Let’s reframe what productive means


Productive in the Meriam Webster dictionary is described as:

  1. Having the quality of power of producing especially in abundance
  2. Effective in bringing about
  3. a) Yielding results, benefits, or profits
    b) Yielding or devoted to the satisfaction of wants or the creation of utilities

Productive seems to be an act through which we are meant to produce something beneficial and is often framed as an act of creation. It is no wonder then that the discussion of productivity in self-isolation is an interesting, if not somewhat problematic one.

Some of you may be wondering; What are we supposed to create during a crisis? How are we supposed to benefit from such circumstances? What are we supposed to bring about?

What I will now phrase as “toxic productivity” appears to be emerging as a social expectation. We are collectively responding to this crisis with a trauma response. Paul Gilbert, PhD, describes our three emotional regulation systems the Threat System, the Drive System, and the Soothing System.

It makes sense that for many of us, our Threat System is extremely active right now. We are trying to manage this crisis – trying to find ways to protect ourselves – trying to find safety. Therefore, it makes sense that there seems to be a collective spike in anxiety. We are all sensing the crisis and the threat.

It also makes sense that our system goes into our Drive System. We want to be achieving something and accomplish goals. If we can achieve goals and make change – we feel we can avert the crisis and reduce the threat.

Toxic productivity means we spend time bouncing between our Threat and Drive System. We are either trying to protect or survive crisis, or we are trying to conquer and produce our way out of crisis. These are not bad or entirely negative! It becomes toxic when we don’t balance our emotional system and we don’t spend enough time in our Soothing System.

The Soothing System is where we rest, regain our strength, feel safe, and experience self-care. Switching to this system is what can help real and true “productivity” emerge. For most of us, we cannot achieve or create if we are not safe, rested, and kind to ourselves .

However, switching to the Soothing System can be hard at the easiest of times. We live in a society that sees relaxation and self-care as indulgent, privileged, and even lazy. We desperately need to reframe such rhetoric during isolation.

The more we engage in shaming our Soothing System – the more burn out and mental health issues we may experience. Relaxing, taking space, and taking care of ourselves during this crisis should be viewed as productive!

Easier said than done perhaps. Activating the Sooth System during a crisis – while also combating the shame associated with rest and relaxation while crisis is active – is not an easy task.

The first step to combating shame and toxic productivity is self-compassion. Let us treat ourselves with kindness versus judgement. Let us take space away from that self-critic who tries to warn us from mistakes and keeps us in our Threat or Drive System. When possible put down shames, put down the “I shoulds”, and put down the drive to be ‘doing’ and focus on ‘being.’

Second let us feel united by our struggles – versus feeling weak in our anxiety, anger, grief, or sadness. We are all experiencing this crisis – and we are all struggling. No one is going through the world right now without some level of worry. We can focus on our humanity and how we are in this together. This crisis is hard – and acknowledging and feeling that is not weak!

Thirdly let us be mindful of our pain. When we are aware and acknowledge that painful thoughts and feelings are with us and part of us, we can stop pushing them aside and we stop ignoring our struggles. When we recognize that we our in pain – we realize and accept the great need to take care of it.

Let’s reframe what productive means. Taking care of ourselves in this crisis and focusing on our health and wellbeing should be viewed as one of the most productive things we can be doing.

Rest. Relax. Self-sooth. This is productive.


Applying the 3 Circles Model of Emotion to Help Clients Heal Shame [Infographic]. (2020). Retrieved April 12, 2020, from https://www.nicabm.com/3circles/

Productive. (2020). Retrieved April 12, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/productive

The Benefits of Self-Compassion. (2020). Retrieved April 12, 2020, from https://mi-psych.com.au/the-benefits-of-self-compassion/