Toxic productivity is no good—here’s how to stop it.

Foto van bijdrager Caeleigh MacNeilCaeleigh MacNeil
20 februari 2024
8 min. leestijd
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Toxic productivity is more prevalent than ever, and it’s hurting our physical and mental health. In this article, we outline six concrete actions you can take to regain balance and break the cycle of toxic productivity for good.

Forty percent of workers think burnout is an inevitable part of success. But the truth is, brute-force productivity isn’t sustainable in the long run. When you push yourself too hard for too long, it’s easy to start measuring your self-worth by how much you can get done. You start to feel guilty for “wasting” time on activities you used to enjoy—like going for a walk, reading a book, or lingering over the dinner table. 

This state of mind is called toxic productivity. And if it sounds familiar, know this—you’re not alone, and things can get better. 

What is toxic productivity?

Toxic productivity is a drive to be productive at all times—not just at work, but in all areas of life. It happens when you push yourself to unhealthy extremes in order to accomplish more, often at the expense of your physical and mental health. You might feel like you can’t do something just for the sake of doing it, like going for a walk with a friend or chatting with coworkers over coffee. Instead, all of your actions have to be stepping stones toward a larger goal or achievement. 

Toxic productivity takes the joy out of everyday activities and causes you to push yourself too hard for too long. In the long run, this can lead to burnout, depression, and other physical and mental health consequences. 

What causes toxic productivity?

Modern society puts a high value on being productive. Just look at hustle culture, which glorifies the day-in, day-out slog of working relentlessly to achieve success. Business moguls like Elon Musk tweet that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week,” while social media influencers post videos and photos of idealized, productive routines. With all that noise, it’s easy to feel guilty if you’re not rising and grinding like everyone else. 

In addition, toxic productivity often rears its head during times of uncertainty. According to clinical psychologist Kathryn Esquer, being productive takes our mind off things and gives us a temporary dopamine hit. “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,” Esquer explains. The problem is, being productive is just a temporary bandage for the stress and discomfort we might feel. 

Take the COVID-19 pandemic, for example. Those of us who had extra downtime during lockdowns didn’t take time to rest—instead, we learned to bake sourdough bread, speak Italian, or use a new programming language. In the face of a global pandemic, we tried to push ourselves harder—rather than giving ourselves much-needed space to cope.

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Signs of toxic productivity

A certain amount of productivity is healthy, so it’s often hard to recognize when your work ethic becomes toxic. And while toxic productivity manifests differently depending on the person, here are some common red flags to watch out for: 

  • Working extra hours on a regular basis. It’s normal to occasionally clock some extra hours to finish a big project, but that practice can quickly become toxic when you do it regularly. This includes working on weekends, logging on early to “catch up” before the day officially starts, working late, and checking work channels during your downtime. Keep in mind there’s a difference between toxic productivity and being overworked—if you log extra hours by choice, that may be toxic. If you do it by necessity, you’re likely overworked instead. 

  • Feeling guilty about not getting enough work done, even when you’re accomplishing a reasonable amount of tasks. Someone suffering from toxic productivity often strives to complete an exceptional amount of work instead of what’s reasonable. They have unrealistic expectations for themselves and feel guilty if they fall behind. 

  • Only wanting to do activities that have a clear purpose. When you suffer from toxic productivity, activities often feel like a waste of time if they’re not helping you achieve a specific goal. You might avoid “unproductive” activities like spending time with friends and family, relaxing, and just appreciating the moment. 

  • Deprioritizing self-care. If self-care seems like a waste of time, you might be experiencing toxic productivity. This includes deprioritizing things like rest, cooking healthy meals, exercising, and spending time with people you love. Someone suffering from toxic productivity might skip meals in order to work longer or even put off going to the bathroom or getting a glass of water. 

  • Experiencing chronic anxiety or depression. Trying to be “on” all the time can take a serious toll on your mental wellness. You might constantly feel anxious about all the work you have to do and worry that you’re not doing enough. Depression is also a common symptom, especially if toxic productivity makes you feel disconnected from loved ones and activities you used to enjoy. 

  • Feeling burnt out. When you push yourself too hard for too long, burnout often follows. Different people show different signs of burnout, but some common symptoms include exhaustion, low morale, and frequent health problems. Anyone can burn out, and it’s not just related to work. For example, new parents and caregivers often report experiencing burnout. 

6 ways to break the cycle of toxic productivity

During times of uncertainty, it’s easy to channel discomfort into being productive—but eventually that approach can leave you burned out and exhausted. As human beings, we need time to rest, deal with our emotions, and be with the people we love. And when you give yourself that time, you can get just as much (if not more) done in the long term. 

It sounds cliché, but productivity is a marathon, not a sprint. Below, we outline six ways to break the cycle of toxic productivity and bring balance back—for you and your team. 

1. Define work boundaries

Toxic productivity causes you to work too hard for too long. To break the cycle, you need to set boundaries and reclaim some of your free time. 

Setting boundaries is especially important for remote workers. According to our research, 37% of knowledge workers say their days don’t have a clear start or finish time when they work remotely. As a result, 38% of employees spend more time checking emails outside business hours when they work remotely, and 35% spend more time thinking about work during free time.

Here’s how to set boundaries around work: 

  • Give your team (or yourself) clear start and finish times. That way, everyone knows when they’re expected to be working and when they’re off the clock. 

  • As a manager, be vocal about how you set boundaries. Avoid sending and responding to messages outside your work hours, take days off, and encourage your team to do the same. 

