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Toxic Productivity: How to Spot It and Stop It

Learn the signs of toxic productivity and some effective strategies to break the cycle for a more balanced life.

Motion Blog
at Motion
Oct 30, 2023
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We’ve all been there — staring at the clock with the nagging feeling that we haven’t done “enough” for the day.

However, we often forget that true productivity isn’t about doing more but doing better. We fall into what the experts call “toxic productivity.”

In order to stop toxic productivity from consuming our lives, we need to understand its signs and causes. We’ll discuss these things — and more — right here.

What is toxic productivity?

Toxic productivity is an extreme obsession to maximize work and productivity to the point at which it becomes detrimental to one’s well-being and life balance. As the pace intensifies, it’s no longer about progressing forward but simply trying not to “fall off.”

Those caught up in toxic productivity often struggle to recognize when enough is enough — sacrificing their health, relationships, and happiness for constant achievement.

Healthy vs. toxic productivity

When balanced, productivity is a healthy pursuit of goals. It emphasizes working smart and knowing when to recharge.

On the other hand, the unrelenting drive to always do more — as is the case with toxic productivity — means neglecting personal well-being, which often leads to burnout.

Ultimately, while genuine productivity boosts morale and satisfaction, toxic productivity undermines real accomplishments.

What causes toxic productivity?

Toxic productivity is more pervasive than many think. Several underlying pressures plague the modern workforce and lead to this unhealthy mindset, including the following:

Societal expectations

As a society, we’ve learned to champion “hustle culture,” which promotes non-stop work as the ideal. Rest and self-care become luxuries rather than necessities.

Aidan Harper, creator of the European “4-Day Work Week” campaign, points out that this mentality “creates the assumption that the only value we have as human beings is our productivity capability — our ability to work, rather than our humanity.”

As a result, we believe that our identity and worth are tied solely to our work capacity — a flawed perspective that glamorizes overworking.

Company culture

A toxic workplace is 10.4 times more likely than a non-toxic one to cause an employee to quit their job. A company culture where continuous work is valued over employee well-being can breed an environment that’s toxic to the individual.

Many businesses, especially those in high-pressure sectors, adopt a “Wall Street” ethos, demanding long hours and intense commitment from their staff.

As Leonardo DiCaprio’s iconic character Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street said, “Give yourself no choice but to succeed. Let the consequences of failure become so dire and so unthinkable that you’ll have no choice but to do whatever it takes to succeed.”

While this mindset sounds promising, it can drive employees to their breaking point.

Personal insecurities

Battles with our inner critic and self-doubt can amplify toxic productivity. These internal insecurities make us question our own abilities and push harder, even when it’s unnecessary.

Imposter syndrome is a common challenge workers experience. In fact, 42% of knowledge workers have experienced it. Employees with imposter syndrome tend to overwork to compensate for feeling out of place at work. It’s an attempt to prove their worth or competence.

Cycle of imposter syndrome

‎Personal insecurities can set off a cycle of perpetual work, furthering the toxic productivity issue.

What happens if toxic productivity goes unchecked?

If we don’t address toxic productivity, it can sneak up on us in the following — perhaps unexpected — ways:

Mental health suffers

Eight in 10 workers struggle to maintain their well-being. A heavy workload and a stressful job top the list of obstacles these individuals often face.

The relentless drive to constantly achieve can lead to anxiety, depression, hopelessness, and burnout.

Physical health declines

Neglecting toxic productivity has direct repercussions on our bodies. Constant work not only disrupts sleep patterns, leading to insomnia and other issues, but it also takes a toll on our energy levels.

One in 3 employees and executives battle fatigue — a clear indication of overexertion — constantly. Chronic fatigue, in turn, weakens the immune system, making you more susceptible to illness and disease.

Relationships become strained

When we prioritize tasks over people, our personal relationships can start to suffer. The frequency of conflicts, misunderstandings, and distant feelings may increase.

Crack between man and woman

‎Moreover, if we allow our work to seep into our personal time, the boundaries between the two can blur. Finding moments of peace and connection with yourself and your loved ones becomes even tougher over time as a result.

Work quality worsens

The irony of toxic productivity is that the more we push ourselves beyond our limits, the more our work quality suffers. It’s a classic case of diminishing returns. When we’re constantly grinding, our ability to think creatively and innovate dwindles.

The focus shifts from producing quality work to just producing “more.” Additionally, the risk of making frequent mistakes increases, as fatigue and burnout lead to oversights. Instead of sharing our best work, we end up delivering something subpar.

7 signs you’re experiencing toxic productivity

If you or your team is experiencing any of the seven signs below, you might be suffering from toxic productivity. Recognizing the symptoms early on can help you take action to solve the problem.

1. You’re constantly tired

Toxic productivity can make you feel perpetually drained.

First, there’s physical fatigue, where you’re just plain tired even if you’re getting enough sleep.

Then, there’s emotional fatigue, the weariness that results from constant stress and pressure.

This tiredness makes even simple tasks, like checking your email or doing the dishes, feel like climbing mountains.

2. You feel guilty about not getting enough done

You feel an overwhelming sense of guilt for not meeting unrealistic benchmarks — a constant need to measure up against your colleagues or friends. And when you notice yourself performing worse than them, the guilt is amplified as you worry about falling short.

Your confidence takes a hit as a result, and it becomes harder to believe in your ability and accomplishments.

3. You neglect self-care

Basic needs, such as regular meals, proper sleep, and personal hygiene, take a back seat.

