Dear Workaholics: It’s Time To Break Up With Toxic Productivity

Merriam-Webster defines productive as “effective in bringing about; yielding results, benefits, or profits.” Yes, setting goals and aiming for specific outcomes is a good thing. Being productive allows us to provide for ourselves (and our families) while contributing to our local community and society. It offers a sense of purpose and fulfillment. But some of us take it too far. We lose our zest for life in the hustle to get more done. 

Productivity’s Dark Side

Keep hustling no matter what. Downtime is for slackers. Suck it up and get it done. When productivity and work become an addiction, we push our bodies and minds past their limits. We become exhausted, irritable shells of who we used to be. Our relationships suffer. Here’s an example:

It’s 7 p.m. Your family is sitting down for a meal. Your workday was supposed to be over at 6, but your mind is still churning. Shoot. You forgot to reply to that email from your coworker. Your son starts telling you about his day. You pull out your phone. There’s too much to do and not enough time. “Hold on, honey. Just a minute,” you say as you type, oblivious to his disappointment.

We’re too busy working and strategizing how to be more efficient to be fully present with others, even the people who mean the most to us. So, if any of this sounds familiar, take a moment to pause.

Ask yourself these 6 questions to recognize toxic productivity:

1. Are you filling every waking minute of your day with projects and tasks?

2. Do you let yourself have fun?

3. Are you mentally and physically drained but feel guilty for resting? 

4. No matter how much you accomplish in a day, do you always think you should have done more? 

5. Is part of you afraid to slow down?

6. Are you fully present when interacting with others, or is your mind thinking about to-do’s and goals?

Be honest with yourself. You might not like your answers. It’s okay. Sometimes, we miss the glaring side effects of our toxic habits. Many people unconsciously use productivity to avoid “negative” emotions. As long as you’re busy, you don’t have time to feel sadness, fear, or anger. Or you could be avoiding a challenging situation. It’s kind of like using drugs, alcohol, or food to escape reality — except others may pat you on the back for being super productive, not realizing it’s become a toxic coping strategy.

Or maybe you believe your worthiness is based on productivity. (You’re mistaken, by the way.) You are inherently worthy and already enough just as you are. But I know limiting beliefs are buried deep. The good news is that humans are resilient. And there are people who can help. I strongly recommend therapy with a licensed counselor or psychologist. Professionals can help you face your feelings, challenging experiences, and limiting beliefs. You don’t have to do it alone.

How do you begin the process of breaking up with toxic productivity?

Accept your habits are no longer serving you (or others).

Make a list of all the ways your obsession with productivity is controlling your life. How is it impacting your moods? Your mind? Your physical health? Your family? Friends? Get really specific.

Now, list all the ways life could improve if you prioritized balance over productivity. Again, be specific. How would you feel? Content? Calm? Happy? Get clear on all the reasons you’re ready and willing to change. Keep this list handy. Refer to it when you notice yourself defaulting to old habits. 

Retrain your brain. Give yourself permission to rest and recharge.

Repeat after me: “I am allowed to rest. Downtime is essential for my well-being. I’m honoring my body and recharging my mind.” Adjust the wording or come up with another affirmation that feels right, but remind yourself again and again. You can write it down or say it out loud. Put a bright sticky note on your laptop or schedule pop-up reminders on your phone. Listening to affirmation meditations can help shift your mindset, too. 

Create boundaries around productive time.

Put work and your to-do list away at a specific time. Ask your family and friends to help you stick with it. That means letting them call you out (in a kind way, of course). I aim for 5 p.m. most weekdays. My future stepson has shouted up the stairs, “It’s after 5,” on more than one occasion. Sure, his mom told him to tell me, but it’s cuter coming from a 5-year-old than an adult, right?

Honor your boundaries by turning off email notifications on your phone. You can see what you’ve missed the next time you log in. It’ll be there tomorrow. I promise. And if your social media accounts blend work and personal life, nix those notifications, too.   

Have some fun.

Not sure how to have fun anymore? Give your inner child a chance to come out and play. Turn on your favorite song and dance. Ride a bike and relish the wind against your face. Swing on a swing set. Color. Go for a walk and pick wildflowers. Even five minutes of play can make a difference. Just do your best to be fully present. You can handle your tasks and resume adulting later. 

And guess what? Having fun has some other bonus side effects. It can lift your spirits and increase your energy levels. It makes you feel happier and more relaxed. It might even make your working hours more efficient, but don’t let that be your motivator.

Express those repressed feelings.

Be brave enough to let yourself cry. Shut your bedroom door and scream into a pillow. Releasing repressed emotions (in a safe way) frees space for your mind to focus on other things – like creating work-life balance, learning how to rest without guilt, and even (gasp) having fun.

Remember, you aren’t a machine. There’s more to life than being productive and working 24/7. Breaking free from toxic productivity requires conscious effort (and some mindset shifts), but it’s worth it. I promise your zest for life hasn’t disappeared forever; it’s patiently waiting for your permission to come out of hiding. And the sooner you find balance, the sooner you can be fully present with the people you love most.