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Toxic Productivity: What It Is & How To Avoid It

You probably grew up being told that anything is achievable if you work hard, and somewhere along the way your learning reinforced the idea that hard work is equal to productivity. While this is not technically incorrect—as working hard and staying dedicated is a quality you can take pride in—the constant buildup of this idea often leads to a wrong belief that constant busyness is the same as productivity, and even further, that never-ending work is the only measure of productivity. It’s no surprise, then, that toxic productivity exists and harms many professionals.

What Is Toxic Productivity?

Toxic productivity is a term you may not be familiar with, but chances are that you’ll recognize at least a small part of the trend in either your own life or the lives of others you know. It refers to the act of filling your schedule to the brim in an effort to reach maximum productivity levels. This idea about productivity is the misinformed belief that being productive must mean working constantly without rest or pause.

“Toxic productivity occurs when we try to schedule the maximum amount of output for every minute of our day,” says Olga V. Mack, the CEO of the innovative contract management company Parley Pro. “We fill every moment with back-to-back meetings, projects, or research, with little-to-no time for breaks. Toxic productivity assumes that we can always perform at our best.

All we must do is pack our days. There is a general trend toward pursuing productivity, with lawyers trying to find the next productivity app, hack, or guru. And, yes, there are certainly ways of getting your life more organized. Certainly, it is a good idea to be curious and be on the lookout for self-improvement. Yet, you should also be aware of falling into the trap of toxic productivity.

“The trick is to find a support group and to figure out a structure that distributes the load equally and sustainably. Sustainability is the most important factor of productivity — yet, it is the most overlooked. If you know you cannot maintain your current system forever, then you are in dire need of a system overhaul. If you must push through every day, then you do not have a productive balance –- you are merely teetering before the inevitable fall,” says Olga V. Mack, the CEO of Parley Pro.

Yes, the fall is certainly inevitable after too long following a toxic productivity lifestyle, although sometimes it takes extreme indicators for one to realize they need to make a change. Erika Ferszt, an organizational psychologist with a personal interest in healthy work-life balances, shares her own frightening experience with toxic productivity that led her to proceed differently.

“Toxic productivity is the inability to do something just for the sake of doing it. All actions must always have a goal or an objective that leads to a sense of personal improvement or achievement. As a result of the way the brain works, toxic productivity can behave like an addiction. You can forget how to live without the sensations that accomplishment and productivity are expected to provide. You can lose the ability to participate and engage fully in the range of experiences that life has to offer.

“Even though I absolutely loved my job, in 2015, I was hospitalized for 10 days after suffering stress-related vision loss. This caused me to become interested in studying stress and burnout . . . This made me rethink everything in my life, all my priorities . . . Not everything you do has to have a point. It may feel unpleasant and uncomfortable at the beginning, and you may fear you are wasting precious time, but you are worth the investment. Keep doing it until it becomes a habit,” says Erika Ferszt, Founder of Moodally.

There are other harmful effects of toxic productivity. Reece Kresser, the co-founder of Zizi, a direct-to-consumer healthcare company with a focus on preventing heart disease, points out the damaging way work is often still framed as something that progresses only when time is constantly put in. Until this mentality changes, the side effects will continue to be common.

“It’s a shame that toxic positivity exists as a common misconception among workers and professionals. Whereas many have been raised or conditioned to believe that productivity can only look like non-stop work, the truth is that putting in your efforts without ceasing is one of the quickest ways to experience burnout, high stress levels, eventual dread or loathing when considering the work before you, and poor health.

I have never liked the romanticism of ‘the daily grind’ because I think it can easily add to the portrayal of non-stop work habits as the measure of success. While all professionals do experience the ‘grind’ of hard work and the satisfaction that brings, I just wish the mentality around work was more about setting healthy boundaries and taking time for yourself after or in between working,” says Reece Kresser, Co-Founder of Zizi

While anyone can find themselves caught up in the process of toxic positivity, there are some types of people who may be at higher risk of finding themselves stuck in the exhausting cycle. Tony Chan, the CEO and co-founder of CloudForecast, an AWS cost management system, addresses those who may struggle with a false view of productivity. 

“Those who grew up with the idea that busyness is synonymous with hard work, and relaxation–or not obvious action–is synonymous with laziness, will find themselves particularly susceptible to the trap that is toxic productivity. Those who find work a relief or enjoyment can also struggle with finding that work-life balance; when left unaddressed, this lifestyle can lead to toxic habits. In the same way, people pleasers, as well as those who have had to fight to climb the corporate ladder, often find it difficult to cease their round-the-clock working once they can reasonably relax into their positions. If you find yourself living the symptoms of toxic productivity in your life, regardless of your experiences, don’t wait to adjust your lifestyle,” says Tony Chan, CEO and Co-Founder of CloudForecast.

