Tips + Techniques

Photographers, Beware the Productivity Hustle—Especially in Isolation

April 22, 2020

By Katch Silva

© Katch Silva

This article begins a series on mental health, mindfulness, productivity and the work/life balance for creatives—particularly amid self-isolation from COVID-19 as we learn to cope with life in a global pandemic. In article no. 2, Katch Silva explains why it’s okay to let yourself do nothing, plus practical ideas to helping yourself when you’re feeling stuck in place.

Check out more of our coverage on the coronavirus, as well as practical resources for photographers, and our first webinar, in conversation with three wedding and portrait photographers, on productivity amid the pandemic.

Hey, how are you today? Busy? Doing everything in your power to thrive through the pandemic? Yeah, I feel you.

Busy and very productive. That was my baseline, my happy place (or so I thought) for almost 20 years. But after having gone through a few personal tragedies in the past years, I was forced to re-evaluate my priorities and reconstruct my perspective on pretty much everything. When faced with the impermanence of life, the detriment of the productivity hustle became all too clear. I want to talk about why we become addicted to the hustle, how it’s detrimental to our health and well-being, and how we can free ourselves from its grip.

I have been addicted to work and productivity for most of my adult life. It wasn’t really a conscious decision; it’s not like I woke up one day in adolescence and decided, on my own, that productivity would be my priority. It wasn’t my dream to become the pro-optimizer I became.

illustration representing childhood dreams and work/life anxiety
All illustrations by Donnie Wilson for Katch Silva

The truth is, most of us never really took the time to define our priorities. Culture, society and the media defined them for us, and we unwittingly conformed. As millennials, we grew up in the American hustle culture. Grind, hustle, strive! Shoot for the moon! Achieve the impossible! It wasn’t enough to find our passion. In order to be a true success story, we ought to be surpassing expectations, reaching higher than anyone before.

And we freaking loved it. Why did we love it?

Every single one of us is a product of conditioning, of history and repetition—and none of us chose how or with what we were conditioned. It’s a matter of nature and nurture. With every A+, every “Star Student!” sticker, we were inexorably molded into the hustlers we are today. It’s simply how the human brain’s pleasure systems evolved. We will always have that drive, as long as our brains continue to give us those happy little neurotransmitters that we love so much.

We’ve gotten to a point where the hustle doesn’t apply only to our work life. As science makes its way into well-being, and the focus on self-improvement and mental health becomes more pervasive, the hustle crosses into our personal lives as well. It isn’t enough to have a successful career. Now we must have it all—the best career possible and the best personal life possible—all while looking and feeling our best.

Don’t get me wrong: Well-being is absolutely a worthwhile pursuit. But our hustle perspective has turned self-improvement into just another stressor in our already very long list of “priorities.”

And if that weren’t enough, we feel so much pressure (i.e. anxiety) to capitalize on every possible opportunity to get ahead, that we only make space for “passion hobbies” that we can turn into viable income. So it’s not enough to take up crocheting, pottery-making or yoga for the enjoyment of it—no, we should also open an Etsy shop as a side hustle, share it on Instagram, brand it, market it, profit from it. Whether it’s dollars or social media statistics, we become incapable of seeing value in anything that doesn’t contribute to the equation.

It’s FOMO gone horribly wrong, and it’s an incredibly damaging way to perceive our time, and ourselves.

[Read about portrait photographer Nick Fancher’s decision to delete all of his social media accounts last year, and then what happened when he rejoined on his own terms.]

To add insult to injury, productivity addiction works against some of the most widely accepted correlates of happiness: social connection, and physical and mental health. It was clear in my own experience: The harder I worked and the more successful I became, the less time I had for social pursuits, exercise and mental health, and the more isolated I felt.

