Burnout. Working from home guilt. Poor work/life balance. Pre-pandemic, the world of work had these challenges, but now, we’re seeing a rise in these symptoms thanks to the new phenomenon of toxic productivity. This heightened focus on making the most of every moment is not only impacting work, but all aspects of life.
What is toxic productivity?
Toxic productivity is a term used for the unhealthy desire to be productive at all times. It is the constant focus of achievement and attainment.
With toxic productivity, you may feel that you cannot take any downtime or that you have to go the extra mile, even when it is not expected of you. It is a case of wanting to tick everything off the to-do list and always looking for ways to constantly optimise what you’re doing.
Toxic productivity goes hand in hand with the guilt of not doing enough, worrying about what you “should” do or feeling like you need to prove why you are doing something.
At work, this may be working a few extra hours each day to tick everything you’ve put on your to-do list. At home, it may be that you will only go for a walk to ‘get your steps in’ rather than just go for a walk to relax and unwind.
Is toxic productivity the same as workaholism?
Workaholism is when someone works compulsively. They may persistently think about work and feel they cannot stop working or impose boundaries, even for the sake of their health, wellness or relationships.
Toxic productivity is similar to workaholism but adds a new layer. Where workaholism focuses on one area, your work, toxic productivity is applied to every area of life. This notion is that all activities need to be purpose-driven, a chance to clear another item off the to-do list and not doing things simply for the sake of them.
What makes toxic productivity so challenging is how difficult it is to spot. While workaholism offers some tell-tale signs of neglecting other aspects of life for the sake of work, toxic productivity is almost regarded as a positive as society celebrates and admires those who are able to master the balancing act and appear professionally, socially, personally and culturally productive.
Why is toxic positivity so prevalent now?
It appears that toxic positivity has really grown since the pandemic. Instead of seeing the time at home as a chance to rest and take care during a global health crisis, many saw this time as a chance to be productive. It was seen as a time to master a new skill, get a business off the ground, or accomplish all of those chores that have been lingering on the list.
Across social media, the toxic productivity idea that ‘if you didn’t achieve your goals during the pandemic, you didn’t lack time, you lacked discipline’ further enhanced the pressure to be productive and make use of every minute.
With productivity being an aspiration, admiration and even a lucrative market with apps, books and gadgets with the sole purpose of increasing productivity, it can be hard to see the problems that come with toxic productivity.
The symptoms of toxic productivity
While productivity can help us make the best use of our time, toxic productivity can make it feel like there is never enough completed.
Some of the symptoms that can occur with toxic productivity include;
No rest – An inability to switch off or take any downtime without thinking about all of the things they ‘should’ be doing
Guilt – Even ticking a project off may result in guilt for not completing more
Proving your work – This is the need to justify what they’ve completed. For example, homeworkers may feel they need to prove how hard they are working to justify working from home and feel guilty
Using jargon – Some may fear that being concise and to the point isn’t showing how much they’ve done, so it will elongate emails or make conversations longer with jargon, so it sounds like they’re completing more.
Burnout – Feeling physically and emotionally exhausted by trying to be productive at all times
Ignoring sleep, exercise and health – Even if exercising feels productive, missing rest days or forsaking sleep to get more done can be a symptom of toxic productivity
Less productive – Often, trying to optimise every area of life can lead to being less productive in every area as there is too much to think about and not enough energy
Fatigue first thing – Even when waking up, they may already feel exhausted and desperate for more rest.
How to overcome toxic productivity
Honour what you have done
With toxic productivity, it is easy to move on to the next job on the list, but honouring what you have accomplished and celebrating your progress is an important step. It’s taking this time to reflect on what you’re doing; the accomplishments you’ve achieved can help you to realise what’s important and that you can celebrate your progress with something that brings you joy.
Embrace fallow time
It is counterproductive to be constantly productive. In farming, fallow time is when fields are left to nourish before being used again for crops. This is a vital part of the process as, without this time, crops would struggle, and the ground would suffer long-time damage. Therefore, embracing this fallow time in life where you give yourself sufficient resting time is vital for productivity, health, and well-being.
Replace ‘what should I be doing?’ with ‘how can I make this easier?’
Often the urge for productivity means going from one thing to the next without being strategic. Productivity is highest when well-rested and planned; instead of rushing straight into the next task, spending time asking yourself how you can make things easier for yourself or without stress can help make rest feel productive.
Be purposefully unproductive
If you recognise toxic productivity in your life, it can be hard to switch this off. So instead, start by booking small breaks in the day to be purposefully unproductive. By keeping in mind that five minutes spent listening to the birds, people watching or lying down can actually improve your productivity, it can be a great way to add downtime to your day.
Self-care can take many different forms, so there is no right or wrong way to practise self-care, but putting it in your diary every day can serve as a reminder that you are worth the investment and you don’t always have to be constantly doing for the sake of others.
Considering this self-care as an aeroplane’s instruction to fit your own oxygen mask first in order to better assist others can be a helpful reminder for those who feel guilty for taking time out.
Get rid of the unimportant
Research shows that the average executive spends 23 hours a week in meetings, while the average calendar has 62 meetings per month. As many workers will testify, much of what’s discussed at a meeting could be saved for an email. If you are setting up meetings, it might be helpful to reflect on whether it’s necessary or how best to relay the information.
The Eisenhower matrix, where you can split work into a grid of important and urgent tasks, can help you eliminate anything not-urgent and not-important so you can focus on the things that make a difference. Remembering the 80/20 rule can also be helpful if you’re struggling to eliminate tasks from your to-do list. What 20% of what you’re doing is meaningful and valuable?
Support team members
Toxic productivity can be hard to spot, but sharing clear expectations with team members can help ensure they’re using time effectively and not over-working on aspects that offer minimal benefits to the organisation.
Encouraging downtime and rest breaks is essential but also honouring your own boundaries so your team members can honour theirs is a way to lead by example and take toxic productivity out of your organisation.