A worker out of battery

‎Moreover, you overlook the need for breaks and relaxation. Your work starts to overshadow your hobbies, interests, and much-needed “me time,” and you end up physically and emotionally drained.

4. You feel irritable and restless

Stress magnifies your reactions. Even when facing a minor issue, you tend to blow things out of proportion.

A constant state of irritability and restlessness also shows up in your bodily manifestations — in the form of jitters, a racing heart, or agitation.

Toxic productivity can make even the calmest people short-tempered.

5. You obsess over productivity metrics

You’re obsessed with productivity metrics and measure your success based on them. The number of tasks you complete becomes more important than the quality of those tasks.

Even when you do manage to achieve your goals, the sense of accomplishment is short-lived and quickly replaced by the chase for the next target.

6. You are unable to unwind

It’s difficult for you to switch off from work or productivity mode. Your mind is fixated on what needs to be done next. There’s no time to rest — or so you think.

As time goes on, you lose interest in — and, as a result, don’t make time for — relaxing activities. And when you do have free time, you’re still thinking about work. It’s challenging for you to fully enjoy yourself in the moment.

7. You only want to do “purposeful” activities

You find value solely in activities that have a clear, productive outcome. This hyper-practical approach means everything must have a tangible, beneficial output — otherwise, it’s a waste of time.

You struggle to appreciate moments that don’t fit into your definition of productivity. Consequently, you look for ways to make your leisure time feel productive or goal-oriented.

8 ways to break the toxic productivity cycle

Now that you understand the causes and signs of toxic productivity, you can begin to break the cycle. Use the following eight strategies to regain control:

1. Create work boundaries

Setting clear work boundaries can break the toxic productivity cycle because it helps you regain control over your work-life balance.

Start by defining — and following — your work hours. Then, create a dedicated workspace that separates your professional and personal life to make it easier for you to “switch off” from work.

It’s also helpful if you disconnect from work-related devices or platforms outside of your designated work hours.

Schedule work and personal activities

‎Additionally, you can use schedulers like Motion to help you achieve a better work-life balance. Make intentional choices to plan personal activities, and block out dedicated time slots on your calendar to ensure they receive the attention they deserve.

2. Learn to say no

Recognize that your time and energy are limited resources, and you need to manage them wisely. Practice saying no to unnecessary commitments so you can focus on what matters most to you.

Saying no doesn’t mean you’re inadequate — it means you know your own limits. If you’re uncomfortable saying no in the beginning, try to handle the situation with diplomacy. For example, you can offer alternatives or suggest a more suitable time for the request.

3. Set realistic goals

Setting realistic goals will help you establish a healthier and more sustainable approach to productivity. When your goals are realistic and achievable, you’re less likely to overwork to meet impossible targets. A good tactic is to use SMART goals — goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

It’s equally important to recognize when you reach milestones and reward yourself accordingly. Positive reinforcement can boost motivation and prevent burnout.

Organized daily task list

‎Furthermore, don’t overload your to-do list. Your list should match your current priorities and capacity. Motion can create an optimized to-do list for you that aligns with your needs and capabilities.

4. Prioritize important work

Prioritizing important tasks allows you to focus your time and energy on the activities that have the greatest impact and value. Those who experience toxic productivity often try to do everything at once, which can easily lead to burnout and a lost sense of purpose.

Focus on accomplishing your three most crucial tasks daily.

Motion prioritizes your most important work automatically, so you’re always clear on which tasks to complete next.

Prioritize important tasks

‎On another note, avoid multitasking. While it may seem like you’re doing more, in reality, you’re just scrambling to finish everything you started. Instead, schedule time for deep work, where you concentrate on only one task.

5. Take regular breaks

Taking regular breaks gives your brain time to recharge. According to a study from Psychology Today, breaks can improve your productivity, creativity, and motivation.

The Pomodoro Technique, which involves structured work intervals with short breaks, can help you stay focused and maintain mental clarity. During these breaks, try doing activities that rejuvenate your mind and body, such as quick meditation sessions or walks. They’ll help your mind relax, reset, and be ready to tackle your tasks.

6. Practice delegating

You shouldn’t have to do everything yourself. Share tasks with your colleagues. Some of your coworkers may be even better suited than you for particular jobs due to their skills or perspectives.

However, when you delegate, make sure to provide clear instructions and set expectations for each task. This will help ensure that everyone knows not only what to do but also how to do it effectively.

Delegate tasks to suitable workers

‎Motion can help by automatically delegating tasks to the most appropriate team members.

7. Seek professional help

It’s okay to ask for help. Sometimes, expert guidance is your best bet for resolving toxic productivity. Therapists can offer coping tools, strategies, and support to help you navigate difficult situations.

Joining a support group can also provide you with valuable insights and a sense of community during challenging times. Remember that seeking professional help is a sign of strength, not weakness, and it can make a significant difference in your well-being and personal growth.

8. Let yourself do nothing

Yes, you read that right. Idle time allows your mind to relax, boosts creativity, and reduces stress.

Those moments without purpose, digital devices, or external stimuli break the cycle of constant activity and provide necessary rest. So, enjoy doing nothing every once in a while — it’s good for you.

Slow down and let Motion speed up work for you

Avoid toxic productivity by letting Motion streamline your tasks and lighten your load. From tailored schedules and to-do lists to smart task prioritization and delegation, we’ll make your work more manageable and give you more control over your time.

Sign up for Motion’s 7-day free trial today.

Motion Blog
Written by Motion Blog