Honestly, I had no idea I was a workaholic, which is the scariest part. I was proud of my accomplishments, proud of the fact that I barely had time for a quick breakfast with my partner in the morning, spent 15 hours a day working, and then barely had time to shower and sleep at the end of the day. Proud of being busy all the time. Proud of having no time for myself. And so I charged on, convinced it was the best way to live my life, all the while unaware of the isolated hole I was digging for myself.

illustration of katch silva over-working in photo industry and becoming isolated

As we continue to blindly feed our primate brains, we’re still convinced it’s all by choice and worth the pursuit. But science disagrees. Research shows that the pressure we put on ourselves to achieve and optimize leads to stress, anxiety, low self-worth and self-esteem, and can lead to other chronic issues like depression and anxiety disorders, all of which deteriorate both our physical and mental health. (Check out the research references at the bottom of the page.)

Don’t think you’re stressed or over-worked? I didn’t either. But our brains have become really good at deceiving us. Again, the research here is clear. Our brain’s unconscious processes play a direct role on our mental health, and it all happens below our conscious awareness. So while your ego is telling you that saying yes to this project will bring you one step closer to your dream life, your subconscious brain—in tune to the reality of the situation—is working hard behind the scenes to appease the cognitive dissonance of which you’re not even aware.

illustration of brain deceiving the self from workaholic tendencies in photo industry

I thought my hyper-active nervous system was trying to tell me to work harder to keep the stressors appeased. But what my anxiety was actually trying to tell me was to SLOW THE F DOWN. Despite having the facts, we are conditioned to believe this lie about productivity and make choices that show we haven’t quite grasped the truth. 

Let me ask you this: What do you work for?

Maybe you work so your kids can have a better life. Maybe for financial stability (I’ll expand on this particular pursuit in a later article). Maybe you work simply because there is no other choice, though you’d rather be doing X. Whatever the case, shouldn’t the answer to that question define your priorities? I’m not talking about future priorities—what you will do at a future time. I’m talking about your current priories—what you spend your time on now. 

Let’s say you work so you, your kids and/or your loved ones can have a better life. Think about this: Your children’s well being, and future adult lives, are largely shaped by their childhood experiences. If you read any book on child development or childhood trauma, the verdict is clear: It’s much more beneficial to have parents who are present and involved as opposed to absent and work-addicted.

So while children need their basic needs met (food, shelter, clothing), in the long term, they’ll benefit much more from having a parent who is emotionally present than from having more presents under the tree. When your children become adults, what do you think they’ll remember from this time in their lives? Will they remember the pandemic that claimed their parents attention and brought fear and isolation? Or will they remember a lovely time when their parents were home more often and they felt loved, included and cared for?

It’s hard, I get it. Real life doesn’t work so smoothly, and knowing the facts doesn’t make it any easier to implement them IRL.

That’s why I’m writing this series. In the past couple of years, I’ve been through heavy personal hardships, relationship struggles and childhood trauma integration that have forced me to completely eradicate my trusty priority list and rethink the way I live. These have been the most difficult years of my life, but in a way, I’m so glad these things came together in a crash. They taught me so much that I want to share.

So for now, I’ll leave you with this: Let’s put an end to the hustle mentality. Working hard is not a virtue. Working less is not a vice. If our true goal is life enjoyment and well being, prioritizing productivity is not the answer. There is nothing wrong with being in the middle, or even towards the bottom of the proverbial success barrel, if we’re able to find an abundance of happiness and well-being there, for us and for our loved ones.

illustration of productivity and happiness in the proverbial barrel


Katch Silva is a wedding photographer and a Rangefinder 30 Rising Star of Wedding Photography in 2015. She has a psychology degree, and a mathematics degree, from the University of Pennsylvania. After living and shooting on the road in a van for three years, she settled in 29 Palms, CA, where she lives with her partner and two kittens. She has spent the last 10 years attempting to draw out and capture her couple’s genuine nature on camera. Psychology, the human mind, and our shared biology with the rest of nature are her biggest motivations and inspirations for both art and education, and she strives to share the knowledge she has gained through research, self exploration and therapy so that everyone may benefit. Her education can be found at