Tips for How To Avoid Engaging in Toxic Productivity

The question continues then, about how to prevent or undo toxic productivity’s grip on your life. Fortunately, there are many simple processes you can follow that help. It’s important to know that toxic productivity can take form in any area of your life, rather than being restricted to your profession.

“Toxic productivity mainly seems to affect people who have made work a prevalent part of their lives, either because they enjoy the work and strongly value/believe in their efforts (which makes them feel like they cannot rest without losing progress), or because they’ve spent long enough husting in their jobs that it has become second nature. You need to first recognize your habits that are hindering and not helping you. While work can be immensely enjoyable and rewarding, you need a work-life balance too,” says Marcus Hutsen, Business Development Manager of Patriot Coolers.

The pull of this form of productivity that causes damage is not limited to one’s professional life only, which is another truth about toxic productivity that people sometimes don’t realize. 

“Those who work from the home or whose home is their work can get just as caught up in toxic versions of productivity as those who head to the office each day. There will always be more to do around the house, so that could be the vice you struggle to take a break from.

Anything in your personal life that feels as though you’re improving yourself or your situation through doing can quickly become toxic in its allure to keep you busy with it. Consider what types of things you do that prompt you to feel satisfied in your work. If you find it difficult to draw the line in that area, it’s probably a focus you should keep an eye on so it doesn’t get out of hand,” says Phillip Montalvo, Director of Marketing of Azuna.

Now that you understand that toxic productivity isn’t limited to affecting just one type of person or one area of life, you can rest assured that there are tips and tricks that can help you break the negative habits and restore your work-life balance. Let’s take a look at these tips from business professionals who have found balance in their own routines. 

Schedule Downtime Into Your Day

“Actively schedule downtime into your day and evening if that’s what it takes for you to actually settle into this time. People suffering from toxic productivity often feel like everything they do needs to be purposeful and planned. Structure becomes a necessary way of life. Since there’s nothing wrong with structure but there is a big problem with not giving yourself breaks, you might experience success with planning out time to relax.

Just make sure you hold yourself accountable for taking rest breaks just as you would to get this or that done. You can even have a plan for what you’ll do, such as watching a movie, reading a book, going for a walk, playing with your kids or dog, or going out for coffee with a friend,” says Eric Elggren, Co-Founder of Andar.

Address the Red Flags

“You can’t expect to make changes until you admit that you need to. Address the red flags that point you to your own toxic productivity habits. At the same time, address the feelings associated with why you feel drawn (or even addicted) to productivity in such an excessive and toxic manner. Once you’ve done the groundwork of accepting your struggle, you can begin to reframe your thinking about work and to step back, even though it’s hard,” says Tom Mohr, Author, Singer-Songwriter, and Founder of CEOQuest.

Take Time Away From Screens

“In this day and age, work often happens on screens. In order to implement breaks, plan on having screen free time each day. It is through our screens that we can make work a constant since they’re always readily accessible for us to use, such as checking and replying to emails, inspecting updates and work information, and completing work tasks themselves. When you remove the screen, you remove the ability to keep working, and hopefully the brain and body proceed by taking a much needed break. Plan restful and enjoyable activities you can do while you aren’t on your screens so that you have a stress-free rest,” says Nick King, CEO of Vint.

Remember That You Need To Recharge Your Batteries

“It’s well understood that introverts are people who need to be alone in order to ‘recharge their batteries’ as the concept goes; in truth, everyone needs down time in order to reset their minds and bodies for the things ahead. That’s one way in which getting a good night of sleep each evening is crucial, because it recharges your body, and in turn your mind, so you can proceed with energy, stamina, and mental clarity the next day.

You need to remind yourself of the importance of slowing down to have the ability to go full speed ahead when the time is right. A paradox of life is that sometimes you need to do something that feels extremely unproductive–like doing nothing at all!–in order to be able to do more,” says Tavis Lochhead, Co-Founder of Looria

Toxic productivity threatens to take over your whole life with its constant push on you to keep working. However, humans were made to take restful breaks in between periods of productivity. Use these tips and tricks to leave your toxic productivity habits in the past and foster a healthier work-life balance. 

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