  • Normalize longer response times. Fifty percent of managers and 42% of individual contributors feel like they have to respond to notifications right away. As a manager, you can set more realistic expectations around response times and empower your team to completely disconnect when they’re off the clock.

Anatomy of Work Special Report: The unexplored link between impostor syndrome and burnout

Burnout and impostor syndrome have historically been studied as two separate phenomena. In this report, we connect the dots to help leaders slow burnout and increase employee retention.

Anatomy of Work Special Report: The unexplored link between imposter syndrome and burnout page banner image

2. Set realistic goals

Toxic productivity often happens when your goals or expectations around work are unrealistic. As a result you feel pressured to clock longer hours—and guilty if you work at a slower pace and fall behind. 

To counter this, set and work towards goals that you can reasonably accomplish within a given time frame. Here’s how: 

  • Set SMART goals. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. This framework helps you create reasonable objectives that you can actually achieve.

  • Be real with yourself. It’s easy to aim for an idealized version of yourself when setting goals. Instead, meet yourself where you are and be realistic about what you can achieve without running yourself into the ground. 

  • Build in time for rest. Nobody can work nonstop. When choosing a time frame for your goals, be sure to build in plenty of buffer time for breaks so you can recharge along the way. 

  • Use goals to prioritize work. Not everything is urgent and important. Goals help you differentiate between tasks that you must do immediately and those that can wait. When you set concrete goals, you can be strategic about how you prioritize tasks. That means instead of working extra hours, you can schedule some assignments for later, delegate others, and even delete non-essential items from your to-do list

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3. Build breaks into your schedule

Everybody needs rest, and scheduling breaks is a great way to ensure that you’re actually taking time off when you need it. It may seem counterintuitive, but taking breaks actually boosts productivity in the long term by helping us focus and think more creatively. 

According to cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Sahar Yousef, strategic breaks are the best way to prevent overwork and workplace burnout. She recommends the 3M framework, which divides breaks into three categories: 

  • Macro breaks: A half or full day every month—like a hike, day trip, or visit with family. 

  • Meso breaks: 1–2 hours per week—like a music lesson, sports practice, or long walk. 

  • Micro breaks: A few minutes multiple times per day—like time to stretch or meditate.

To implement the 3M framework on your team, encourage team members to do an audit to determine which types of breaks they’re good at taking and which types they need to prioritize more. Then, ask each team member to start scheduling macro, meso, and micro breaks on their calendars. It also helps to lead by example—talk to your team about the different types of breaks you’re taking to protect your mental and physical health, like the hike you took after work or a long weekend trip you’re planning.

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4. Do nothing

When you’re caught in a cycle of toxic productivity, it feels like every minute needs to have a purpose. You don’t just want to go for a run in nature—you want to run ten miles and train for a marathon. You don’t just want to enjoy a fantasy book—you want to read a self-improvement book or reach a goal of reading 50 novels in a year. 

Instead of feeding into the productivity cycle, set aside time to do nothing and be intentionally unproductive. This isn’t time for you to improve yourself in some way, it’s just time to be. Sit and listen to music, meditate, go for a walk, or watch a movie or a TV show—just give yourself some time when you’re not actively trying to accomplish anything. 

5. Deal with your underlying feelings

Toxic productivity is often a manifestation of negative feelings you haven’t addressed. To really stop the cycle, you need to identify the underlying thought or feeling that’s causing you to work so much. The goal here isn’t to make bad feelings go away. Rather, you want to learn how to be comfortable sitting with your emotions in a healthy way—not try to ignore them by being hyper-productive. 

For example, here are some feelings that can contribute to toxic productivity: 

  • Fear of failure

  • Imposter syndrome

  • A feeling of unworthiness or low self-esteem

  • Feelings of guilt about not accomplishing enough

  • Feeling like your job isn’t secure

  • Comparing yourself to others

  • Stress about events in the world or your personal life

Mental health is just as important as physical health, and everyone struggles from time to time. Just like you would go to the doctor for an ankle sprain, it’s important to consult a mental health professional when negative feelings impact your daily life. 

Read: Why it’s time to prioritize your emotional intelligence

6. Take a break from your smartphone

Owning a smartphone is essentially like having a computer in your back pocket. This is great when you need directions to the mall, but not so great when it comes to work-life balance. If your phone is constantly pinging with work notifications and emails, it’s impossible to escape even when you’re off the clock. And when you see messages from coworkers, it’s easy to feel guilty that you’re not working too. 

Phones are also a gateway to social media, which only shows you the highlights of other people’s lives. It’s easy to feel like everyone is more productive and successful than you when you’re scrolling Instagram, TikTok, or LinkedIn—and those feelings of inadequacy can contribute to toxic productivity. 

Here’s how to take a break from your smartphone: 

  • When you want to be present, put your phone in a bag or drawer, so it’s out of sight. Or better yet, go for a walk and leave your phone behind. 

  • Turn on “do not disturb” mode and disable notifications for apps. 

  • Create a tech-free zone in your house, like your bedroom. 

  • Delete work apps from your phone, like messaging apps and your work email account. 

Work smarter, not harder

You can still perform well at work without running yourself into the ground—and breaking the cycle of toxic productivity can actually help you excel long-term. Instead of “rising and grinding” each day, approach your work with the balance you need to really thrive. 

Anatomy of Work Special Report: The unexplored link between impostor syndrome and burnout

Burnout and impostor syndrome have historically been studied as two separate phenomena. In this report, we connect the dots to help leaders slow burnout and increase employee retention.

Anatomy of Work Special Report: The unexplored link between imposter syndrome and burnout page banner image

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