What Is Toxic Productivity? Here's How To Spot The Damaging Behavior.

The pandemic has convinced us we have to be useful at all times. Here's what that mentality looks like, and how to deal with it.

Think about your work ethic during the pandemic. Have you been more productive than usual? Do you rush to volunteer for projects at work, even when your plate is already full? Do you promise to make dinner as soon as you finish “one last thing” on your to-do list? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you might be suffering from toxic productivity.

What, you ask? How can productivity, that time-honored marker of success, be toxic? We’re here to explain.

In many ways, “toxic productivity” is just a buzzy new term for workaholism ― but it’s also a little more nuanced than that old-school phrase. Toxic productivity is essentially an unhealthy desire to be productive at all times, at all costs. It’s the need to go the “extra mile” at work or at home, even when it’s not expected of you.

Toxic productivity doesn’t even let up once the task is complete. Once you’re technically done with a project at work, you might feel guilty for not having done more. For the afflicted, too much is never enough, said Simone Milasas, a business coach and author of “Joy of Business.”

“Toxic productivity can make us feel like a failure if we’re not constantly ‘doing,’” she told HuffPost. “When toxic productivity is leading your life, you judge yourself every day for what you haven’t done, rather than looking at what you have accomplished.”

Many of us have fallen into patterns of toxic productivity during the pandemic, said Kathryn Esquer, a psychologist and founder of the Teletherapist Network. That’s primarily because all of our regular routines were put on pause. All of a sudden, we had unprecedented amounts of free time. But why did we throw ourselves into work instead of seizing the opportunity to be blissfully, guiltlessly idle for once?

Because at the time, we all felt an acute, pressing sense of uncertainty. We were in unknown territory during those early days of the pandemic, but for those of us who hadn’t been laid off, at least we still had our work. Becoming a virtual work martyr gave people a welcome sense of security.

“We could have used our free time to rest, recharge, and restore ourselves, but many of us filled those hours with more work as a way to feel worthy, fulfilled, and in control,” Esquer said.

We didn’t stop once the workday ended, either. We told ourselves we’d learn a new language, become an expert baker or master some other skill we’d put off learning in the Before Times.

As one viral productivity-pushing tweet put it: “If you don’t come out of this quarantine with either: 1.) a new skill 2.) starting what you’ve been putting off like a new business 3.) more knowledge [then] you didn’t ever lack the time, you lacked the discipline.”

Talk about unforgiving. As HuffPost senior work/life reporter Monica Torres put it early on in the pandemic: “Hustle culture never stops, quarantine or not.”

There’s precedent for this. Relentlessly working in times of uncertainty is about as American as apple pie. Work culture in the United States valorizes the grind ― and in moments of crisis, we grind all the harder. Look at World War II and the vast, rapid expansion of U.S. civilian manufacturing capacity to meet wartime demands.

Being productive in our immediate environment takes our minds off things and feels good, at least temporarily, Esquer said.

“In general, when our environment presents us with stressors or threats that are well beyond our control, often we find ourselves focusing on small things within our immediate environment in which we can control ― such as cleaning our house or excelling at work projects,” she explained. “The problem is, it masks the true stress and discomfort of our current situation.”

And when you’re so fixated on self-optimization, you actually run the risk of being less productive. Eventually, you’re going to burn out.

What’s more, toxic productivity wears on your relationships, too, Milasas said.

“You might be short-tempered and frustrated with those close to you,” she noted. “It’s exhausting to be trapped in the cycle of toxic productivity,” and lashing out is a natural response to that.

Want to avoid all this? Do you recognize your own mindset and habits in the above descriptions of toxic productivity? Here’s how to get a handle on the issue before it burns you out.

Recognize the telltale signs and acknowledge the issue.

The first step is to recognize that you have a problem. Look for the red flags: Do you have a lot of work-related guilt? Do you often feel like you should be doing more, and that if you’re not doing something, you’re wasting your time?

“If you’re constantly trying to force things into existence or feeling guilty, that’s toxic productivity,” Milasas said.

Another telltale sign? Fatigue and exhaustion, even first thing in the morning.

“Look at how much energy you have in the morning,” Milasas said. “Do you wake up in the morning by clicking the snooze button on your alarm, or do you wake up naturally? How’s your body feeling? Have you decided that this feeling is normal, or ‘just the way it is’?”

