What Is Toxic Productivity (and How Do I Avoid It)?

April 14, 2020
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Everywhere you turn, people are feeling the pressure to do something truly meaningful during this time of self-quarantine. Sure, it’s great if you can write your next bestselling novel, or re-organize your entire home, but sometimes, that need to be productive can be toxic. Here are some signs to spot if toxic productivity is creeping into your life—and what you can do to break the cycle.

What Are Toxic Behaviors?

First things first, toxic behaviors are behaviors that are harmful to you, your goals, and your daily life. Our culture expresses a lot of value for productivity (we reward the best students, we’re impressed when others pull all-nighters, we glorify the entrepreneurs who boast about their work ethic and lack of sleep). Rarely do we celebrate when people are present, rest well, or set and meet reasonable goals.

Quarantine means that people are at home, trying to work, in the middle of a crisis. And yet there’s never been so much content about how people should be using all this “extra time” to try and pivot their businesses, take every e-course on entrepreneurship, or check things off their endless to-do lists.

Don’t get me wrong, if someone is able to do these things in the midst of food and product scarcity, health concerns, and social isolation, that’s great. But to expect people to be productive during a pandemic is undeniably harmful. If we aren’t being generative in our homes and businesses at a breakneck pace right now, it doesn’t mean we are failures, it means we are human.

Toxic productivity would have us see things differently, and it’s hurting us.

Here Are Three Signs of Toxic Productivity

Working to the extent that it harms your health or personal relationships.

Perseverance and determination is admirable, but if your work ethic means that you’re ignoring human requirements like the need to eat, drink, sleep, or go to the bathroom, then your hard work “ethic” is toxic productivity in disguise.

Your family members may repeatedly express frustration with you and complain that you’re “always working,” “never around” or “always on your phone.” What they are really saying is, “We miss you. We need you. Please spend time with us.”

Forgetting obligations and neglecting personal responsibilities is another sign that your tendency to have tunnel vision when it comes to work is harming you and your loved ones.

Having unrealistic expectations for yourself and ignoring important information (such as the detrimental effects of a pandemic).

Many people are expecting their level of output and productivity to be the same right now. When their entire lives have been disrupted. When they are working under stressful conditions at home. IN. THE. MIDST. OF. A. PANDEMIC.

These unrealistic expectations can make an already traumatic situation even worse. Expecting the same output from yourself during a crisis is like expecting a crop to yield the same harvest after a drought.

It’s unreasonable, and will likely add to your stress if you try to maintain your previous standards.

Difficulty with rest or stillness.

If you have a toxic relationship with productivity, you might struggle to be alone with yourself anytime you’re not busy working. When you finally take a break or let yourself have a day off, you might feel guilty. Alternatively, you could feel a sense of restlessness or emptiness during moments of stillness, play, or other things you may label in your head as “non-productive.”

People might complain that you’re “not present” emotionally or physically. For example, you might rush to do the dishes after dinner instead of sitting at the table and connecting with your family. Or you might find yourself feeling impatient while a loved one tells you a long story because it feels like an inefficient use of time.

You might notice feelings of lower self worth when you aren’t producing, creating, or working in some way, or be distracted by comparing yourself to others that you see as more productive than you.

How to heal your toxic productivity

If you’ve determined that you are one of the many suffering from a sense of toxic productivity right now, you’re not alone. The good news is, it doesn’t have to stay this way. There are lots of things you can do to have a healthier relationship with your need to be productive. Below are a few ideas.

Set realistic goals; adjust as needed.

It’s important to consider the context when setting goals. During this time when there may be extra demands on you (perhaps you’re homeschooling your children or adjusting to working from home), you may need to reduce your goals to accommodate the transition.

Part of being realistic is recognizing that your home office is likely to have more distractions, interruptions, and stressors than your old office. When we are under stress, our ability to concentrate and think clearly suffers, so it may also be helpful to extend deadlines to accommodate increased stress levels.

If you’re managing a team you’ll want to revise expectations for them as well.

Reframe what it means to rest and take breaks.

Rest is not a four-letter word or something just for the weak. Rest is 100% necessary. Studies show that people who take breaks end up being more productive than people who don’t.

Reframe rest to be a vital part of your productivity. See it as a necessary tool to help you reach your goals more effectively. Instead of taking breaks when you feel on the verge of collapse, how about scheduling them regularly throughout your day? You’ll feel a lot better, and you’ll likely be able to get even more accomplished.

The Pomodoro method is a great strategy to stay on task while also taking frequent breaks.

Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a way to help us connect to ourselves and the present moment. Mindfulness invites us to observe and accept what is happening around us and within us without judgement. We learn to be more aware of our body and needs. Mindfulness is proven to have all sorts of health benefits, including increasing frontal lobe activity, which is where logical reasoning and executive functioning takes place.

Mindfulness helps us disconnect from our “fight or flight” survival instincts (which often keep us stuck in toxic patterns) and instead gives us the opportunity to connect with more mature, healthy ways of relating to the world.

Calm and Headspace are two apps that I highly recommend if you want to give mindfulness a try.

Get some accountability.

Make sure that you have wise people in your life that can hold you accountable and keep you aware of your self-destructive behaviors. Most importantly, take their advice. When they say you’re working too much and need a break, listen to them. 

Define clearer boundaries.

Rework your boundaries with work, or clarify them to serve you better. Establish a few “baseline” boundaries and then refine as needed, such as:

These baseline boundaries are just ideas to help you get started, but can be adjusted to fit your individual needs.

Heal your self-talk.

Do you define your sense of self-worth by how productive you are? If so, you may find yourself caught in a cycle of chasing accomplishments that give you a temporary sense of worth, until that wears off and you need yet another accomplishment to make you feel valuable. To heal your self-talk, start seeing that your value is not in what you produce or accomplish, but in who you are.

Ask yourself, “Would I have these same expectations for someone I care for deeply?” If the answer is no, then you shouldn’t have these expectations for yourself, either. Practice learning to speak to yourself the way you would a dear friend.

If you need help healing your self-talk, consider getting support from a therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be especially effective at helping you heal toxic narratives that have kept you stuck in a cycle of addiction to productivity.

It’s perfectly normal to feel uncomfortable with the changes you’re experiencing due to COVID-19, but this is a great opportunity to get real with yourself and heal from things that aren’t serving you well. When this is all over, hopefully, you can leave behind your toxic productivity, too.

About the Author: Dr. Therese Mascardo is a Filipina-American licensed clinical psychologist, founder of the L.A. Digital Nomads, and CEO and founder of Exploring Therapy, a wellness community that helps people build a life they don’t need a vacation from. She has been featured in HuffPost, Women’s Health, & Tastemade. Berkeley educated, she shares her knowledge in mental health, entrepreneurship, community building, and traveling full time as a digital nomad to inspire people to create more healthy, free, and connected lives they love.

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