Toxic Productivity and How to Combat It

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Our society places much value on the concept of productivity. It sometimes discounts the importance of rest, relaxation, and rewarding ourselves for reaching reasonable goals. Toxic behaviours are ones that negatively impact your life, goals, and overall wellbeing.

One such behaviour that has been rearing its ugly head since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic is toxic productivity, as people threw themselves into work, partly to give themselves a sense of purpose during uncertain times. It is fuelled, in part, by our ever-increasing connectivity which has led many of us to form unrealistic expectations around how much we can get done.

Later, I’ll cover how you can recognise if you’re falling into the trap of toxic productivity and things you can do to combat it. First, though, let’s define the term and talk about why people develop the tendency to focus on being productive to the exclusion of all else.

Toxic productivity is an unhealthy preoccupation with being productive and involves the pursuit of constantly improving productivity at the expense of other things, like spending time with family or engaging in leisure activities and disregarding wellbeing. It can make you feel like you can never meet your goals and can make you overly critical of yourself for not living up to your own exacting standards.

Let’s delve deeper.

Why people fall into the trap of toxic productivity

Hustle culture — which glorifies unrelenting work — has produced an ideal environment for toxic productivity to thrive. You can gain status by being productive, and the more people you see being applauded for being constantly productive, the more pressure you feel to emulate them. So, because people have come to equate productivity with success, hustle culture itself may have exacerbated this phenomenon. The pandemic no doubt worsened it too because many of us felt pressure to do something productive during the lockdowns, whether it be re-decorating the whole house, taking up a new hobby, or writing a novel.

But there may be another reason we often become obsessed with being constantly productive. It can make us feel safe. When people are stressed, developing a fixation on productivity can be a protective behaviour. It also gives us control over something when we can do nothing or very little about whatever is making us anxious. Doing more makes us feel secure, while achieving less feels risky, particularly when we feel threatened, as during the pandemic.

Why it is bad for us

When productivity is not balanced, it can leave us feeling that we will never be enough and damage our sense of self-worth. We can become extremely critical of others as well as ourselves. It can make it difficult for us to relax and never being able to feel satisfied can have negative consequences for our health.

As far as work is concerned, toxic productivity can cause a dip in our performance. You will have reduced problem-solving skills and be prone to making more errors. Your heightened state of stress may therefore make you less efficient than before.

Next, let’s explore the signs you might be suffering from toxic productivity.

Signs of toxic productivity

These are the chief signs you may be falling into the toxic productivity trap.

Working so much it’s damaging your personal relationships or health.

It is admirable to be persistent and determined, but if your work starts to take over your life and you forget to attend to your personal needs, like ensuring you get enough sleep and eat healthily, then toxic productivity reigns. Neglecting personal relationships and responsibilities is another way your single-minded focus on work may be having a negative impact not only on you but on your family and friends too.

Disregarding important information and holding yourself to unrealistically high standards.

You can’t expect the same of yourself without regard to your circumstances or the situation you find yourself in. If you’re going through a tough time, expecting too much of yourself can make your situation worse. It will introduce more stress into your life.

You find it hard to keep still or rest.

Struggling to have downtime alone without feeling anxious or guilty for taking a break is another sign you might have developed an unhealthy relationship with productivity. Even if you just feel restless during your leisure time or moments of calm, you might be castigating yourself for not being productive.

You could find yourself becoming irritated when your friends tell you a long story because you feel you’re wasting time. If you jump up to wash up immediately after eating, instead of relaxing for a few minutes to chat with your family, it may be a sign you’re falling victim to toxic productivity.

You may experience a decreased sense of self-worth when you’re not either working, creating, or producing something. You’re likely to start comparing yourself to others, to work out if you are more productive than they are.

Now, it’s time to explore how you can address this problem.

How to combat toxic productivity

If toxic productivity is left unchecked, you will make yourself more susceptible to burnout, which could lead to increased levels of distraction and anxiety and may even cause depression. This can affect your mental health, work performance, and personal life to a great extent.

To help you avoid this outcome, here are some actions you can take.

Set realistic, achievable goals that you can adjust if you need to

I’ve written about the importance of setting reasonable goals before, but it’s particularly vital to do so if you’re suffering from toxic productivity. Context is king when you’re setting goals, so make sure your goals are suited to your situation in life, and make sure they are flexible. When stressed, our ability to focus lessens and we don’t think as clearly, so remember to be kind to yourself during hard times and tweak your goals to cut yourself some slack.

Acknowledge rest is essential

This one is more about your mindset. Research shows that people who take breaks get more done than those who work solidly without breaks. So if you’ve begun to feel guilty for taking breaks it’s worth remembering that periods of rest are not just for the weak, and can actually be very beneficial for your health.

Rest and relaxation can help:

  • Reduce stress.
  • Boost your immune system.
  • Improve your mood.
  • Improve your metabolism.

So, start viewing rest as an essential component of productivity. It can help to see rest as a tool you need to use to reach your goals. If you find it tricky to fit regular breaks into your workday, you can use technology to help. Check out these superb Pomodoro timer apps that will make scheduling your breaks a cinch.   

Practice mindfulness meditation

Practicing mindfulness can help heighten your awareness of your surrounding and help you connect with the present moment. It can help us to accept our situation and our emotions without judgement. Apart from reducing stress, mindfulness may help improve cognitive function, which may boost your problem-solving skills and ability to reason.

The fight or flight instinct is often connected to toxic productivity. Mindfulness can help you disconnect the impulse and thus deal with the issue.

Titles spelling out 'BE HERE NOW'.
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Make sure you have people around you who will hold you accountable

Listen to your friends and family if they point out that you’re working too much and should take a break. If you have people around you who care about you and tell it to you straight, talk to them about the problem. That way, they will likely notice when you’re becoming too preoccupied with work and are neglecting other things and people in your life. If you learn to take their advice when they suggest that you stop, you’re less likely to fall into a cycle of self-destructive behaviour.

Dedicate time each day to self-care

Even if it feels like it’s a waste of time when you first do this, making sure you create a window of time every day in which you can do something for yourself is a great way to mitigate the effects of toxic productivity. It can be something as simple as taking a bath, reading a chapter of your favourite book, or taking an invigorating stroll.

If you do this often enough, you will form a habit, which will help you keep a healthy balance between work and self-care.

Redefine your boundaries

Taking time to redefine your boundaries surrounding work can help you shift your focus away from being constantly productive. So, make sure you have time to spend with your family and friends, do things you enjoy, and prioritise sleep. This will help you maintain a healthy work-life balance. You can start small by making sure you implement an end-of-the-day routine so that you can disconnect from work.

Wrapping up

There’s no question that the advent of the pandemic and the resulting disruption caused many of us to fall prey to toxic productivity. But now you know what signs to look out for. If you think you are becoming too preoccupied with work and productivity, you can follow some of the methods I’ve outlined to help overcome it.

So, try out your favourite method next time you recognise the warning signs and you’ll be able to show toxic productivity who’s boss.

Published by Lizzie

Lizzie here. I'm a freelance copywriter and editor based in the UK. I'm also passionate about volunteering and hold a MA in History from the University of Warwick. I've written for a multitude of fantastic websites and companies, including a legal automation software company, a dog training site and more. Check out my reviews on Fiverr and Upwork for more info!

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