“Feeling exhausted doesn’t have to be your normal, and can be a sign that you’re trapped in the cycle of toxic productivity,” she added.

Look at how you self-present at work, too, said Laurie Ruettimann, a human resources consultant and author of “Betting on You: How to Put Yourself First and (Finally) Take Control of Your Career.” Notice whether you feel the need to put on a show of how hard you work.

“One sign of toxic productivity is calling for a Zoom meeting when certainly a phone call or email would be OK,” she said. “Another is using of lot of jargon that makes the conversation twice as long because you’re afraid of how it will look if you’re brief, concise and just move along.”

Chances are, you care a lot more about going the extra mile than your boss does.
10'000 Hours via Getty Images
Chances are, you care a lot more about going the extra mile than your boss does.

Eliminate the question “What should I be doing right now?” from your vocabulary ― and replace it with this question.

Once you wrap up one project, do you give yourself a well-deserved break, or do you run to the next project with little thought? Are you constantly asking yourself “What should I be doing now?” even when it’s the weekend?

That question is a sign of textbook toxic productivity, Milasas said. She said a better question to ask yourself is: “What could I do or create with ease now? What would it take to create this with zero stress?”

Recognize that your boss or manager is a lot less interested in you going the extra mile than you realize.

What’s funny about toxic productivity is that it exists more in our heads than in our actual work environments. In other words, there are very few bosses out there who care if you’ve been working hard around the clock, Ruettimann said.

“They’re wowed and impressed by your accomplishments, by your deliverables ― they don’t care how many hours it took to get it done,” she said. “They don’t think about the difference between 40 hours and 50 hours of work. They just want good work.”

Put “self-care” on your to-do list.

Make an extra effort for self-care ― however you define that. Maybe it looks like a morning jog or an afternoon tea break. Maybe it’s tearing into a bag of Hot Cheetos and watching reality TV. However you unwind, prioritize it just as you would an important work project, said Lynn Taylor, a workplace expert and author of “Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job.”

“Extraordinary times require extraordinary effort, and this pandemic is extraordinary times,” she said. “The body and mind is on high alert whether we like it or not. You only have one body — and this is a good time to nurture it.”

Toxic productivity doesn’t just wear on you -- it wears on your relationships, too, says business coach Simone Milasas.
Maskot via Getty Images
Toxic productivity doesn’t just wear on you -- it wears on your relationships, too, says business coach Simone Milasas.

Replace toxic productivity with “professional detachment.”

If you’re suffering from a bad case of toxic productivity at work, you need to learn the skill of professional detachment, a term that Ruettimann outlines in her book and that she says “will save your soul.” Professional detachment looks like staying committed to your job and doing quality work while understanding that “the role isn’t your sole identity.”

“When you’re professionally detached, you treat everyone like clients: your boss, your peers and colleagues,” Ruettimann said. “You’re making the choice to be at your company. Show up to work, be professional, work hard, demonstrate your competence, but also have some emotional detachment from your job.”

Consider how much you’ve bought into the “hustle culture” mentality ― then break away.

Americans have a notoriously bad grasp on work-life balance: We’re loath to take our vacation days. We’re overworked, especially during the pandemic. We send unnecessary emails over the weekend. We simply can’t log off.

Be honest with yourself about how much you’ve bought into the myth that you have to be working at all times. The next time you decide to take on a task you don’t have the mental energy to execute, Milasas said, stop and ask yourself: “What am I choosing to do right now ― and why?”

“You need to find out if you are really choosing what is important to you, or choosing what you think you should do or what society has told you should be important,” she said. “So much of toxic productivity is doing what we think we should be doing instead of choosing what is true for us.”

Culturally, we’ve bought into the idea that “you’ve got to work long hours and put in the hard yards,” Milasas said. But there’s no reason you can’t flip the script. Don’t default to ‘busy for busy’s sake’ if you don’t need to, and certainly don’t do it if your boss rarely notices anyway.

“If you want to avoid toxic productivity, what I propose is that you lead your life instead of letting work or overproductivity lead it,” Milasas said. “You’ve only got one life. This isn’t a dress rehearsal or a dry run ― this is it!”

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