Why Is Toxic Productivity Even a Thing?

Toxic productivity: If you didn't come out of the pandemic with new knowledge/skills, that's okay!

I’m generally pretty out of the loop when it comes to pop psychology phenomena, so I just stumbled across the term toxic productivity fairly recently. While I hadn’t heard the term before, I’m at least with it enough to know that productivity talk is all over the internet.

What is toxic productivity?

Toxic productivity is the push to always be productive, whatever the cost. A Huff Post article says “Toxic productivity doesn’t even let up once the task is complete. Once you’re technically done with a project at work, you might feel guilty for not having done more.”

This dude’s popular Tweet is an example mentioned in the Huff Post article:

To that, I say fuck off. Take your bullshit, along with your supposed discipline, and shove them up your ass. Ahem, where was I?

A Real Simple article points out that toxic productivity has some overlap with imposter syndrome. There’s also a sense of fear that not doing “enough” means being a failure, which is exactly what dude’s tweet tells you that they are. Who decides what “enough” is? That’s probably the should monster in your head. This approach can push people into a state of burnout.

Something else I first heard of very recently was “that girl” on TikTok. A Refinery 29 article says: “‘That girl’ isn’t just healthy, she’s professionally successful and looks her best at every moment. She wakes up every morning at 5.30 AM so she can seize the day and her nails are always uniform, manicured and eternally chip-free.” She has worked out, eaten avocado toast, meditated, and perfectly don her hair and makeup before you’ve even rolled out of bed. I haven’t seen that term on Pinterest, but I’ve seen lots of pins about a morning routine and all the gazillion things you’re supposed to do before 6 AM so you have a perfect day.

Why do people want this?

Sure, there may be societal pressure to do this, but why do people want to? I don’t get it. Then again, I’ve generally tended to prefer doing my own thing over following “shoulds,” and perfectionism and imposter syndrome aren’t among whatever issues I have. I’m also pretty pragmatic and independent, as well as a stubborn moose. A vague sense of needing to do “enough” to satisfy someone else doesn’t really fit in with my way of looking at the world.

In a more general sense, though, why does such a big chunk of society value being/looking productive rather than living life? Perhaps FOMO plays into this too. Instagram shows you all the pretty things that you’re supposed to do with your life of leisure, but toxic productivity culture tells you all the productive things you’re supposed to be accomplishing. That makes for one big shit sandwich of dissatisfaction.

Why can’t it be a good thing to relax? Isn’t that what most of us would actually like to do? It just seems weird to me that cultural pressures run so contrary to what actually feels good. Why are we “supposed to” feel like we’re not good enough, while at the same time we’re getting bombarded with toxic positivity messaging to always be positive and cut out toxicity from our lives?

Why can’t we instead celebrate non-sheep-ness and mellow out somewhere in the middle?

Efficiency vs. productivity

I’ve always been big on efficiency. Efficiency isn’t doing more; it’s smoothing out the logistics so tasks take less time, which means more time left over for stuff that feels good.

Organizing was always a big part of efficiency for me. Now, organization is necessary for functioning, but when I was well, it made me pretty efficient. At work, getting things done faster made it easier to keep work strictly within work hours. When I travelled, I would figure out the things I wanted to in a city and then plan out my days to minimize time wasted on getting from place to place or waiting for things to open. That meant I could do the things I wanted to do and be able to actually enjoy it all.

Efficiency makes life easier, not harder, which to me seems like the opposite of toxic productivity. If all the toxic productivity energy got poured into identifying practical ways to make the things you need to do easier, imagine how much time there might be to actually enjoy stuff!

The mental illness factor

Mental illness can limit the resources you have available to get stuff done. It can also create psychological smog that turns doing pretty much anything into way more of a production than it should be.

Expecting people whose illness is actively getting in the way to be über-productive is absurd. If your spoon budget is limited, why should you be expected to waste spoons on things just to live up to someone else’s standard? Toxic productivity culture, keep your hands off mental illness culture! Being crazy is tiring; we don’t need more tiring on top of that!

