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An Expert’s Guide on Toxic Productivity

A woman furrows her brow looking at a computer

It’s a new year, which means it’s time for a massive influx of ‘new year, new you’ advice. Setting goals and making plans is all well and good in theory, but in practice, it can quickly turn into a phenomenon known as “toxic productivity.”

If you’re unfamiliar with this term, it’s, well, exactly what it sounds like: when an aim to be productive via a personal or professional goal starts to impact your life in negative ways. But how do you know if you’re veering into this habit, and what can you do to stop it?

We spoke with sport psychologist, Haley Perlus, to find out everything you need to know about toxic productivity, so you can prevent those new year’s goals from consuming you.

What Is Toxic Productivity?

A man looking at a computer screen and yawning.
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At some point, when pursuing a new goal, you might notice that you no longer have time for self-care. Maybe you can’t ever be away from your phone or take a break. After a while, these habits become toxic for you.

However, that’s just scratching the surface; Perlus broke it down even further for us, dubbing “toxic productivity” as the new buzzword for workaholism, but with a bit more nuance.

“Toxic productivity is, essentially, an unhealthy desire to be productive at all times, no matter what,” Perlus said. “It’s the inner need to go the ‘extra mile’ at work or home, even when it’s not expected of you.”

Unfortunately, even when you do reach your goal or cross off all the items on your to-do list, that feeling of needing to do more often doesn’t go away if you’re in a toxic cycle. In fact, it can spiral into feelings of inadequacy, such as wishing you’d done even more on a project or feeling like your work wasn’t good enough.

“When toxic productivity leads your life,” Perlus said, “you judge yourself every day for what you haven’t done, rather than looking at what you have accomplished.”

What Are the Signs of Toxic Productivity?

Someone writing in a planner.

Toxic productivity tends to be a cycle, but there are certain signs and actions associated with it. According to Perlus, people caught in this cycle experience an inability or lack of desire to socialize or enjoy any downtime. They also engage in little to no self-care because they just don’t have the time.

“They don’t just want to run,” Perlus said. “They want to run 25 miles a day to train for the Boston Marathon. But, you have to remind yourself that not everything you do has to have a point. Or, the point can be simply and completely for the experience in and of itself.”

Unfortunately, if you’re in a toxic productivity cycle, even when you do achieve a major goal or check everything off your list, you no longer feel good about it.

“People dealing with toxic productivity find themselves caught in a cycle of being productive just for the sake of saying they were,” Perlus said. “This can mean that, when you finally meet your goals, they feel hollow or not good enough.”

How to Tell if You’re in a Toxic Productivity Cycle

If you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms, you might be caught in a toxic productivity cycle:

  • An overall feeling of failure: Feeling like this even after completing a task or goal, or not being able to let go when something is complete, could be a sign of this negative cycle.
  • Evaluation based on lack: Judging your success based on what you haven’t done.
  • An inability to relax: Being unable to enjoy downtime or social situations.
  • Pushing: Continuing to work even after accomplishing a task.
  • Fatigue: Feeling abnormally tired, even after getting adequate rest.

If you nodded your head to more than a few of these, you might want to slow down and take stock of your feelings. It would also be a good idea to talk to someone.

Consider scheduling an appointment with a mental health professional or therapist so you can find out if you’re really caught in a toxic productivity cycle and, if so, how you can get out of it.

We’ll help you get started.

How to Stop a Toxic Productivity Cycle

A person sitting in front of a laptop also holds up a phone up.

When it comes to breaking a toxic productivity cycle, Perlus recommends setting boundaries and making time for activities that allow you to disconnect and relax.

Schedule a few 10- to 15-minute breaks into every workday so you can get away from your computer and phone. Use this time to take a walk, grab a snack, or chat with a coworker or friend.

If adding a few breaks doesn’t feel like enough, Perlus recommends that you take some time off to recuperate emotionally. If you feel like you can’t take any time off, at least protect your weekends. Avoid answering any work calls or emails on days when you’re not “on the clock.”

Once again, the best way to stop this type of cycle is to speak with a mental health professional, as he or she will be able to give you the necessary tools to break the cycle for good.

If it’s been a long time since you took a vacation day or even had an evening to yourself, you might be caught in a toxic productivity cycle. This can cause you to feel burnt out, but it can also go on indefinitely. By examining your daily work habits, you can discover any negative patterns, get some help, and break the cycle for good.

Shea Simmons Shea Simmons
Shea Simmons is the Assignments Editor at LifeSavvy. Previously, she worked as a freelance writer with a focus on beauty and lifestyle content. Her work has appeared in Bustle, Allure, and Hello Giggles. Read Full Bio »
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