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Natalia Rossingol

What is Toxic Productivity & How to Break Free

Productivity can be toxic, and it better not be. Learn why it's unhealthy and how to break free from toxic productivity.

If you think overworking is virtuous, we’ve got bad news for you. Productivity, like medicine, can be poisonous – because the dose makes the poison. Overworking and exhausting yourself for the sake of success will play a cruel trick on you if you keep using it as a permanent tool.

Being constantly involved in something and juggling multiple projects can be intoxicating. When productivity transforms into an unhealthy obsession, as in you want to achieve more and you can’t stop, you might be productive in a toxic way.

In our article, we will explore this phenomenon more closely, analyze its social and psychological backgrounds, identify how it is expressed, and provide recommendations on how to combat it.  

What is toxic productivity?

It’s rarely helpful to have your entire self-worth tied to something external, even something seemingly positive like ‘success’. If someone is hyper-focused on productivity, they may skip rest or other forms of caring for themselves. – Whitney Goodman, author of Toxic Productivity

As you may guess from its name, toxic productivity describes a counter-productive behavior. It is an uncontrollable desire to be busy and productive all the time, no matter what, disregarding your mental and physical health. Hiding in your subconscious mind, this desire urges you to prioritize work over life and makes you feel guilty if you take a break and enjoy yourself.

The consequences are sad. Having its needs ignored, your own body can let you down. At first, you may not even notice any change, as there will be no signs of physical injuries. But inside, you will be breaking. You will feel irritated and emotionally charged, ready to explode easily. And, sarcastically, you won’t be as productive.

Naturally, toxic productivity doesn’t come from nowhere. This destructive behavior may have its roots in several places, such as:

The hustle culture

We’re constantly told that the sky is the limit. Books written by entrepreneurs, social media, and television have done a good job convincing us that we can become rich (or even a billionaire), get a dream job and social influence, on condition we work 24/7. Like Nick Srnicek, a lecturer in digital economy at Kings College London, said, “It all legitimized the idea that to be successful and get anything meaningful done, you have to be doing long hours.”

And even though not all entrepreneurs work this way, the stereotype significantly affects the way people look at work, making them sacrifice personal time for achievements, often ephemeral.

Remote work

With the rise of technology, the borders between work and home have been blurred. Although the advantages of remote work, like flexibility and cost-saving, are undoubted, such a style has its dark side.

Working from home requires good time-management skills, but even people with a perfect sense of time rarely work from 9 to 5. As a result, they often work more. According to the Owl Labs research, 55% of full-time American employees said they spent more time on work at home than at the office, and 62% said they felt more productive.

For some, it means longer hours at night, trying to catch up on what’s been missed. But for others, it also means longer hours for the sake of better results – because if you have more time, not having to leave at a particular hour, you can use that time to excel. It leads to perfectionism and a vicious circle of never-ending work.

Here we should also provide some other results of the same Owl Lab research we’ve mentioned above. What’s curious, the research showed that 60% managers were concerned that workers were less productive. This can have two implications. First, the perception of remote work is very subjective. Second, meeting the expectations of managers who do not fully trust you is challenging and will probably make you work harder.  

Continue reading:

Underlying distress

Workaholism is an addiction, and like any other addiction, it has a psychological ring to it. When you’re stressed, you may eat more sweets or do unnecessary shopping – or you can simply work more hours. It’s distracting and helps you forget about your problem.

Work as a coping mechanism becomes a serious issue when you totally refuse to confront reality, hiding behind your tasks instead. Your problem remains unresolved, but you keep exhausting yourself with more and more projects.


Negative past experience

Poor childhood may be a powerful trigger for a person to be toxically productive. A fear of experiencing poverty again can drive you to work non-stop, to avoid the same scenario by any means.

Another category of people in this group is those who, at a young age, were told they were better than others, unique, or special. Their toxic productivity is caused by the fear of disappointing their parents or teachers – and, of course, themselves, as they may prove to be less special or, even worse, mediocre.

5 signs of toxic productivity

You may see yourself as a perfectly balanced personality and think that toxic productivity is not your story. However, this is exactly why this phenomenon is so dangerous – you may simply not notice it. Deeply immersed in your everyday routine, you act like a squirrel in a wheel, and it doesn’t even occur to you that something is wrong.

To see a mountain, you’d have to step back. Even if you don’t think there is a problem, make a pause, distance yourself, and check your own behavior for some red flags, which may signal that you’re in trouble.

1. Perfectionism

Do you always strive for perfection? It’s a well-known fact that perfectionism is a mythical creature, impossible to catch. However, a fear of rejection can drive you to constantly improve yourself, your skills, and the quality of your work, setting unrealistic expectations.

Self-doubt, as a result of impostor syndrome (a feeling that you’re not good enough at something, in particular your work), can cause an incessant desire to work more till you finally reach perfection. But like Brene Brown, the author of “Dare to Lead,” says, perfection is just an armor that protects vulnerabilities. 

What makes it worse is a typical mistake many people make – comparing themselves to others. This is a painful game. You will always lose in something, not because you’re less than someone else – but because we all have different natural gifts and life experiences. Unfortunately, instead of developing our strong suits, we often succumb to torturing ourselves for no reason.

