Mental Health / Work Life Balance

Toxic Productivity: What It Is And How To Handle It

. 6 min read . Written by Nikita Singh
Toxic Productivity: What It Is And How To Handle It

An example of toxic productivity: Person ‘A’ works at a consulting firm. They have achieved significant professional success and have multiple interests outside of work, along with supportive family and friends.

Consider the following scenarios in person A’s life:

“I worked hard all day, but I REALLY think I should have done more.” 

“I don’t understand how being upset about a personal issue is impacting my work. This is unacceptable.”

 “I’m finding it difficult to sleep because I have all this work still to get done.”

“I’ve been so absorbed with work that I couldn’t manage to call my friend/partner/family member when they really needed me.”

Person A isn’t the only one who has had these thoughts or acted upon them. Many of us have. It is thoughts such as these that lead us slap bang into the trap called toxic productivity.  

What Is Toxic Productivity?

Primarily, toxic productivity stems from a radical obsession with self-improvement. As a result, no matter how productive one is, they’re always left with that guilty feeling of not having done more or enough. The bigger question though: How to avoid toxic productivity?

Here’s how you can recognise the barrier between healthy productivity and toxic productivity  by looking at some examples of toxic productivity that you can use to identify the problem area with and also eliminate these habits later:

Signs of toxic productivity:

  1. Working obsessively till it begins to affect your health and relationships
  2. Having that nagging voice that tells you that you’re failing/not doing good enough
  3. Feeling restless; finding it difficult to relax or fall asleep because of work-related thoughts
dealing with toxic productivity

Triggers Of Toxic Productivity

I can recollect moments when I’ve experienced these things and wondered, “Am I the only one who experiences this?” Well, there are a number of triggers that affect many people in different ways.

1. Our environment

Toxic productivity can stem from a deeper cultural issue – the pressure to be ‘available’ and ‘online’ at all times thanks to our dysfunctional work culture. The world seems to have an almost constant view in our lives, which compounds the impact of the pressure to appear a certain way to family, friends, colleagues at work or potential employers.

2. Personality traits

We all know of ‘calm’ high achievers as well as the ‘anxious’ or ‘self-critical’ performers. Why is it that some people (almost effortlessly) balance productivity with self-care in an unassuming, self-assured manner. They are even able to completely avoid toxic productivity, whilst others struggle?

The answer could lie in an individual’s inherent personality.

The Big Five Model, a widely accepted personality theory by psychologists, states that personalities can be boiled down to 5 core factors: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. There is a high correlation between our behaviour and our preferences, which fall in either of these categories. Those who are highly conscientious and/or display a high degree of agreeableness, combined with their tendency to experience emotional instability (neuroticism) are most likely to experience the symptoms of toxic productivity.

3. Upbringing and conditioning

When a child is constantly told not to make mistakes and not to cry and is encouraged to ‘be the best’, they can develop an obsession with productivity and over-achievement. There is a difference between encouragement and pushing them to do more, be more, etc. The latter can lead to an individual experiencing the symptoms of toxic productivity. 

How To Control Toxic Productivity

How can we conquer the toxic productivity monster? Here’s the ABCD of navigating toxic productivity.

Accept It

Being upset with yourself for experiencing toxic productivity makes the situation significantly harder. Not accepting your tendency to indulge in this behaviour could lead to self-criticism and the inability to move beyond the problem, to find potential solutions. The question that we should keep asking ourselves to help maneuver our way around this maze is:‘how can I work less and be more productive?’

Solution:

Separate your behaviour from who you are – imagine that this is a part of a movie, and not your identity. This will help you be more accepting and find solutions to eradicating that behaviour. 

Become Aware

Self-awareness is at the pinnacle of psychological health. The lack of it can lead to toxic behaviour. Emotionally self-aware individuals are those that can recognise how their feelings affect them and their job performance. 

Solution: 

  • Reflect on times when you were able to be productive without compromising on your well-being. List down the factors that helped you draw the balance and consciously practice those behaviours. 
  • Invest in a psychometric assessment that can help you identify your strengths and areas of development. Once you understand the traits that lead to toxic productivity, you will be able to regulate your behaviour.
  • Have an accountability partner. Ask a trusted friend or colleague for support and feedback whenever required.
toxic productivity

Compassion Towards Yourself

It’s hard to remain mindful of what is happening when we’re feeling inadequate. You may lose your temper, have a breakdown, or act with impulsivity. It is in the moments when you say “I’m not good enough” that you have to show self-compassion.

It’s about being kind to yourself at all times, especially in the midst of suffering.

Solution:

  • Treat yourself like your best friend. In moments where you’re being hard on yourself, ask yourself, “What would I do or say if my best friend was going through this?” You’re likely to be kinder and more compassionate. Once you do this, say the same words to yourself – either out loud or through a note.
  • Remind yourself that you’re not alone. It is normal to have feelings like this, and many people are experiencing the same thing as you. This in no way means that you should victimise yourself – it is just to help you realise that everyone makes mistakes.

Define Your Self-Care Non-Negotiables 

For those who are prone to indulging in toxic productivity, instead of ‘telling’ yourself not to – risking feelings of inadequacy – you can re-define what productivity means to you. Re-frame the situation and define your non-negotiables. Remember – sometimes our thought patterns change when we change our habits, instead of the other way round! That’s a great way to handle toxic productivity.

Solution: 

  • Write down 3 habits/activities that help you feel relaxed and energised 
  • Make a realistic plan for how you can integrate at least one of these into your life for the next 10 days 
  • Once you’re done with the first 10 days, you can choose to continue and stretch the goal up to 21 days, 40 days and so on.
  • Reward and congratulate yourself for being ‘productive’ without letting go of ‘self-care

In conclusion, to answer the question of how to avoid toxic productivity, support yourself by choosing healthy productivity over toxic productivity. It may be natural though, on some days, to lean towards being ‘toxic’ in your behaviour. On such days, don’t be hard on yourself. Practice the A B C D of conquering toxic productivity, and eventually, you will find yourself striking the intricate balance between self-care & productivity. 

Updated 13 August 2021

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