Many people lead lives with demanding schedules, tight deadlines, and heavy workloads. Balancing work, family, and friends can sometimes feel overwhelming for everybody, but some people feel the weight more than others. For some, their balancing duties can be complicated by an extremely strong drive to be productive.
Their drive can sometimes be all-encompassing, making it difficult to compartmentalize and draw firm boundaries between work and the rest of their lives. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as toxic productivity. While it may seem that a high level of commitment is desirable, it can often negatively impact a person's mental and physical well-being.
When Does Productivity Become Toxic?
Productivity is usually not considered a bad thing. Many people are familiar with the problems associated with a lack of productivity. For some, the search for motivation can be a significant struggle as they overcome barriers to productivity. Those people might scoff at the idea of toxic productivity, but evidence suggests that striving to be over-productive can have significant negative effects.
The research suggests that productivity should exist in a balance.
Dedicating too much time to work or other "productive" pursuits can be harmful, as can working too little. If that's the case, how can a person tell the difference between a high level of healthy productivity and toxic productivity?
First, it is important to note that there is no formal definition of toxic productivity. It is an increasingly common buzzword that generally refers to those with such a high dedication to productivity that it affects their well-being. Below are some signs that may indicate your productivity has become toxic:
You frequently disregard the importance of rest in favor of completing productive tasks.
You find it challenging to disregard your to-do list, even when it would be beneficial to do so.
You often feel guilty for "wasting time" by prioritizing recreational activities, time with friends, or time with family.
You often feel guilty when not currently engaged in a productive task.
You feel excessive anxiety when thinking about missed accomplishments or being "lazy."
Generally speaking, if you feel that your work, family, and social pursuits are all valid priorities, your productivity likely isn't toxic. Still, even if you are able to find a balance, be cautious about the potential consequences of overwork.
Toxic Productivity and Perfectionism
While there is scant research exploring toxic productivity directly, many experts believe that it is closely related to perfectionism. Perfectionism is not the same as working hard or pushing yourself to achieve a goal. Like toxic productivity, perfectionism becomes a concern when striving for a perfect result comes at the expense of other aspects of your life.
Therapists tend to distinguish between the "pursuit of excellence" and perfectionism. Pursuing excellence is usually healthy behavior because it implies that your boundaries for your well-being are respected, while perfectionism implies an obsessive pursuit at the cost of mental and physical health. A perfectionist usually has unrealistic standards and works compulsively toward their goals, measuring their value based on what they can produce and achieve.
The tendency to work compulsively is likely a core defining feature of both perfectionism and toxic productivity. In psychology, a compulsion is a behavior that a person engages in to avoid feelings of anxiety or distress. For a perfectionist, the concept of "good enough" likely produces unpleasant negative feelings. Similarly, avoiding work or shirking a to-do list likely produces similar feelings for those experiencing toxic productivity, even if the person has completed a reasonable amount of work by other's standards.
Trapped In The Hustle: The Cost Of Toxic Productivity
A recent study found that perfectionism is increasing rapidly in Western countries. Toxic productivity may be rising at a similar rate, perhaps reflecting the rise of "hustle culture" in recent years. It is not uncommon for individuals to wear badges of perfectionism or productivity proudly; people may find working to the detriment of their well-being to be a sign of success or achievement.
While some may find overwork to be a sign of a successful, driven person, the reality is significantly different. A 2022 survey by Deloitte Insights and Workplace Intelligence of over 2,000 employees identified a considerable number of employees who are dissatisfied with over-productivity. Some notable results of the survey include:
70% of C-level executives surveyed are considering quitting their jobs in favor of employment that supports work-life balance and well-being.
Over 40% of employees consider themselves to be exhausted or overwhelmed.
Nearly a third of executive-level employees reported feeling lonely or detached from others due to work.
Over 50% of those surveyed are experiencing mental health concerns and fatigue.
At all levels, many employees believe that they struggle to prioritize their well-being over work obligations.
While toxic productivity – framed here as hustle culture – can certainly have some downsides, it does have some positive effects. Increased working hours often mean increased income, and in some employment environments, it may mean easier access to promotions and raises. As with many things, accessing the benefits of hustle culture while avoiding the negative impacts likely comes down to balancing work and other priorities. One study found that workers experience benefits by working 50 hours per week but that productivity plummets when working more than 55 hours per week.
Productivity And Happiness
Evidence suggests that forcing yourself to continue working can certainly increase productivity, but pushing yourself beyond your limits can lead to productivity losses. In addition, overwork is associated with numerous consequences for mental and physical health. Research into employee motivation reveals another potential link between well-being and happiness. Evidence indicates that happiness increases productivity, while stress and anxiety decrease it.
It is possible that working beyond your limits significantly reduces the gains associated with working longer hours. Toxic productivity may have the paradoxical effect of lowering your overall productivity by reducing work quality or increasing the frequency of revisions or corrections. Empirical research has already identified a sharp drop-off in productivity once most people exceed 50-hour work week, and it is possible that a lack of life satisfaction, happiness, and overall well-being may be part of the cause.
How To Be Less Productive
If you constantly feel the need to be productive, you likely feel as though you have little choice whether to comply. However, toxic productivity does not need to control your life, and there are strategies you can try to help you reduce the burdens of a constant drive to be productive.