2. Staying busy all the time + multitasking

You try to fill every minute of your time with something to do. You just can’t stand doing nothing, as you feel you’re wasting time and losing opportunities. You write long to-do lists, and you’re very goal-oriented, always trying to reach new heights – without a single break. You multitask, taking on many projects and trying to juggle them.

And when you actually take a break, you feel anxious. You are not able to truly let thoughts about work go. You may physically be somewhere else, but mentally, you’re still at work. You’re not really paying attention to what’s going on around you. And, even more, you feel guilty for not working, seeing yourself as useless and impractical.

3. Seeing work as the highest priority

You regularly work extra hours; you work till late nights; you take on work to do on weekends. Work is what comes first. Family, personal relationships, and even health are lower on your list. You may still give them attention, but only after work is done. And work is never really done, because there are so many opportunities you don’t want to miss. 

You refuse to work out or cook healthy meals because it’s time-consuming. You don’t let yourself visit a place you’ve wanted to because it seems smarter to take on another project. You’re a busy person. You don’t have time to waste on small things.  

4. Resorting to work to deal with stress

Like we mentioned before, toxic productivity can be a trauma response. You hide in your shell and try to silence inner anxiety with work.

Either way, think about it: if you’re working so hard, aren’t you trying to avoid some situation in your life, replacing it with work? Aren’t you using work to numb your emotions, block unpleasant thoughts, or procrastinate with resolving your issues? Analyze a couple of your personal cases. Maybe, you will see a pattern there.

5. Fatigue

Constant work and work-related stress will inevitably lead to fatigue and issues with physical and mental health. If you feel you’re always tired, even after a long night of sleep, then maybe your productivity has become toxic.

You may notice cognitive problems, like the inability to remember or recreate information, or signals of poor health, like headaches or heartaches. This is what happens when you don’t let your body effectively recover. Fatigue accumulates, weakening your immunity system.     

Related: Overworked Employees? Here's How to Turn the Tide

How to break the cycle of toxic productivity

If you see there is a toxic productivity tendency in your life, it’s time to do something about it. Taking a more considerate approach to work will make you a happier person, and a much more productive one.

So what can you do to overcome toxic productivity?

Set boundaries

Maintaining a work-life balance involves determining clear boundaries between work and private life. It may be especially challenging for remote workers, who are in charge of their own time, as not everyone has good time management skills. However, it can help you learn to respect your own time and use it more productively.

This is when time management techniques come in handy. You can use various methods, like the 4 Ds of time management, time boxing, or the GTD system, to help you organize your time. The limits you impose on yourself will help you allocate time for personal stuff and actually include it in your schedule, making sure you spend time with your loved ones and practice self-care.     

Reconsider the meaning of success

Take a moment to sit and think about what you want from your life. Write down a list of your goals and ask yourself if they’re your true goals, and not imposed by media or success coaches. You may find out that what you’re doing is not your passion at all.

Besides, don’t be so hard on yourself. Your work results do not define you as a person. Things like career, social status, and money are important – but they’re not everything. Your mental and physical well-being is just as important. Being healthy is also a big success.

With that being said, set realistic goals that have meaning to you, and learn to enjoy the journey, not just the results.

Analyze your feelings

Try to understand what feelings may be triggering your toxic productivity. Maybe you’re not feeling secure about your job. Maybe you’ve got low self-esteem. Maybe you’re stressed about your private life.

In any case, work is not a therapy. Instead of overworking, exercise your emotional intelligence – name what you feel. Once you figure out your issue, take the courage to solve it.    

Let yourself do nothing

And don’t feel guilty for that! Lisa Maclean, a psychiatrist at Henry Ford Health, says that even 2 to 5 minutes can have an impact and help you recharge, triggering “a continuous chain of benefits.”

Sometimes we need to idle the engine and just be. A well-placed “time-out” can be extremely effective, improving your ability to innovate, reason, and be present in your daily life. – Lisa MacLean

It may feel uncomfortable to pause and just do nothing at first. But look at it as a task on your to-do list. Create a daily ritual of mental recharge. You can start practicing meditation techniques, or simply gaze through a window with a cup of coffee. Let your thoughts just come to you. Enjoy your free time. Learn to disconnect, and don’t forget to turn off your devices. This will considerably improve your mental well-being.  

Related: Why Downtime at Work Can Be Useful

Get rid of the action bias

The term “action bias” means preferring action over inaction without a specific necessity. Even when there is no evident reason for us to act, we still feel compelled to do something by default. This happens automatically, as action bias is instinctive, developed for an evolutionary purpose – to survive, our ancestors had to react quickly.

But nowadays, we don’t need to act to survive. Yet, we’re still susceptible to this tendency since it gives us a sense of control. However, hasty decisions can be more harmful than useful.

This is why when you feel the urge to take on another project, think twice. Do you really need it? Is it worth it? Sometimes, these simple questions can be like a cold shower, stopping you from making the wrong choice.

There is nothing bad about improving yourself, until it becomes a compulsive necessity. Exhausting yourself is neither rational nor healthy. You may achieve great results but it’s a short-distance race, for which you will have to pay a high price. You work for a living, but life is not just about work – so make sure you enjoy it to the fullest.

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