Of course, it’s hard to see people who aren’t dealing with chronic illness and other such issues being able to do more than we can, but that doesn’t mean we should have to be all productive all the time. It should be okay that we’re able to do less.

Its’ your life to live

There are a lot of things that we can’t control in life. We can’t control the pressures from the outside world, but there is room to work on what we do with that. Stepping back/away from the social media nonsense is one way to do that. Prioritizing self-care is another, as is saying no to shoulds. And maybe sometimes giving the world the middle finger 🖕 and doing what works for you.

Had you come across the term toxic productivity before? Is it something that influences your life?

66 thoughts on “Why Is Toxic Productivity Even a Thing?”

  1. I love this.

    I am like you in I try and find ways to work efficiently so I have time just to chill. The word relaxation seems to be like a forbidden fruit these days. No wonder everyone is burnt out and stressed.

  2. Today I finished listening to the audiobook version of Essentialism by Greg Mckeown. There’s this story of a man he relates who once said, “If you really want to do something hard, say no to an opportunity, so you can take a nap”.

  3. This one actually hit a little too close to home for me. I hadn’t come across “toxic productivity” either, only toxic positivity. I think this explains what I’m like, what I do these days. Some of it is to keep me distracted, but it’s ridiculous because I lose most of each day to being too poorly to function so I never have enough time to get through things, I’m now always behind and it’s an endless loop. I don’t do enough, I feel guilty. It’s never enough. Never.

    I like to think I’m mentally well balanced and self-aware. And yet this shit stupid thing caught me off guard when my health went down the pan in 2015. I think when I lost my job it messed me up more than I realised because then I developed this thing with guilt that seemed to come from nowhere, then the need to be productive, then more guilt. Eugh. It’s an interesting read though, at least I know I’m not alone in this one. Funnily enough, I never used to be like this at all. Now I can’t imagine not being like it. I’ve no idea how to get out of it either. xx

    1. For me, it was quite a process to shift my thinking from considering what I used to be able to do to what I’m now able to do, as there’s a big difference between the two.

      It’s so easy to fall into the comparison trap with people who are doing better illness-wise or don’t have a chronic illness at all. That’s part of why I try to keep my social media use really limited, because I don’t want to see all the stuff that other people are doing.

      1. I’m sorry you’ve had to come to terms with that shift, too. I don’t have the issue with social media – I simply never get around to looking anymore 😂 If I do go on Facebook, the timeline is just filled with illness and stoma groups anyway, so no worries there. I think there are deeper issues underlying the need for productivity around the sense of worthlessness, inability to accept the situation, the need for distraction, pervasive guilt and so on. It’ll never be black and white, and person’s situation will be different of course, but I imagine there’ll be more to dig through below the surface of the need for productivity.

  4. Covid may have given me the time to learn to play the piano or speak French, but day by day and month by month it sucked the life out of me. Drained my batteries, left me dead on the couch eating cookies 🙂
    Toxic productivity? So not a problem 🙂

  5. I feel this a lot. When all I want to do is just…nothing, be still and relax, I feel too much guilt once I get there to be able to enjoy it. Which is frustrating because like you said, it’s what I know feels good and what I think would help. It’s a frustrating feeling for sure

  6. I took a step back from blogging last month because trying to keep up with my blogging schedule was stressing me out. As hard as it was to do, I felt a weight off my shoulders, and I don’t feel like a failure for doing it. Lesson learned. I’ll take a break whenever I need to now without stressing over falling behind.

  7. I know I’ve had fomo when it comes to wanting to have the perfect morning and evening routine. I’m envious of people who have it together enough to plan that well. I’m lucky if I get a chance to shower before finding clean enough work clothes

  8. You know, if the Jeremy Haynes quote was framed in “I-statements” rather than “you-statements” it wouldn’t bother me so much. I found myself wanting to come out of the pandemic with more knowledge and more completed tasks. But to suggest that people are losers because they don’t want to do what *I* would like to do is uncalled for, in every case – not just as pertains to the pandemic.

