Refining Toxic Wellness and Productivity

Last Updated: 2023-02-04 06:30:00 -0600

As I mentioned in the last post, I’ve been taking the winter season as a general period of rest and relaxation. Part of that has been putting a lot of thought into the ideas of “wellness” and “productivity”, which are both pretty loaded terms in common parlance, much to my annoyance.

This isn’t actually very new ground for us here on the Arcana Labs blog. I’ve talked about it before, admittedly in much more specific and technical terms. But it’s something I’ve been fighting myself over for about a year now, and, well, it’s my blog. So here we go.

What is ‘Toxicity’ with Respect to Wellness or Productivity

In the circles I tend to run in online, the phrase “toxic productivity” has become almost a thought-terminating cliche, and sometimes that’s extended to cover wellness as well. The phrases are used to shut down talk of either topic, in a similar way to the phrase ‘toxic positivity’. The usual criticisms can be boiled down to either of the following, refined and given nuance according to the biases of the speaker:

  • “Productivity culture is garbage because if I could ‘just work harder’ I would do it.”
  • “Productivity culture is garbage because I’m not here to be another cog in the machine.”
  • “Wellness culture is garbage because [treatment being discussed] just [makes your pee expensive]//[is medically unnecessary]//etc.”

As always, I’m going to play the “nuance hound” card and suggest that the idea of these two things being inherently toxic is perhaps as toxic as the unbridled cultures that have sprung up around selling productivity and wellness have become toxic in their own extremes.

What, then, is “non-toxic” productivity?

Anyone who has spent any time at all around the lab, known me personally on social media, or hung out in the lab discord, knows that I keep myself pretty dang busy. I have easily a dozen active projects at the moment, and another two dozen or so sitting in the “someday/maybe” list to varying degrees fo planning completion.

Handling that is a project in and of itself. I’ve had to develop whole systems around productivity management - incorporating old 90s prod-guru ideas with more modern tooling and, increasingly, applying more modern ideas like sprint planning.

If this sounds ridiculous, it’s because of course it is. Most people don’t have an idea gremlin sitting on their shoulder and whispering bad ideas for cool things to do with their free time into their ear. If you are that sort of person, though, you’re going to immediately know what I mean when I say that letting those ideas fall through the cracks is psychically painful. It frankly hurts my feelings to realize I haven’t worked on PETI in a while, or “oh hey we never DID install that drive”. I feel downright incompetent when I say to my wife for the fourth time in two months “hey, we really need to remember to take backup images of the Switch every few months” or even just “remind me later that we need to get bleach on the next order”.

Taking that into consideration, I would actually argue that spending a moderate amount of time focused on productivity is actually the very opposite of toxic: it’s reasonably healthy. Thinking that you absolutely have to constantly put every moment of your life to work for increasing your revenue or furthering commerce or whatever is probably not that good for you, but taking a few minutes to make your life easier and give yourself the confidence that “yes, I know exactly what we need from the grocery this week and I won’t have forgotten anything if I follow this list” is actually a good thing.

In a sense I call it the “Lifehack circa 2008” rule: if it works and it’s useful and practical it’s not stupid.

Ditto wellness?

Wellness gets a bum rap in my social circle, precisely because of the sorts of people I hang out with, the sorts of people who espouse wellness, and the kinds of wellness-focused content that seems to gain traction.

A lot of capital-W WellnessTM comes from people who have no ongling chronic conditions beyond the stress of day to day life in a non-post-scarcity world; in a sense, from people who are already Well. Like MindfullnessTM, it’s often been stripped of the real central lessons of the related practice and is a series of feel-good techniques mashed together with folk medicine and, in the worst cases, misunderstood cultural practices.

Growing up with a mood disorder, I absolutely get the frustration most people feel when being exposed to their fourty-third “you just need more vitamin D” or “have you considered exercise” or “HYDRATE KIDDO” take of the weekend. It’s not useful advice for me, a person whose edocrine system produces neurotransmitters at unusual levels and in variable time.

All that being said - taking care of yourself is super important, and if there’s one central tenet of the WellnessTM culture that has any relationship to a truism, it’s probably “take care of yourself”.

So… What?

Ultimately, this season has me thinking a lot about what is non-toxic positivity? What advice (other than get off of lifehacker about three years earlier) would I have for myself in retrospect? What can be taken from Wellness practices without selling your soul to the pachouli trade? Will I ever get a yoga practice or zazen practice that becomes a genuine habit? Who knows?

I’m going to be writing about these topics more around here, so let me know what you think.

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