Are You Suffering from Toxic Productivity?

/ 8 min read
Kat Boogaard

Hear the word “productivity” and you’re bound to associate it with positivity. After all, it means you’re crushing your to-do list. You’re making the most of your day. You aren’t wasting time.

But what happens when your obsession with getting things done goes too far? You fall into the trap of toxic productivity.

What is toxic productivity?

Toxic productivity (which you might also hear referred to as action bias) is what happens when productivity goes bad—when you go way beyond realistic expectations and become fixated on constant productivity.

You believe that every single one of your waking moments should be used for some sort of meaningful action or result. On the productivity spectrum, you’re way over in the territory of the Energizer Bunny.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with enjoying getting things done. Thanks to a neurotransmitter called dopamine, crossing things off of our to-do lists feels good.

But, you can think of toxic productivity more like an addiction to productivity. It comes above everything else in your life—your mental health, physical health, quality time with family, time with friends, and leisure time spent doing hobbies you enjoy.

The even worse news? That relentless pace and “always-on” attitude aren’t sustainable and lead to increased anxiety, damage to personal lives and relationships, and workplace burnout (which is now so prevalent it’s considered an “occupational phenomenon”).

5 telltale signs you’re suffering from toxic productivity

So, where’s the line between a healthy desire to maximise your time and a dangerous obsession with getting things done? Here are five signs you’re falling into the toxic productivity trap.

1. You set unrealistic expectations

Finish that huge report, clean your car, prepare a five-course meal, run a marathon, and solve a medical mystery. It’s all in a day’s work, right?

You aren’t one to set realistic goals. Your self-imposed expectations are ambitious—or, dare we say, impossible?

Those expectations don’t just set an unreachable finish line. They set you up for overwhelming guilt when you don’t manage to actually conquer your unattainable plans for your day.

You convince yourself that it’s not your workload that’s the issue. It’s you. Cue the cycle of self-loathing for not being as focused or efficient as you “should” be.

3. You feel anxious during downtime

Sit on the couch? Lay in a hammock and read a book? Take a leisurely walk? You? No way. Any moment spent relaxing inspires a hefty amount of restlessness and nail-biting. After all, what good is your time if you aren’t doing something with it?

4. Your success feels meaningless

When you do manage to achieve something, it’s almost never accompanied by a sense of fulfillment or accomplishment. That’s overshadowed by a desire to do more. So you move right on to the next thing on your never-ending list.

5. You feel fatigued and zapped of energy

All of that productivity is exhausting and you can only spin the hamster wheel for so long before you reach the point of total burnout. When you do, getting anything done feels a lot like trudging through wet cement. You’re completely depleted.

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How to overcome toxic productivity

Did you read through those red flags, nod along, and think, “Oh yeah, I have a raging addiction to productivity?” Rest assured that it’s not a life sentence. There are steps you can take to climb your way out of the toxic productivity trap—and avoid it altogether in the future.

1. Untangle your self-worth and your work

This is one of those things that’s a lot easier said than done, especially when so much of our identity is wrapped up in our careers. It’s why “what do you do?” is often the first question we ask when we meet someone new.

But, while hustle culture and our modern working world inspire you to believe that your value is rooted in your productivity, that’s not the case.

There’s a big difference between what you do and who you are. Detaching your self-worth from your to-do list is crucial for learning to shut off.

Practical steps you can take:

  • Challenge yourself to not default to asking about someone’s career when you meet and ask about other interests instead.
  • Dedicate time to non-work-related hobbies and passions that make you feel good.

2. Set (and stick to) healthy boundaries

Today’s constant connectivity gives us the option to work anywhere—but it also means we can work everywhere. When people shifted to remote work during the pandemic, excessive hours became the norm.

70% of employees admitted they worked weekends now that they were working from home. Another 45% said they regularly worked more hours than they had previously.

When your list of tasks is always taunting you from just around the corner, it’s more important than ever to set and maintain healthy boundaries to ensure your work responsibilities don’t creep in and consume all of your personal time.

