What is Toxic Productivity – and 3 Ways to Fight It

What is toxic productivity? How can you avoid it? Learn more about this in this article

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What is toxic productivity, and how can we avoid it? In this brief article, we will cover everything you need to know about toxic productivity, including how to prevent burnouts that stem out of it.

Of course, as with any “toxic” feeling, anyone experiencing toxic productivity may experience emotional distress. In that sense, this guide is not meant to be health advice and cannot substitute the counseling of a professional.

What is Toxic Productivity?

Definition of Toxic Productivity

Later in the article, we will see solutions to toxic productivity. Before we reach that point, however, we should try to have a clear definition.

Toxic productivity is the situation where you have to constantly “do” without ever stopping and you feel you have to be consistently busy. Often, but not always, it is associated with a feeling of “not moving the needle”.

Note that, according to this definition, toxic productivity is not about what you do, but rather how you feel about it. Having a lot of work to do or working long hours quite often do not necessarily translate into toxic productivity. To put it another words, if you work a lot you can feel in one of two ways: accomplished, or overwhelmed. If you feel accomplished (and do not neglect your health, sleep etc.) then you are not experiencing toxic productivity. Instead, if you feel overwhelmed, you may be experiencing toxic productivity.

Toxic productivity often comes with a feeling of “not moving the needle”. This feels like that, despite our strenuous efforts, we are not making a difference. We work on a project that feels it will never be complete, we are trying to solve a problem that seems to get only bigger, and so on. This is the most dangerous feeling, because often toxic productivity translates into a feeling of being trapped. You may feel that you have to work a lot, maybe put in even more hours, even if that does not make any difference. You feel that you have no choice but to keep pouring in huge quantities of effort because not doing so would make things even worse.

Now, it is worth remembering that even with toxic productivity you can accomplish great feats. In fact, let me reiterate that what you do or what you accomplish is not the point. Rather, it is how you feel about it. You may even have the best accomplishment ever, but if you don’t realize that and discount it as “it does not make any difference”, then it won’t help you.

Before we move on to the next section, note that there is yet another kind of toxic productivity. In some cases, you have a great sense of accomplishment and feel that your time is well-spent. However, you just work too much, up to the point you sacrifice other things that are important to your health: sleep, exercising, good eating habits, spending time with the people you care about. Even this type of productivity can be toxic in the long run, and it can be even more subtle because you feel in control, as it feels “your choice”. This is dangerous as well.

Examples of Toxic Productivity

Now that we have some definition for toxic productivity, we can make some examples to make things clearer. In no particular order, here are some instances representing toxic productivity.

  • You spend all your day in meetings and then the actual work you need to do after the normal working hours.
  • You are an entrepreneur working on 3 projects at a time and having an 80h work week. Because of this, you sleep only 5 hours per day and often eat at takeout unhealthy food.
  • All your day is spent answering emails quickly as they arrive, and you are unable to concentrate on the tasks you want to do.
  • Problems continue to arise, and you need to promptly repair them so you can’t focus on the long-term goals.
  • You feel you have more on your plate that you can handle and that slowing down will mean failure.
The concept of toxic productivity can be applied to individuals and also to company, that most often have a toxic impact for the environment
The concept of toxic productivity can be applied also to a company having negativei mpact on the environment.

As you can see, most of the examples are really about internal feelings rather than objective circumstances. This is because productivity is productivity, if it is toxic productivity or not it is you perception.

Problems of Toxic Productivity

At this point you may ask “why all this matter?” or “what’s all the fuss?”. In the end, toxic productivity gets things done as well, so can’t we just clamp down on our feelings, endure, and get things done? We could, but this may not be the best strategy in the long term.

First, you need to consider your personal wellbeing as something important. Having short burst of toxic productivity occasionally to meet a goal may be good, in fact in hindsight that goal may give you so much satisfaction that you will consider it worth it. However, you need to remember that this kind of productivity cannot be sustained in the long run.

Toxic productivity in the long run is dangerous for you on so many levels:

  • It reduces your cognitive skills, such as the ability to concentrate, as you are not getting proper sleep.
  • It increases the likelihood of poor nutrition (often to “save time” with prepackaged meals), with all subsequent conditions such as fatigue, being overweight or even obesity (this may apply more or less depending on where you live).
  • You are at risk of isolation from the people you care about.
  • Eventually, for the aforementioned reasons, your actual productivity drops.
  • Even if you do a lot of things, with toxic productivity you may not be doing the things you actually need to be doing. You keep working, but waste time.

Hopefully this should show you why toxic productivity is actually toxic. Now let’s see what to do about it.

