Productivity is great. Prioritizing it above your health and relationships isn’t. Learn how to get sh*t done without burning out.
If you find yourself constantly busy, stressed, and unable to “turn off,” you’re not alone. Workaholism or “going the extra mile” no matter the cost risks your wellbeing, both physical and mental, along with missed social events or ignoring your own sleep, exercise, or health. Work’s always-on, always-available hustle culture can result in toxic productivity.
This toxic mindset can be difficult to spot because overwork is often cast in a positive light. Fortunately, once you do recognize it, you can take some concrete steps to shift away from toxic productivity and reclaim your life.
What is toxic productivity?
Toxic productivity is defined as overworking at the expense of other facets of your life.
It’s a mindset that manifests as the need to constantly “do.” You may feel that you can’t rest or take any downtime. And when you’re forced to, you can’t turn your mind off and enjoy it—you’re too busy worrying about what else you “should” do.
As remote work has become more common, the boundaries between work and life have blurred, and many homeworkers feel they must prove they are working. This can make it even more difficult to put aside the job and focus on yourself.
While productivity can be wonderful, its detriment to relationships or your wellbeing is not. When getting things done becomes more important than getting adequate sleep, or making your daughter’s piano recital, it becomes a problem.
Research shows that this can have a significant impact on work-family conflict and mental health.
Burnout commonly results from this toxic mindset. Rest is essential for true productivity, and without it, the quality of your output suffers. Can you produce something valuable when you’re running on fumes? Doubtful. At a certain point, you just have nothing left to give.
Toxic productivity can also become an avoidance strategy for dealing with difficult life issues. It can creep up without warning until what was an uncomfortable situation becomes a full-blown crisis. However, it doesn’t have to be this way.
5 tips to overcome toxic productivity
Getting out of overworking is possible. Let’s explore a few ways to overcome onerous overwork.
1. Focus on what’s important (not just what’s urgent)
It’s way too easy to go through the day being pulled from fire to fire and urgent task to urgent task. In the rush to get everything done, we end up focusing only on other people’s priorities and forget about our own. Even worse, it can feel like there’s nothing you can do about it.
To combat this, try reframing your to-do list so that what’s important is not always the same as what’s urgent. One fantastic way to separate these and prioritize your tasks more effectively is to use the Eisenhower Matrix.
The matrix is simple: on one axis, you have importance, and on the other you have urgency. This results in four categories:
- Urgent and important
- Not urgent but important
- Urgent but not important
- Neither urgent nor important
The first quadrant is clearly your top priority. After that, make time each day for something from quadrant two. Three and four should be avoided, as they risk sucking up your time for minimal to no impact.
This ensures that you’re making progress on things that are meaningful to you and your life, either personally or professionally.
2. Practice professional detachment
This might be a new term in your vocabulary. However, it’s also one of the most powerful things you can do to break free of toxic productivity and avoid burnout.
Coined by Laurie Ruettimann, “professional detachment” is defined as an understanding that your role at work is not the core of your identity. The idea is that you can be productive and committed without your whole life and sense of self-worth revolving around your job.
How do you get there? Start by understanding that you are not your job. Your career is just one part of your life. If you miss the mark on something at work, it doesn’t reflect your worth as a person. Perspective is everything.
3. Schedule time to do nothing
Take some time each day (or, if that’s not possible, each week) to shut off completely. Here are some ideas:
- Go for a walk with no destination in mind.
- Lie in the grass and watch the clouds float by.
- Go birdwatching.
These activities are purposefully unproductive. You’re only doing them for their own sake, rather than to achieve some larger goal. Over time, you can counteract the constant need to be “productive.”
The unplugging part is also key. Turn off your phone. Close your laptop. Take off your smartwatch. The lack of interruptions helps you be more mindful and focused. It can be a little jarring if you’re used to always being “on.” However, once you get used to it, you’ll never want to go back.
4. Set clear boundaries between work time and personal time
Restore your work-life balance by picking a point of separation from work time to private time and sticking to it. Maybe it’s a time on the clock. Maybe it’s when your kids get home. Or maybe it’s the start of an evening class at the gym.
What should you do instead? Spend time with your family, practice a favorite hobby, or get a little extra sleep. Come back to work refreshed and rejuvenated, rather than stressed and depressed.
Don’t neglect your boundaries at work, either. Establishing boundaries with your team is important for a healthy work environment. It’s too easy to let coworkers walk all over you (whether intentionally or not) without them.
5. Build breaks into your schedule
Your calendar is probably crammed with meetings and appointments—an average of 62 per month, in fact. Most folks try to squeeze their actual work into the scant few hours that remain. Then we leave work and jump right into an equally-packed personal life.
To help combat toxic productivity, take a moment and look for opportunities to pad your calendar. Add 10- or 15-minute buffers before and after meetings to give you time to prepare and decompress. Enjoy a Swedish coffee break. Or take inspiration from the French and enjoy a proper lunch.
Whatever your preferred break, take one to manage your energy and avoid wearing yourself out and actually increase your productivity.
Remove toxicity from your productivity—with sound
Once you’ve gotten a handle on healthy productive habits, spice up your work life with the right soundtrack. Our research-backed guide to productive playlists can help you choose the right aural experience—from white noise to Mozart—for rest and productivity.