Practical steps you can take:

  • Create a simple end-of-workday routine (like reviewing your calendar for the next day and clearing all of those used coffee mugs from your desk) to signal to your brain that it’s time to switch out of “work mode.”
  • Block out your calendar to reserve adequate time for relaxation, hobbies, and time with loved ones. You can connect your calendar to Paperform and use the Appointment field in a meeting request form. People will only be able to book appointments with you at the times you make available in your calendar.

3. Build buffers into your schedule

It’s way more challenging to disengage from toxic productivity if you constantly have deadlines breathing down your neck. When an end date is looming (especially a tight one), you feel increased pressure to keep working until the task is done.

We aren’t suggesting that you toss your calendar into the trash bin and kiss any sort of schedule goodbye. Deadlines are important for holding teams accountable and keeping work on track.

Instead, stick with deadlines but add some extra time into your schedule. Basically, estimate how long a task will take you and then add at least a day or two (or more). You won’t feel like you’re constantly under the wire.

And, if you don’t end up needing the buffer? That’s wiggle room you can use to do something else—like take a well-deserved nap.

Practical steps you can take:

  • Use a time tracker to get a better grasp of how long certain tasks take you. That will help you be more realistic when setting deadlines and building buffers.
  • Resist the urge to equate your free time or the time you blocked off for other activities as your buffer. Your buffer needs to come from your dedicated work time—it shouldn’t steal from what you have set aside for relaxation and leisure.

4. Learn to say “no”

N-O. It’s a short word, but such a tough one to say. Some of us struggle to say “no” because we want to avoid conflict or don’t want to be a disappointment. Others get gratification out of being the “yes person” who always has things handled—even when they’re already spread too thin.

You won’t resolve or combat toxic productivity if you keep piling your plate too full. Turning things down is never easy, but it’s a necessary step to stop overloading yourself so you don’t have to constantly crank to manage that workload.

Practical steps you can take:

  • Combine this with your healthy boundaries to say, “No, but…” which can be easier to stomach than a flat refusal. For example, “No, I can’t have this done by Monday, but I can get it to you by Friday.”
  • Use a priorities matrix to categorise your tasks and responsibilities and identify which ones can be deleted from your list entirely.

5. Practice meaningful self-care

Self-care is making time for behaviours and activities that help you be the happiest and healthiest version of yourself you can be. For some people that’s a bubble bath. Or a relaxing massage.

But, the key here is to identify the self-care practices that feel the most restorative for you. Maybe it’s exercise. Maybe it’s vegging out on the couch. Maybe it’s getting enough hours of sleep. There isn’t one “right” way to do self-care, provided it makes you feel good.

Practical steps you can take:

  • Set aside dedicated time in your weekly schedule for self-care. Our brains thrive with consistent routines and this can make regular self-care a habit rather than a rare indulgence.
  • Plan a recurring self-care activity with someone you enjoy, like a weekly walk with a close friend. You’ll have more accountability to stick with that routine while also getting some quality time.

6. Do nothing (seriously!)

Here’s your challenge: Go sit on your couch and do nothing. Absolutely nothing. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Nope, you can’t use that time to listen to an educational podcast. Or sort through that stack of mail. Or brush your dog. Seriously, your goal is to do nothing.

You’re going to feel a little itchy and uncomfortable. Learning to do nothing at all is a skill in and of itself. But, it’s one of the best ways to snap out of the mindset that you should always, always, always be accomplishing something.

Plus, if you feel really uneasy, take comfort in the fact that doing nothing actually is sneakily productive. Research shows that adequate rest makes you more creative and a better problem solver.

Practical steps you can take:

  • Start small and set a timer for five or 10 minutes. It’ll help you ease into the concept of being inactive.

Productivity should be positive

Think about it: The ultimate goal of productivity is to generate results. But, if what you’re generating is just a heap of stress and persistent feelings of inadequacy, is your version of productivity really all it’s cracked up to be?

There’s a better way. Breaking up with hustle culture and toxic productivity means you can go back to getting things done in a way that makes you feel delighted—not depleted.


About the author
Kat Boogaard
Kat is a freelance writer focused on our working world. When she’s not at her computer, you’ll find her spending time with her family—which includes two adorable sons and two rebellious rescue mutts.

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