How to Fight Toxic Productivity

Be mindful about what you choose to do

In short, let it go. The quickest way to curb your toxic productivity is to precisely select what you do and what you don’t do. While the concept is simple, it is not easy to implement because we tend to feel “but I need to do everything”. Pause for a second and think about “need”, that is the most important word there.

List all the tasks you have coming up, and then for each the consequences of not doing it. Most likely, for most of the tasks you write down your life will not be in danger if you chose not to complete them. Be pragmatic with the consequences, and avoid guessing into the future. For example, if you need to prepare a slide deck for Friday but the presentation is in two weeks, failing to do so may have a consequence “I will have to do this next week on Monday or Tuesday at most”.

This is a reasonable consequence. An unreasonable consequence would be “I will deliver this late, my colleagues will be unhappy, I will get a reprimand and get fired, so I will lose the house I can’t pay without a job and become homeless”.

Note that the goal here is not to downplay consequences. It is just to be crystal clear about what the immediate consequences are, and not an extremely long chain of events.

Once you have this list, trim it down, remove tasks you don’t need to do. Many people here are still resistant “but I have to do them all!”. Sure, dropping any task will have consequences. If dropping a task had literally no consequence, you won’t have that task at all. But here we are talking about making sacrifices, trading off some time for some not-so-positive consequences.

The best approach is to list tasks by expected time needed to complete them, and then trim down the list top to bottom. You want to drop “high-effort low-consequence” tasks first, this can save you a lot of time.

Exercise, Sleep, Take Care of Yourself

It is important that we attack toxic productivity on all fronts. On one side, we reduce the load that is placed on us by being more mindful about what we are doing. On the other side, we train our body and brain to be more resilient and be able to support higher pressure. The combination of both can go quite a long way.

The tips here are nothing new:

  • Exercise regularly, 30 minutes every other day at minimum
  • Have 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night (depends on your body, but be consistent)
  • Go to bed and wake up always at the same time every day, including weekends
  • Health 5 types of fruits and 5 types of vegetables every day, prefer seasonal produce
  • Meditate once a day to develop focus, concentrating on your breath
  • Walk in the nature, go for a hike

Something that may be new, however, is to be consistent. Allot time to those activities, and then do not sacrifice the slots you placed for exercise, sleep etc. for no reason. They should be fixed on your calendar with a priority which is higher than work.

If you keep approach consistently (it is okay to reshuffle some of the slots sometimes) your body and brain will be in a better shape to face high level of pressure.

Develop Emotional Intelligence

There is a lot of literature on emotional intelligence, but we need to be aware that there is also strong opposition to this theory from eminent scientists. Nonetheless, even if no such thing as emotional intelligence were to exist, we can still use it as a framework to more conveniently detail how we approach the word.

Specifically, emotional intelligence has one key component that is self-awareness, understanding one own’s feelings. If you are struggling with toxic productivity, you may benefit from increasing your self-awareness. In fact, low self-awareness tends to be common in younger generations.

There is no surefire recipe to build self-awareness, but some good practice that can help you curb toxic productivity as well. Since you need to be self-aware, you need to reflect on your feelings. Have a diary, and every day write down how you felt during the day and why you felt that way. It only takes 5 minutes.

Another great way to increase your self-awareness to reduce toxic productivity is to spend time with people from different backgrounds and cultures, so that you can see the world from a different angle. The Internet can make miracles because it allows you to connect with people around the world, but I understand this may not be always easy.

Finally, and this is the least effective but still worth considering, read novels with complex characters. This is the next-best-thing to being exposed to “real” people with complex feelings. Authors like Tolstoj can be a good start, but reat something you feel you might like.

Having a high degree of self-awareness helps you understand yourself better, understand what you want to do and what you prefer to avoid, and act consequently.

Toxic Productivity in Summary

Long story short, toxic productivity is a feeling of being overwhelmed, of doing too much at the expense of one’s own health. It can be endured for brief short bursts to get to an important goal, but it is something you should avoid in the long run.

Fortunately, contrasting toxic productivity is simple. List what you are doing or need to do, and then critically assess what are the consequences of not doing each tasks. Drop those for which you can bear the consequences, but be honest with yourself. Implement healthy habits, and develop your emotional intelligence by reflecting on your emotions daily in a diary.

If you are really struggling with toxic productivity, remember that finding professional counseling is the best thing to do. Instead, if you are just curious about other methods to deal with stress at work effectively, read this article.

Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded ICTShore.com with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.
Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded ICTShore.com with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.

Alessandro Maggio