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The toxic productivity trap

Finding 5, 10, or 50 ‘surefire ways to increase productivity’ isn’t a huge challenge – the internet is full of listicles and tips on how to make a better use of your time. Nothing wrong with that, right? Not at all if you plan to achieve your maximum efficiency with unwavering restraint. However, the cult of productivity can be a slippery slope towards workaholism, professional burnout, or even a nervous breakdown.

What is toxic productivity?

 imac with motivational text

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

A healthy dose of productivity is necessary to achieving your goals and dreams – both at work and in your everyday life. However, if you suddenly start feeling a pang of guilt every time you’re idle, even for a short while, alarm bells should be ringing.

Toxic productivity is, above else, a state of mind where you feel a constant need to work, keep ticking off tasks from your to-do list, and do anything that yields tangible and visible results. A short break seems to signify failure, and you consider a 15-minute respite to be a waste of time which you must make up for by working twice as hard. Even if you allow yourself to stop, you can’t stop thinking about work and tasks at hand.

Such attitude could stem from low self-esteem and a perpetual need to prove your worth and utility to others (and often also to yourself). This trap is especially easy to fall into in a home office, where the lines between work and life frequently blur. With no one around to supervise how much you work, you risk becoming your own manager who forces you to work non-stop, ignore exhaustion, and try to complete your tasks in unnecessary rush – all because you worry about being accused of laziness and low performance.

Toxic productivity can sometimes signal the existence of underlying issues as it can be a way of dealing with trauma or a difficult situation in your private life. Escaping into work lets you forget other worries and creates a false sense of your work being far more urgent than taking care of the banalities of life – your wellbeing, health, and relationships.

A productive break?

 rose gold apple watch

Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash

Toxic productivity often spills over to your private life – you can also be productive in your free time! This sentiment was especially noticeable during the pandemic related lockdowns as social media was filled with motivational content on how to make your time in isolation more… constructive. You could learn a new language, master embroidery, take up baking, or become a DIY expert and build your own bookshelf from scratch. On one hand, this approach could have been just a way of dealing with the global crisis, stress, and uncertainty. It also created significant pressure to make your free time productive and well planned, causing it to feel like just another task on a to-do list. The pleasant idleness, dolce far niente – that’s pure laziness and a waste of precious time. Meanwhile, it’s important to remember that taking the time to smell the roses is a crucial ingredient in healthy productivity.

How to spot toxic productivity?

 motivational text graffiti

Photo by Johnson Wang on Unsplash

How do you know you’re crossing the thin line between healthy and toxic productivity? Recognizing this self-destructive attitude is possible through looking at your daily habits from a distance. Toxic productivity can be signaled through:

  • Feeling guilty for taking a break or spending your free time doing ‘unproductive’ things like watching a tv show, reading something unrelated to your career, going out with friends, or simply taking a leisurely walk,
  • Not prioritizing your tasks – everything seems equally as important, it is all due right this second,
  • Seeing rest as just another task which creates pressure and makes full relaxation impossible – leading to frustration over underperforming in that task,
  • Measuring your worth with accomplishments and efficiency,
  • Neglecting relationships,
  • Insomnia or getting low quality sleep,
  • Anxiety,
  • Irritability,
  • Fatigue and falling out of shape.

The golden mean

 productivity slogan on the wall

Photo by Andreas Klassen on Unsplash

Toxic productivity can lead to professional burnout but can also have severe health consequences, both mental and physical. A dip in form means a decrease in productivity – the exact opposite of the intended result. If you believe this is something you might be suffering from, here are some changes you can implement to get back on track to the golden middle.

  1. Start setting priorities. Use the Eisenhower Matrix prioritization framework: do the things which are important and urgent first; then move onto things which are not urgent but are important (especially in the long run); follow with tasks which are urgent but not so important and leave the not important and not urgent chores for last.
  2. Reflect on your motivation: is what you are doing truly important to you and your future or are you doing it to prove yourself and fulfill someone else’s expectations?
  3. Designate some time to do nothing. You don’t need an elaborate plan – you can simply decide to spend an hour or so being completely and utterly idle. Try to turn off your phone, step away from your screen, and forget about work.
  4. Learn to say ‘no’ when you’re unable to do something or when doing it requires you to sacrifice rest and relaxation.
  5. Consider seeking professional help from, for example, a psychotherapist – especially if your unhealthy productivity stems from low self-esteem or trauma.

The approaching Valentine’s Day – regardless of whether you celebrate or avoid it – is a great opportunity to ponder relationships: your relationships with others but also with yourself. If the most important relationship, the one you have with yourself, is in any way disordered because of toxic productivity, this might be the best moment to start working on it.