Can You Tell the Difference Between Toxic Productivity and Healthy/Necessary Productivity?

You know that feeling when you are in the “zone,” you may feel energized and productive, your mind is sharp, and you feel on top of your work.

You enjoy going home to unwind and relax, but you can let go of the workday (for the most part!). This creates a good feeling for you, not an emotionally taxed and exhausted one.

When productivity gets toxic, it is when the lines between work and home life are blurred, sleep is affected, stress levels are high, and you may feel driven by an internal motor that doesn’t seem to stop, even if there isn’t a deadline, this constant pressure to be connected to work that you can’t seem to shake.

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Toxic Productivity

How does toxic productivity happen?

Having 20 years of experience working as an entrepreneur and in the tech industry, I’ve definitely had toxic productivity and sometimes continue to bump up against it. The challenge, especially with entrepreneurs, is that your business can be part of your identity and your source of income; that is so much stress! It is difficult to compartmentalize it, and even more difficult to give yourself permission to shut off your work brain or set healthy boundaries around work and personal life. Working through setting healthy boundaries with a psychotherapist can help!

Often, entrepreneurs are doing something they love and would choose to do in their spare time, so the lines get blurred even further. Toxic productivity can begin impacting your personal life and relationships if it hasn’t already. A combination of thinking you “should be doing more” to “I can’t delegate yet” needs to be worked through to learn to have healthy boundaries with work and personal life as an entrepreneur.

When it comes to tech employees, often, the demands put upon you for your work are more than you can reasonably complete in a “traditional” 40-hour work week (let’s face it, working in tech does not have “traditional” work schedules). Toxic productivity can enter when you blur the lines between work and home life, feel the urgency to check your phone, are anxious that you’ll miss something or an important email, or feel the need to respond immediately. That motor feeling of needing to stay engaged with work for fear of not being as productive as you think you are expected to is toxic when it’s to a level that you are unable to disengage from work and enjoy your non-work hours.

How can you recognize when you are in a toxic productivity mode?

Here is how I recognize when I’m getting into the toxic productivity mode, I notice it with my sleep cycles first (waking up more than usual) or a sense of this invisible motor that I should be doing something when nothing is pressing to do, and discomfort of simply sitting still. I also seem to create a sense of urgency around things that aren’t urgent. This leads to often working during times I usually would have set aside for other non-work-related activities.

If you cannot recognize it in yourself, another way is to take cues from your partner, friends, and family. When you see the pivot from demands for your time starting to turn into frustrations or complaints that you don’t make time, this can also indicate the toxic productivity cycle negatively impacting your personal life and is worth exploring.

Is anxiety driving your toxic productivity, or is it avoidance or something else?

Anxiety and avoidance are the two most common causes of toxic productivity with my clients. Fear and anxiety can drive toxic productivity as entrepreneurs and tech employees. There can be anxiety about making your business or career successful and feeling guilty if you are not always thinking about it and working on it or being accessible.

The other end of the spectrum is if someone is avoiding things in their personal life and putting more importance on work to disconnect from family when there truly isn’t a need due to work, but what drives you is this desire to make sure your work is so important to you, that you can justify that productivity to be away from your family, friends and important events. At times in any business, there are “busy” seasons, which is expected. Still, if you cannot find balance, productivity can become toxic and impact you professionally and personally – regardless of if it’s anxiety-driven or avoidance driven.

What do you do to avoid falling into toxic productivity?

I recognize it usually within days of noticing I am in a toxic productivity mode. For me, it’s mainly driven by anxiety and the need to feel like I’m dotting all my I’s and crossing all my t’s. It is a systemic response for me, my body feels the motor going and my mind feels a desire to calm my sense of urgency down by working. When I get like that, I have to restrict my schedule to set times for work and almost “forcing” myself to go through the motion of other activities that I know are good for me to help my body get out of what is practically a fight or flight feeling.

When I do this, I can usually get out of this mode within a few days. It happens less frequently for me, as I see when it’s happening sooner and sooner. Sometimes, I have productivity that I love doing for my business that does not hit the toxic level feeling, and I’m good at recognizing the difference. The most significant gift you can give yourself is self-awareness, knowing the difference between when something feels toxic or unhealthy vs. productive and healthy.

With a therapist, you can work to understand how to identify when you are in the toxic productivity mode, how it is impacting your mental health and relationships, and what steps to take to move out of this mode and identify it earlier and earlier.

Lindsey Ferris, MS, LMFTA, Washington State

Talk. Heal. Thrive. therapist Lindsey Ferris is based out of Seattle, Washington working with clients via online therapy.

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