The Toxic Productivity Trap
Tuesday, March 14, 2023

The Toxic Productivity Trap

Being productive is great, until we forget to hit the off swtich.

Most of us think of productivity as only a good thing. But, as the old adage goes, “too much of a good thing” can quickly take us down the wrong path. It turns out that there’s a fine line between being optimally productive and working without an off switch until you burn yourself out. In fact, there is a name for when you find yourself on the wrong sign of that line: toxic productivity. 

Toxic productivity is a term that has become more commonly used in recent years. This is no buzzword, though. It is a real threat to your mental and physical health. 

So, if you feel you are busy all the time or that there aren’t enough hours in the day, it might be time to recognize the signs of toxicity creeping in. Or, if you find yourself missing those family meals or neglecting your friends to spend more time at the office, you could very well be falling into this common trap.   

What is Toxic Productivity?

In essence, toxic productivity is when the pressure or obsession to keep working and completing tasks becomes detrimental to other aspects of your life.

Toxic productivity can come from within, or it can be impacted by the pressure you feel from peers, colleagues, or bosses. Social media can also add fuel to the fire, bombarding you with channels trying to motivate you to work and triggering your natural desire to compare yourself to other people.

When it all gets too much, you may find yourself feeling lost or needing to take time off for health reasons. 

6 Tips to Overcome the Trap of Toxic Productivity

Recognizing what toxic productivity is and how it impacts your day is a step in the right direction, and these actionable tips can help you to avoid or overcome the trap altogether.

Set Realistic Goals

Overstretching is one of the worst things you can do when it comes to toxic productivity. There’s a delicate balance to be struck. Books like “The Magic of Thinking Big” teach us to be ambitious and that “action cures fear.” However, this comes with a caveat: Nobody can take action all the time, and downtime is important.

Goals can be both ambitious and realistic. Setting a goal to work 12 hours a day is simply not sustainable. Setting a goal to land a bigger client, gain a new skill, or improve your work can be much more attainable. If your goals put undue pressure on you, they can actually be counterproductive.

Make Breaks a Mandatory Part of Your Day

Woman sitting in the grass enjoying a coffee

Following this advice should be a no-brainer. Breaks don’t just carve out valuable time for yourself–they actually make you more productive.

Studies have almost unanimously shown that breaks can make you more focused and productive when you return to work. However, keep in mind that the kind of break you take is key.    

A study by Sanghoon Kang and Terri R. Kurtzberg highlights the need for a purposeful break that doesn’t include scrolling social media or checking your emails. 

Their study asked 414 participants to carry out a cognitively demanding task (solving anagrams), and some were told to engage in a “break task” to switch off and then return to work.

The results showed that “using a cell phone for a break did not allow the brain to recharge as effectively as the other types of breaks, both in terms of how long it took to complete the second half of the task and, in terms of how many anagrams were successfully solved in the second half.”

So, be sure to schedule regular breaks and make them non-negotiable as much as possible. 

Learn How to Set Boundaries and Stop People-Pleasing

Woman creating a boundary at work

This can be a real challenge, especially if you have demanding bosses or clients or other pressures in your work day. Continually agreeing to overtime might seem like a good career choice, but you risk becoming the employee your boss knows will always say yes. Eventually, overtime might even become something that is no longer just an option but rather an expectation.  

There’s nothing wrong with showing a willingness to pitch in when extra help is needed, but you need to put your mental and physical well-being first before throwing your hat into the ring. Being clear with bosses and colleagues about your boundaries can save you a lot of time and mental anguish. And, as a result, they will likely have greater respect for you and your time. 

If this step sounds really hard to you, you are probably a people-pleaser. But remember, you can’t please all the people all of the time. It’s crucial to prioritize your tasks and only take on what is needed and constructive. The Pareto Principle dictates that around 80% of results are likely to come from 20% of actions. Taking on superfluous extras to satisfy others means you will be focusing on areas that don’t achieve your goals.

One concrete way to commit to this step is actually writing down your boundaries, so you have a visual reminder of what’s important. Are you willing to work overtime and if so, what is your limit? Maybe you need to leave by a particular time to make it to your fitness or yoga class. Whatever is a non-negotiable for you, writing it down will help you stay mindful of it and communicate it to others.  

