cycle of radical self-improvement.

Twitter has us believing seasoned journalists smash out one thought-provoking think piece after the other, in turn forcing you to question your own productivity. As a result, young writers may develop a toxic relationship whereby they constantly pressure themselves to produce work.

What Is Toxic Productivity?

Woman's hand on laptop
A lot of young journalists are feeling the pressure to be productive (Picture: Unsplash)

According to hypnotherapist Jessica Boston, toxic productivity is “when our productivity has become something we must or should do. It’s not about the option to, but about unconscious obligation.

Hypnotherapist Jessica Boston says toxic positivity is an unconscious obligation.

“If you can’t watch a film without being on your laptop, if you struggle to sit still and be in the present without performing, chances are this is coming from perceived unconscious inadequacies,” she says.

Mental health advocate Ali McDowell points out that toxic productivity has become very common in a pandemic.

She explains: “We live in a culture that has a strong narrative between success and productivity.

“We live in a culture that has a strong narrative between success and productivity. You stay busy all day long, but the toxic part is that you never really feel satisfied with yourself.”

Ali McDowell

“Without commuting, socialising and other normal distractions, we can squeeze more into our day, it feels that time is now more fluid than before and so we have less boundaries with how we spend it.

“You stay busy all day long, but the toxic part is that you never really feel satisfied with yourself. You experience feelings of failure and guilt on a daily basis, and this often leads to mental exhaustion.”

Why Is Toxic Productivity Common Among Young Journalists?

Young journalists can find themselves at risk of pushing themselves too hard. Image Credit: Tony Tran / Unsplash

As student journalists graduate in a job market that is more insecure than ever, the already exclusive field of journalism can feel even more out of reach. For Asyia Iftikhar, founder of the Young Journalist Community, this is a key reason why toxic productivity is on the rise among young journalists.

Asyia Iftikhar, founder of the Young Journalist Community.

“Unlike certain paths where there is a set route, the media industry is so vast and complicated,” she explains. “It is much more in the hands of the individual to figure out how to get where they want to be.

“This, alongside a lot of gatekeeping of information, has meant that it feels like you should constantly be productive.”

“I felt like I was constantly not doing enough, so I pushed myself to commit to more and more. But, recently, I’ve pulled back because I need to put my degree first.”

Asyia Iftikhar

For Asyia, these pressures led to her falling into the trap of toxic productivity. She adds: “I felt like I was constantly not doing enough, so I pushed myself to commit to more and more. But recently, I’ve pulled back because I need to put my degree first.”

Freelance copywriter and journalist Imy Brighty Potts also attributes the pandemic to her relationship with toxic productivity.

“We feel we have to be doing the most to make it because everything is such a mess,” she says. “We now seemingly have more time on our hands. So, when I used to take breaks, I now see it as wasting my time because there is nothing to do except work.”

Imy says that this has led to her working a lot more than she used to. “All time feels like free time, so I have pushed myself into using it as work time. Checking my emails as I open my eyes in the morning isn’t healthy, but it is the only thing that makes me feel in control.”

How Does Social Media Foster Toxic Positivity?

Social media, and ‘Journo Twitter’, is a big factor. (Image Credit: Prateek Katyal / Unsplash)

For a lot of young journalists, comparison culture has risen from social media.

Imogen Brighty-Potts

“Toxic productivity is the bread and butter of Journo Twitter,” Imy says. “We’re in this big community of likeminded individuals who all seem to be working every hour under the sun, making it almost impossible to not compare yourself to them.

“I love seeing online friends land dream commissions, but it can sometimes feel like you are working as hard, but just aren’t good enough.”

Meanwhile, freelance journalist and Vice columnist Rhys Thomas suggests that toxic productivity happens almost exclusively within the context of social media.

“Personally, I’m avoiding social media as much as possible at the moment, or else I find I am just making myself feel bad,” he admits. “There’s less to be happy about right now, so we’re celebrating little wins that we wouldn’t normally.

“This means our timelines are saturated with the highlights of everyone else’s day which makes us wonder why we haven’t achieved something because “everyone else” has.”

How Can You Combat Toxic Productivity?

The key is being open about failures and successes. (Image Credit: Laura Chouette / Unsplash)

While toxic productivity might be something a lot of young journalists struggle with, the good news is that it doesn’t have to stay that way. For Zesha Saleem, a freelance journalist and student, being open about failures as well as successes online is key in tackling comparison culture online.

Zesha Saleem, freelance journalist.

“I don’t want people to think that I’m some sort of super-productive person that works all the time. Behind every piece are days of procrastination, rejections and ghosted emails,” she says. “I think that transparency and being honest about the work we do is really
important.”

Meanwhile, Laura Purkiss, a financial journalist from CityWire, believes that it is important to “just be proud of every achievement, big or small.”

She also says that we should stop glorifying overworking: “If we all stop wearing burnout like a badge of honour and start acknowledging that it’s not super healthy for us, we could all set a healthier standard for each other. I think we’re all accountable for that.”

“Just do a little bit less each day. Push through the discomfort and, as you go, affirm that your value is intrinsic, regardless of how much or little you get done.”

Jessica Boston

As for our experts, Jessica says that we should devote time for slowly unlearning harmful working habits. “Don’t feel you have to resolve issues in one day. Chances are, if this has been part of your life for a while, it’ll take a minute to unlearn so be patient,’ she says.

“Just do a little bit less each day, push through the discomfort and as you go, affirm that your value is intrinsic regardless of how much or little you get done.”

Similarly, Ali encourages those experiencing toxic productivity to choose joy. “Do something just because. Not because of the outcome, not because it gets you somewhere. Just the pure joy of taking part in that activity.”