Why Is Toxic Productivity Even a Thing?

example of toxic productivity - man multitasking

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 impostor 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 do 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.

It’s 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?

64 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. aguycalledbloke

    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.

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