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  • Writer's pictureKimberly Kono

Toxic Productivity





The term “toxic productivity” has been gaining attention in American culture ever since the pandemic. As a way to cope with the uncertainty of life during the pandemic, many of us (who were fortunate enough to have jobs) began focusing even more so on work as a way of reinforcing a sense of security, normalcy and control. For others, we used “the shutdown” as an opportunity to focus our energies outside of work, channeling our need for productivity into learning new skills. (I can make a mean pumpkin bread because of the pandemic.) The pandemic laid fertile ground for us to be even more productive, feeding into the preexisting “hustle culture” by which we overwork to achieve success. Just look at Jack Dorsey, who once noted that he worked 16 hours per day. 


What is toxic productivity and isn’t it the same as workaholism?

Toxic productivity is the need to constantly be productive. It’s workaholism on steroids. Whereas workaholism focuses on one area of life (i.e., work), toxic productivity focuses on many. Even when we’ve checked something off our “to do” list, we often ruminate about how we could have done it better and feel guilty for not having done more. 


What does social media have to do with it?

Let’s be clear - social media is not to blame for toxic productivity, but it can encourage it. It was Elon Musk who once tweeted, “[N]obody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” Gone are the days of just using social media to connect with others, share pics of our family vacations or provide updates on our kids. Nowadays, many on social media also unintentionally (or intentionally) glamorize productivity by posting everything from their to-do lists and how they organize their busy lives, to the various ways they stayed busy during the pandemic. 


Why is it so hard to stop?

In her interview with the BBC, Dr. Sandra Chapman, the chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas, stated that the brain can become addicted to productivity, much like other forms of addiction such as drugs, food, shopping, etc. She elaborated:


“A person might crave the recognition their work gives them, or the salary increases they get. The problem is that just like all addictions, over time a person needs more and more to be satisfied and then it starts to work against you. Withdrawal symptoms include increased anxiety, depression and fear.” 


While not all agree about characterizing toxic productivity as an addiction, clinical psychologist, Dr. Kathryn Esquer, suggested that when we are productive, we experience a dopamine hit. Without getting too technical, dopamine is a neurotransmitter (a chemical that assists neurons in communicating with one another) in our brain that helps us experience things like pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation. It’s the same neurotransmitter that is released when we use cocaine, for example. Thus, society not only rewards us for being overly productive, but our brains do, too. 


How to avoid toxic productivity

5-minute rule (revised)

You may have heard about the 5-minute rule as a tool to manage procrastination and increase productivity, and might be thinking, “Hold on, you’re telling me to manage my toxic productivity by doing something that will make me more productive?” Bear with me, I promise this will make sense. The premise of the 5-minute rule is that you can do anything for five minutes (even if you don’t end up completing a task within that time frame). It’s like you’re taking a bite-size piece of kale (for those of you that have strong feelings about kale) with the hope of eventually eating a kale salad. The said task is usually something we avoid (no offense, kale); for people with toxic productivity, something they commonly avoid is taking breaks. 


More often than not, it’s usually not the actual act of taking a break that is difficult, but instead the uncomfortable emotions and self-critical thoughts we experience during the break that is intolerable. For someone with toxic productivity, taking any kind of break may bring up feelings of guilt (for stepping away from the task at hand) and anxiety (about what they could’ve accomplished had they not taken a break). This is why it’s important to start off small (because you will be doing something really uncomfortable). There is a reason why they call it the “5 minute rule” and not the “15 or 30 minute rule”. If you have been avoiding breaks, you are much more likely to take a break for five minutes than a 15 or 30 minute break. Starting with a bigger break (I’m speaking to you, overachievers) can backfire and lead to more avoidance. 


Set realistic expectations and goals

What often accompanies toxic productivity is a tendency to establish unrealistic expectations and goals for ourselves. Unrealistic expectations and goals, however, are often - by nature - unachievable. However, even when unachievable, this does not stop us from trying to meet them, leading us to work harder and longer in order to do so and creating the belief that we haven’t accomplished enough. 


Ask yourself, “What are you sacrificing in order to be productive and what are the consequences?”

Sometimes, when we are so used to operating in a certain way, we lose sight of the potential downsides of what we are doing or even forget about them. It’s like the apologue of the boiling frog. If you stick a frog in boiling water, it will immediately jump out of the pot. But, if you put the frog in tepid water and slowly bring it to a boil, it won’t perceive the danger. (No animals were harmed during the creation of this post.) Check-in with yourself. When was the last time you did something for fun? How many times have you said, “No” to friends who tried to make plans with you? What are you missing out on? 


Ask yourself, “What is really driving my need to be productive?”

What underlies our toxic productivity are often thoughts, beliefs and feelings as well as life circumstances that drive our behavior. Common themes include a fear of failure, a need to compensate for not feeling good enough, perfectionism, job/financial insecurity, etc. Figuring out what is truly driving your desire/need to be productive can help you better manage it. Consult with a mental health provider for more information (and then give yourself kudos for prioritizing your mental health!). 


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