Toxic Productivity Culture Is Killing Our Joy for Life

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Posted on June 29, 2021

What exactly constitutes toxic productivity? It is an unhealthy desire to feel productive at all times and at all costs. You might think that being productive isn’t all bad and I would agree. Of course, it is important to set goals and there is nothing wrong with achieving great things. However, our need to get ahead or a constant nagging or sense of guilt is unhealthy and plain toxic.

You will recognize toxic productivity when the pressure or guilt doesn’t leave you even once you have completed a task or a project. For those suffering from toxic productivity, no task or accomplishment is ever enough to squelch that pressure. This pressure also causes us to feel like a failure if we aren’t constantly doing something and our focus is singular – you can only focus on what you need to do or what hasn’t been accomplished, constantly judging and criticizing yourself and others.

Our cultural conditioning in this capitalistic society that we live in values hard work and money over health and enjoyment of life. We glorify hard work and we vilify rest. We are called lazy for resting or wanting to take a break. We are called unsuccessful or not driven if we don’t want to kill ourselves to “climb the ladder” or if we aren’t always chasing the next thing.

In the corporate work culture, we somehow aren’t committed if we aren’t willing to go the extra mile(s) – cue the work martyr. It has somehow become a badge of honor to not have time to eat lunch, to not have the time to step outside for some fresh air, to work late hours and on weekends. People “brag” about this behavior to show their commitment to their work, hoping to advance. In reality, fearing that they will somehow fall behind or lose their identity.

Why do we fall into this trap even though it is burning us out and making us unhealthy physically and mentally? Because of our conditioning that tells us our worth is directly correlated to our productivity and our fear of uncertainty that has us overworking and controlling to gain a false sense of security.

The pandemic has only exacerbated this problem. Many of us all of a sudden had an unprecedented amount of free time, more than ever before, but instead of using that time to rest, recharge, take care of our health and our relationships, we ended up working more. This pressure and need to perform and to constantly be “doing” is robbing us of the journey called life.

4 Ways to Combat Toxic Productivity

Recognize the signs

The first step is recognizing that you suffer from toxic productivity. Pay attention to your behavior and what motivates your actions. Do you have a lot of work-related guilt, like you aren’t ever doing enough? Do you feel guilty when you aren’t doing something or taking a break? And how often do you try to control or force an outcome or situation? Do you have a constant fear of wasting time? An urgency to always need to get ahead?

Also pay attention to how your body and mind are feeling. If you are constantly exhausted, even first thing in the morning, then you are likely burned out. Do you have problems focusing and staying on task? Then you are likely overworked and burned out. This is not something to be proud of and we shouldn’t glorify being overworked.

Let go of self-imposed suffering

Our culture is based on speed and productivity and with that comes a fear of falling behind. We constantly measure and compare ourselves against others, always wanting to stay ahead. As Young Pueblo writes: “The attachment to speed and hierarchy is a sickness of ego.” Meaning that when we are primarily consumed with being ahead of others, we are no longer able to work with a balanced mind, body, and spirit and actually causing ourselves suffering. Our need to compare and be ahead is a creation of our ego, an illusion, and is causing us self-imposed mental tension.

If your ego is constantly asking: “What should I be doing now? How can I use this time?”, try changing this to “What do I need right now?”, “What could I create / accomplish with ease right now?”

Be honest with yourself

You might even take your awareness to another level and really ask yourself: “What am I choosing to do right now – and why?”. Really start to get honest with yourself about how much you’ve bought into the narrative that you have to be working, producing and performing all the time. Become aware how often you choose to perform a task or project because you think you “should” do something or because society told you that this is what is right or important to do.

Too often we choose to do what we think we should do without understanding what is true for us, what is important to us. Start to take control of your life and your time as much as possible instead of letting toxic productivity and conditioning lead it for you. This is the real waste of time -time wasted on not truly living and setting the wrong priorities.

Learn to do nothing

In a world where we are praised for being busy for the sake of being busy, slowing down is a radical act of self-care. Learn to prioritize your selfcare in the same way you prioritize a work meeting or project. Literally learn to do nothing, to simply be – with yourself and your thoughts, with no agenda, to-do list, or deadline.

Many cultures around the world embrace this and even have a term for it. In Denmark it is called hygge, in the Netherlands niksen. Of course, this isn’t something that you can plug into immediately because the busier you have been, the more you have bought into the hustle culture, the harder it will be for you to unplug and unwind. Believe me when I say that I am speaking from experience.

But start to learn to do nothing, without shame or guilt. Start small by scheduling a few min breaks throughout the day and work yourself up to a few hours at a time. Eventually, you will learn to let go of attachment to timelines, achievements and identities. Rather you will work and create for the sake of creating. Eventually, you will learn to move forward in life without causing yourself undue suffering. You will learn to live as a human being and not a human doing.