    I’ve not run across the term “toxic productivity” before, but I confess I have sometimes been guilty of it. I remember once having a 50/hr/week job. As if that weren’t enough, every time I had an hour off, I felt as though I had to keep working all through the break. I’ve heard this phenomenon referred to more often as “workaholism” than anything else however.

    I hear they even have Workaholics Anonymous, but that meetings aren’t very well-attended because all the members are too busy working.

    1. Toxic productivity sounds like workaholism that has come to encompass things other than just a paid job, like having a side hustle and having results of productive activities to show off or try to sell online.

  9. People do this to themselves, and I have no sympathy. The ‘That Girl” thing you wrote about – OMG – how pathetic that anyone should think to do that or aspire to do that. Sad, sad, sad. I am super organized, and consequently, super efficient because I am the laziest person on the planet and I can procrastinate with the best of them – yet I am a perfectionist – when you do whatever it is that you have to do, do it right the first time – don’t lollygag around – then you’ve got all the time to goof off with impunity.

  10. My question is why does this generation feel the need to create a new term for everything going? Sure – hands up – l like making new words from a packet of crisps, some rolled up slug poo and fuzzy air at times – but not new terminology.

    I like the word efficient – l like to be prouctive with my time, yes that is true – but with efficiency in your life you actually can get more done – that could be relax chill time or uber productivity or grunge slouchcoucho binge watch time.

    Years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth … my first ever manager said to me “Rory – you can be as busy as you want OR you can be efficient and look as busy as others want you to be, but really you are taking it easy and that’s because with efficiency in your life, you are more methodical, more organised and more productive. let the others lose sleep, whilst you can embrace efficiency and sleep like a rock!”

    It was quite possibly one of the best bits of advice l have ever received.

    1. I value efficiency as well.

      Another commenter mentioned that it sounds a lot like workaholism, and it seems to me that toxic productivity is like workaholism but expanded to areas of life other than work.

      A few people have mentioned feeling guilty when they’re not doing anything, and I think that means something is wrong with the messaging people are being exposed to, whether one wants to call it toxic productivity or something else.

  11. Suze feels guilty when she is not busy. I have been trying to tell her to stop worrying, especially as she is starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel agaon. But she was always so busy, she made me at times look like l was walking backwards.

    I used to feel like l should be doing more, but l just upped my thinking patterns – upped my self motivation and told myself to stop being a twit! We get done what we get done, simples. Life is just way too short. Don’t get me wrong Ashley – YES, l want to achieve more with my time – but l used to be what they used to class as a workaholic, l worked non-stop as a youngster right up to the age of my later 40’s, but you burn out once, the internal you is then prone to constant burnouts .. so the answer is yes, you guessed it, become smarter and become more efficient 🙂

    I am pleased l made the changes, in this last year, l have more time on my side again 🙂

  12. I have never heard this term before. I always thought that people who were always working on a project in an office setting was nothing more than competition. Dog eat dog world. Trying to climb the organizational ladder.
    I worked in a fast food place and competition was there. Everyone trying to please the store manager or the owner, hoping to make it to a managerial position. I was guilty of competing myself. I did make it to a breakfast manager.

  13. Yes, I always struggle with drowsiness/dizziness. I just don’t know how to differentiate these two. It’s everyday.

    When I skip my antipsychotics, I can wake up very early easily and stay highly awake during the day but feel really overwhelmed after that due to a lack of sleep.

    I think I will just accept coffee and naps-on-some-days in my life.

  14. Great article, Ashley. I definitely fall into this trap sometimes, but I’m way better than I used to be. This idea of always-on productivity has been with us for centuries (think Protestant Work Ethic). The only difference nowadays is that we’re so connected with technology.

    I don’t know what it’s like in other countries, but in the U.S. this is definitely a serious problem. People who don’t “advance” in life are seen as slackers and losers, as opposed to people who constantly work and fuck other people over to get on top. It’s a kind of free-for-all capitalist shitstorm rat race mentality. It’s pretty sick shit lol.