Set strong boundaries. Whether you are setting boundaries with your employer, a coworker, or yourself, strong boundary-setting is essential when trying to be less productive. Try to end your workday at a reasonable time, limit contact with people or things that make you want to work, and ensure you have time set aside for "non-productive" things.
Set S.M.A.R.T. goals. Set goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. S.M.A.R.T. goals let you asses and re-evaluate your goals as needed, making it easier to avoid goals that expand your to-do list beyond your limits.
Prioritize doing nothing. Avoiding toxic productivity likely means embracing intentional unproductivity. If you're in a toxic productivity cycle, take time to prioritize doing nothing at all. It may be unpleasant or challenging at first, but learning to be unproductive is an important part of managing productivity.
Mind your "shoulds." "Shoulding" is a form of cognitive distortion where a person focuses intently on what they should have done rather than what they did do. Take time to focus on what goals you achieved and how much you have accomplished on your to-do list rather than focusing intently on what you "should" have done.
Address underlying feelings. Several personal factors, including a fear of failure, imposter syndrome, low self-esteem, and others, may cause toxic productivity. Take time to evaluate what factors may be contributing to your toxic productivity.
Can Online Therapy Help?
An online therapist may offer a convenient way to help you understand and manage your nonstop drive to be productive. Meeting with a therapist online removes some barriers to therapy, such as traveling to an office or being restricted to only therapists near you, making it especially helpful for those in an area experiencing a shortage of mental health professionals.
Online therapists use the same evidence-based techniques as traditional therapists, like cognitive behavioral therapy. They can help you better understand feelings of toxic productivity, identify underlying causes, and offer solutions to help you balance your priorities better. Although therapy services are delivered remotely, evidence indicates that online therapy is just as effective as in-person therapy.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Why do I feel the need to be constantly productive?
The sense that we must always be productive in some form or another is multifactorial. The fast pace of American society often makes us feel as though we must always be doing, moving, working, achieving. Additionally, newfound extra time in the wake of the pandemic and things like working from home or limits on going out can make us feel uncertain with what to do with this time, and as though we must be doing something, else we’re in some form or another not functioning well enough. Social media and the ability to constantly see what others are up to can also fuel the need to be constantly productive.
Underlying issues like familial problems, grief, trauma, and depression can all push us to be continually productive as a means of avoiding the thoughts and feelings brought on by these issues.
Is it possible to be productive all the time?
For a short period of time, yes. However, eventually you will burn out. Our brains and bodies are not structured to be productive and able to function at full capacity every moment of the day, and require rest and leisure to recharge, repair the brain and body, and sort and store memories and the day’s events.
In fact, there’s a biological reason behind this need for rest and relaxation! Predatory mammals, including humans, on average need more rest for longer periods of time than prey species. This is because predators tend to be quite active and cover comparatively large distances during the periods when they’re awake, resulting in great energy expenditure. This is particularly true for more intelligent predatory mammals, such as humans and other primates, felines, canines, and even birds like owls and ravens, as using one’s brain to plan and calculate takes a considerable amount of energy. Consider, for example, a lion – lions spend nearly 20 hours per day resting and relaxing, but during the time when they are active, they are hunting, stalking, sprinting, carrying prey, battling for alpha roles, caring for young, and moving to new locations – all of which are energy-expensive endeavors.
What is toxic productivity?
Toxic productivity is the drive to constantly be productive and doing something, at the expense of things like self-care, adequate rest, and engaging in fulfilling hobbies. It can be somewhat compared to the term “workaholic,” but is not limited to just the work environment. Someone with toxic productivity may feel incredibly restless and stressed when they have free time, and rather than relaxing or doing something they enjoy will focus on things that are perceived as “needing” to be done, such as cleaning, or working on a work or school project in the middle of the night when it could wait. Toxic productivity can also result in feelings of inadequacy, or little to no sense of accomplishment or success when tasks are completed.
This productivity becomes particularly toxic when it involves the avoidance of thinking about or working through health issues, such as trauma, depression, relationship troubles, or physical ailments. When productivity is used to avoid other aspects of our lives, it can greatly hinder our happiness and growth.
How do you deal with toxic productivity?
Ways to mitigate toxic productivity involve doing things throughout the day that boost your mental health. These things can include exercise, mindfulness and breathing techniques, therapy, writing in a journal, or learning a new skill or learning about a new topic. All of these things have the ability to feel productive while also promoting a greater sense of wellbeing, self-connection, and physical and mental restoration.
Additionally, you can try techniques like making lists and time-boxing. Create a list of the things you want to complete on a particular day. Be honest with yourself about time, and be sure to include at least a couple of things for you (these can be things like “ten minutes of yoga” or “read for fifteen minutes” or “take a shower,” whatever you feel would be a good form of self-care for yourself). Once you check these things off the list, that’s it! Stop. Give yourself permission to just be and relax, and do something fun or catch up on sleep or your favorite TV show that you haven’t watch in weeks. Time-boxing means that you determine ahead of time how long you will focus on particular tasks, so that you’re less likely to be over-productive. You can do this via writing it out or using an app. For example, you could time-box a study sessions: “study from 3 pm to 5 pm.” Once this time limit is up, take a break! It’s important to also time-box things relating to self-care, as discussed in list-making above.
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