Cultivate Professional Detachment

Professional detachment is all about taking emotion out of your work and work decisions, as well as not taking stress and emotions from work home with you.

In the Cambridge University Press Virtue Ethics and Professional Roles, there is a section dedicated to professional detachment with a particular focus on lawyers and healthcare professionals.  People in these careers often struggle with carrying the emotional burden from work home with them.

But professional detachment is not only for professions known for their emotional toll. We all have the potential to carry our problems with us at the end of a workday. When things get particularly stressful at work, understanding the stress response cycle can help you to analyze what is happening and offer potential solutions. This awareness, combined with some good self-care habits, can help you better process things as they arise and allow you to go home with your mind at ease. 

Prioritize Self-Care

Man playing with his dog

Making time for yourself, your needs, and your own physical and mental health allows you to live the best life and meet your full potential. What use are you to others if all these aspects of your life are sub-optimal?

A post-work routine can help you to wind down and put yourself first, separating work and your personal life. It can be as simple as getting some exercise, having a special after-work playlist, or spending time with loved ones and pets to boost oxytocin levels. Here are some other great after-work self-care activities: 

  • Creative activities like drawing, writing, gardening, or cooking 
  • Physical affection 
  • Laughing 
  • Breathing exercises 
  • Yoga or Meditation 

Remember, no one is built to work every hour of the day, and no one can neglect their self-care and achieve long-term success without great expense to their personal life and relationships. 

Use Apps to Help You

There are many tools that can help you to structure your days and ensure you don’t fall into the trap of toxic productivity. A lot of people use apps for so many parts of their day-to-day life but are unaware of the incredible benefits that a simple yet powerful app can have on their work life.  The kōno app is one such example: it offers various timers and automations to help users stick to the allotted time for tasks and create effective, purposeful breaks. 

The Final Word on Toxic Productivity

One of the reasons why people struggle so much with toxic productivity is that productivity is an innately positive thing. But, as with so many other aspects of life, it is all about finding balance. It’s only when we go too far that it becomes a problem.

That balance can be aided greatly by using productivity tools and developing skills like professional detachment and boundary-setting. These aren’t gained overnight and require regular practice. But if you can manage to avoid toxic productivity, you’ll find you get the most done while keeping your health and happiness intact.

Ben Jacklin
LinkedIn Profile

Toxic Productivity FAQs

What is an example of toxic productivity?

The need to always be productive—not just at work but in every aspect of life—is known as toxic productivity. Feeling bad for taking breaks and putting your to-do list above your relationships and health are indicators of toxic productivity. You can start to lose patience with your loved ones or neglect to take a break after work to unwind.

What are some signs of toxic productivity?

Here are some instances of toxic productivity you could engage in: • Completing tasks after hours to avoid being late for work. • Putting your mental health at risk to complete your task. • Worrying excessively about how many chores, emails, and projects you have accomplished. • Sacrificing family time and personal time to complete work-related tasks. • Not setting time to unwind and engage in your favorite activities.

How can toxic productivity affect my mental health?

The impact of toxic productivity on you and your life might be harmful. Toxic productivity can: ● Cause fatigue and make you despise your job. ● Seriously compromise your physical and emotional well-being. ● Take you away from the people you care about. ● Cause you to eat worse, sleep worse, and engage in less physical activity. ● Cause you to give up your interests and run out of time for leisure activities.

Why do people engage in toxic productivity?

The pressure you experience from friends, coworkers, or supervisors can affect your toxic productivity, or it can arise from yourself. Social media can also fuel the fire by saturating you with outlets that urge you to strive more and encourage your innate drive to judge yourself against others. Additionally, toxic productivity can be a reaction to prior stress. People who have endured trauma can focus their efforts on big and small tasks to avoid unpleasant thoughts and sensations.

How do you break toxic productivity?

Establish clear boundaries between work and your personal life to combat toxic productivity. Set reasonable goals for yourself. Not every item on your to-do list needs daily attention. Permit yourself to do nothing occasionally.

Latest posts.