    I feel like one of the big side effects of the dickheads who tweeted that thing about discipline is that people who genuinely need help – such as those with severe mental illness and drug addiction – end up completely invisible and loathed by society. “Why can’t they get it together? Just pull yourself up by the bootstraps!” It’s all BS.

    Sorry for the long rant, but I get pretty angry about it sometimes lol. For me, I’ve learned to adopt more of a mindset of “just getting by.” Sure, I can be super productive sometimes, but I do it because I enjoy it and, well, have to pay bills. But as far as selling my soul to prove I’m “worthy” to someone or thing, hell no.

    Cheers! 🙂

    1. I totally agree with your rant. It’s one thing for people to push themselves to do more, but it shouldn’t be a reason to judge others, who might be facing all kinds of challenges, for not doing “enough.” I like the “just getting by” mindset. If I can do more than that sometimes, then that’s great, but setting the bar unreasonably high just isn’t healthy.

      1. Definitely. I think it’s all about expectations. Not to blame society too much, but we all get some crazy expectations pushed on us by lot by all sorts of people. Life is much more bizarre, boring, and unpredictable than what advertisers try to sell us.

    2. As someone who lives near the United States but not in it, I often wonder how many Americans look outside their country to see if everyone else is wound up as they are. I think the pandemic only sped up the processes by which people become fraught and burnt out.

  15. I’ve not actually heard the term before, but I’ve certainly been a victim of toxic productivity! It’s so easy to fall into the trap of it – and what a colossal ass-hat behind that Tweet!

  16. Reading this in my dressing gown when I “ought” to be getting ready for the day. Your comments about being organised and efficient touch a button on me. I am SO tired yet life is getting busier especially now schools are back. I hadn’t heard the term toxic productivity before. It describes very well the pressure many of us feel. Thank you for reminding me that I am enough. I need to keep in mind that I will always have tasks to do. My to do list will never be empty. It’s the nature of my role in life. I have been free from depression for about 10 years and it’s stress that triggers it. Relaxing and taking time to simply BE is important. Sorry I’m starting to ramble. Thanks again for the post.

  17. I’m pretty much still clinically burned out because I don’t know how to rest and relax.

    Comes from a life where my dad made “efficiency” into a nightmare – who cares if I am slightly less efficient walking from one point to another? It’d just a few seconds, maybe a minute longer.

    And then I had to be “productive” all the time. No entertainment except sleep.

    Wake up early, don’t be “lazy” – turns out me being chronically stressed and having nightmares every night means I’m actually sleep deprived. No wonder I can’t wake up early.

    As for his “that’s because you go to sleep late!” – yes I did that because geez, late night meant some time to do something enjoyable without being barked at for not being productive.

  18. I mean, the best thing I can do before 6am to make my day better is never have to be conscious at 6am. But, I digress. We have a toxic culture of ‘work equals self-worth’ in general. Which is part of the broader capitalist bullshit that keeps the Bezoses and Musks of the world thinking going to space for a quick vacay is somehow a leap forward for the human race. Or that makes us think them giving a piddling amount to some charity with their name on it makes up for the fact that they don’t pay anything near fair in taxes (if they pay corporate taxes at all) and fire employees for getting sick or taking a couple of extra minutes break. Bezos could singlehandedly pay for a ‘housing-first’ solution for every homeless person in the U.S. without noticing the decline in his space hobby. He doesn’t. So, who freaking cares if we aren’t squeezing every drop out of our overstressed, underpaid selves? I’m very much of the ‘let me live my damn life as an openly neurodiverse, chronically ill, already traumatized weirdo in a way I am safe and those I care about are safe. Or otherwise stfu about what I have to do – or not do – to drag myself through this b.s. unkind world to have enough capitalist value to keep paying my bills.

  19. After researching and writing a post on job burn out, I’ve come to believe that Americans are especially susceptible because of their mindset to work and individualism. Though never having heard of ‘toxic productivity’ I can believe it would be a thing.

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