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Have you Succumbed to the Cycle of Toxic Productivity?

24 January 2023

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Whether you call it hustle culture, grind culture, rise ‘n’ grind life, toil glamour or its original name, workaholism, toxic productivity is an easy trap to fall into. Think about it – we are told that productivity and success are completely linked. Want to advance your career, make more money and be a better, smarter, tougher person? Optimize your calendar, multitask, get up earlier, stay up later and put in plenty of time on the weekend. Caffeinate and dominate! 

There are 1,440 minutes in each day. Grind culture tells us we should be always ‘on,’ squeezing every drop of productivity out of every stinking one of them. People who’ve slipped headlong into the rise ‘n’ grind life humble-brag about working overtime, working on vacation, taking no breaks – not even for exercise or sleep. Good nutrition? Who’s got time for that?

This frenzied way of life comes in and out of fashion, and these days it is very much in style. It’s a terribly unhealthy mode of operation, though, and there’s a growing movement counterbalancing the toxic productivity dogma we’re all bombarded by. 

This countermovement is called rest culture. Its de facto leader is a woman named Tricia Hersey, whose social media platform, The Nap Ministry, has for its entirety been dedicated to disrupting and pushing back against capitalism (and racism).  Her book, Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto, asks what it would be like to live in a well-rested world and casts a clarifying light on our tendency to confuse our productivity and our worth. Says she: “Rest, in its simplest form, becomes an act of resistance and a reclaiming of power because it asserts our most basic humanity. We are enough. The systems cannot have us.”

If you’ve become a victim of toxic productivity, you probably know it by now. Letting it strengthen its hold and claim you as a casualty is not a forgone conclusion – you can learn to stop hustling and rest. 

Any of this resonating with you? You may be stuck in a toxic productivity mindset. Here are some ways to tell:

You’re deeply fatigued. How much energy do you have when you wake up? Do you feel refreshed and ready for the day, or do you wake up tired? Fatigue and exhaustion first thing in the morning is not normal, nor is it healthy or sustainable.

You peacock about your overwork. Do you feel the need to crow about your crazy schedule? Is it part of your persona to put on a bit of a show for colleagues touting your constant, relentless, super-hard work?

Zoom and jargon. If you insist on a Zoom meeting when an email (or phone call) will suffice, or if you use tons of jargon, effectively doubling the length a conversation really needs to be out of a fear that if you’re succinct you’ll look lazy, you may want to think about why.

Guilt. Constant feelings of guilt about what you should be doing (or what you haven’t done), to the point that you won’t allow yourself to rest or even take a lunch break is a red flag.

Crankiness with those you love. The toxic productivity cycle is an exhausting hamster wheel. It can make you feel trapped and powerless, which in turn can prompt you to lash out at people you care about.   

You don’t take care of yourself. Are you foregoing sleep, exercise and good nutrition in favor of being always ‘on’ and pushing yourself to go-go-go? You guessed it: that’s toxic productivity.

Imposter syndrome. A feeling of being an imposter who will soon be found out and/or fail unless he or she works nonstop can quickly become a toxic productivity trap.

You’re on the brink of burnout. Feel like you’re about to crack? That’s impending burnout. Some other signs include anxiety, aches and pains with no physical cause and a negative mindset.

If reading this article feels like looking in a mirror, you’re going to want to take action. You don’t have to work like that. It will end up making you sick, impacting your relationships and damaging your mental well-being.

When you’re stuck in a pattern of unhealthy behavior, it can seem impossible to break out of it, but you can do it. A constant grind is neither healthy nor sustainable.

Here are some ways to break the toxic productivity cycle:

Take breaks. Decide on a work/break ratio. What feels good? For some, taking a break after two hours of steady work feels right. Others may prefer 30 minutes of work followed by a five-minute break. Whatever you decide your ratio should be, stick to it like your health depends on it.

Eat actual meals. Not at your desk. Plan to have at least two good, healthy meals each day. Work your way up to three.

Don’t over-Zoom yourself. When you can, schedule your meetings with 15-minute gaps in between. This will allow you to reset your mind, stretch, chat with a friend, play with your cat or prepare for your next meeting.     

Use your time off. Did your team just push hard to meet a big deadline? Schedule a day off. And use it to rest and recharge. Take a couple of days off and do what you like: take walks, read, nap, unplug. If you can’t take a day or two, make your weekends count. Be intentional with your time: fight the urge to open your laptop and work. Instead, turn on a movie, meet friends for a meal, or sit on a park bench and do absolutely nothing.

Get out of your head. Your boss may love your dedication and deliverables but odds are very good that they don’t care (or notice) whether it took you 30 hours or 60 to complete the task. In other words, if you think your boss is mentally basking in the reassuring glow of your always-on laptop screen, you’re probably wrong. 

Learn to discern. Not everything is a crisis that can only be handled by you. When something pops up, ask yourself: If I take 24 hours to think about this before I act, what’s the worst that could happen?

Choose your action intentionally. Your action is not required in every situation. Be picky about when you will be the person who intervenes. This helps set boundaries for you, and also gives others the space to learn to problem-solve.

Talk with an expert. If you struggle to break the cycle of toxic productivity, it could be that for you it’s rooted in something deeper than habit – like low self-esteem or trauma. This is the time to contact a professional. Look for a therapist who specializes in anxiety or perfectionism – those tend to overlap with toxic productivity.

What Are the 5 Stages of Burnout?

What is Decision Fatigue?

Ways You May Not Have Realized Stress Affects Your Body