I consider myself a human doing rather than a human being. I’m much better at constant movement and productivity than rest. Most of the time, this type of productive lifestyle is beneficial. The clothes are always clean, the work is always being worked on, and the to-do list is consistently managed. But, there comes a point when too much of a good thing is indeed too much.
This begs the question, “is it possible to be too productive?” And the answer is yes. It’s called toxic productivity. So, what is toxic productivity and what can you do about it? Let’s dig in.
What is Toxic Productivity?
First, let’s set one thing straight. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being productive. Productivity makes the world go round. It’s what allows us to get things done. But productivity becomes toxic when what once was healthy and helpful becomes hurtful. Let me explain.
Toxic productivity is when the constant need to “do” negatively impacts your physical, mental, and emotional health. It’s the dark side of the mindset to always be doing something, and it can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and even burnout.
How to Identify Toxic Productivity
If you’re wondering what this looks like in everyday life, picture this. You’re vying for a promotion at work. You’ve been diligently working to exceed expectations for the past six months. You’ve volunteered to take on extra projects and responsibilities to hone your skills and show your commitment to your career.
But, because you’ve been so focused on your work, you’ve let some things slide. You’ve started missing workouts so you can log on early. You work an extra hour or two and have to cancel your evening plans. You skip lunch breaks and catch up on work on weekends. At the moment, these seem like small sacrifices to help you achieve your goal of a promotion. But now, six months in, you’re exhausted, overwhelmed, and on the verge of burnout because your focus has been on being productive and being the best employee, not being a rested, healthy, and happy professional.
This is an example of how toxic productivity can present itself at work. But toxic productivity doesn’t only apply in the workplace, it can show up in many facets of your life, like on your fitness journey, in your relationships, and even while you rest.
If you’re wondering how to identify toxic productivity, here are four signs of how it may present itself in your life.
1. You constantly feel the need to be doing.
If you feel the pull to be productive at all times, even when you don’t want to be, you may be experiencing toxic productivity. Say you’ve had a busy day and you’re finally starting to wind down for the night. You tell yourself you’re going to go to sleep in one hour, so you want to use that hour to decompress. Toxic productivity could look like choosing to read a professional development book to help learn skills to further your career or turning on the tv to watch your favorite show but only half paying attention and catching up on emails on your phone. In neither of those scenarios are you truly unwinding because you’re focused on still using your time productively. Doing this for one night may not be an issue, but if this becomes your norm and you never allow yourself time to rest, you’re going to be on the road to burnout.
2. You feel guilty for not being productive.
You’re out to dinner to celebrate your friend’s birthday, but you feel awful that you didn’t knock out your to-do list first. Or you finally book that vacation you’ve wanted to take but you can’t help but bring your laptop with you just in case something work-related pops up. That guilt you feel is toxic productivity. We all feel accomplished barreling through our to-do list and we may even be lucky enough to have a career that energizes us, but when you start to feel the negative emotion of guilt and feel like you’re doing something wrong by not being productive, it becomes a problem.
3. You’re deprioritizing your physical, mental, or emotional health.
If you’re choosing work over workouts or meetings with your manager over meeting with your therapist, this is a huge red flag of toxic productivity. You’ve heard the expression, “you can’t pour from an empty cup,” right? Well, toxic productivity is known to drain your cup and then some, and when your cup is empty, everything else is impacted. When you schedule a workout or another form of self-care, you’re making a commitment to yourself. Missing one barre class or meditation session is completely normal. Deprioritizing your health over an extended period of time because of work commitments, that’s a recipe for disaster.
4. You only focus on tasks with a clear objective
When’s the last time you did something solely for enjoyment? Like taking a walk in silence without forcing yourself to listen to a career-related podcast or taking on a hobby just for fun without trying to monetize it. People who suffer from toxic productivity often have unrealistic expectations about what needs to be accomplished. Sometimes what needs to be done is nothing. It’s okay if not everything you do has a clear purpose. Rest and relaxation are productive because they allow you to come back refreshed and ready to tackle your next project.
How to Avoid Toxic Productivity
Now that you know what toxic productivity is and how to identify it, what can you do to avoid it? Like I said before, productivity is a good thing. But, everything in moderation. It’s more than possible to maintain healthy productivity levels, get everything important done, and also protect your health and rest along the way. Here are three ways to do just that.
1. Set boundaries
Setting boundaries can be easier said than done, but when it comes to avoiding toxic productivity, it’s critically important. Plan for zero productivity time during the week. Things will pop up during the day, so it’s OK to set the expectation that you may not have non-productive time every day. But a few times a week, plan for a non-productive activity. Take a walk with a friend or family member simply because you want to enjoy their company. Watch a movie and actually watch the movie instead of scrolling through your phone. Read a book for fun. You owe it to yourself to have sacred time where nothing needs to be accomplished.
2. Commit to rest
How many times have you planned to rest and relax only to begin making a mental list of everything you need to do and then you end up feeling more exhausted? The next time you plan to rest and take time to reset, actually do it. It’s simple in theory but more difficult in practice. It’s easy to think, “Oh, I’ll just do one more thing and then I’ll sit down.” But to maintain healthy productivity levels, you need to find a balance between doing and being. If you booked that day off of work to enjoy your time with friends and family, actually do it. Be present at the moment and relish the time when the only thing to be done is nothing at all.
3. Be mindful
There will always be tasks to do, people to see, and conversations to be had. But before you stress yourself out trying to power through everything at once, stop and think about what you actually need to get done. Will working through lunch help knock things off your plate or will you benefit more from taking a 30-minute break to clear your head so you can dive in refreshed in the afternoon? Do you really need to listen to a professional development podcast that you know will add more items to your career checklist or can you drive or walk in silence or listen to music instead? Be thoughtful about what’s actually productive for your stress levels and mental health.
No one is going to hand you a trophy for being the most productive person. There is no prize for checking everything off your to-do list. The only thing you earn from toxic productivity is stress, burnout, and overdue time off. Finding a healthy mix of productive and non-productive time will always be a balancing act. There will be ebbs and flows throughout your work day (and week) and your career. But being aware of when you need to be productive and when you can chill is an invaluable skill that will serve you well throughout your career.