How To Avoid Toxic Productivity

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Saphia Lanier
Saphia Lanier

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Becoming the best at your craft. Being the highest paid in your niche. Achieving elite status in record time. These are some of the excuses feeding into the hustle culture we have today.

Toxic productivity

And while being an overachiever can build your business faster, it’s not a sustainable act. The Hustle’s survey of 300+ entrepreneurs revealed that 63% of business owners have or are dealing with burnout. 

Is it worth falling prey to toxic productivity if you eventually have to cut back or quit to save your well-being?

Slow and steady has a place — with the right pacing, you can maintain productivity without fizzling out.

What is toxic productivity?

Toxic productivity is a pattern of behavior characterized by an obsession with productivity at the expense of your physical and mental health. It’s caused by several factors, including a perfectionist mindset, a fear of failure, or a need to control your environment.

Where does toxic productivity come from?

Productivity is like a drug. Working on a task that yields a reward (e.g., money, status, success) creates dopamine — the feeling of pleasure. And checking that to-do off your list is oh-so-satisfying. 

But similar to drugs, social media, and chocolate, too much productivity can be a bad thing — and it can be hard to know when you’re going off the deep end. 

The rise of hustle culture hasn’t helped. According to Sampoerna University, hustle culture encourages employees, workers, or laborers to work beyond normal hours. It pushes them to complete a job on target, without error, and at a faster pace than usual. Then during their free time (e.g., after hours or on weekends), they’re still thinking about work.

Some remote workers are over-employed (and proud), working two, three, or even a half- dozen full-time jobs.  

But it's not just a workplace issue. Founders do the same, if not more, since there’s no way to “clock out.” Work and life easily blend, making it a challenge to break free.

Entrepreneurs in the hustle culture are stuck in an endless cycle because they’re constantly:

  • Comparing themselves and their businesses to others

  • Competing with their past results

  • Chasing higher-paying or more clients to grow profits

  • Reaching for loftier goals (e.g., expanding or starting another income stream)

With an uncertain economy and rapid inflation, it’s no surprise millennials and Gen Zers feel the need to work longer, faster, and harder. 

Julie Bee, founder of business consultancy The Julie Bee, says some fall into toxic productivity because of boredom.

“Most entrepreneurs (me included) are constantly moving, changing, and shaking things up,” she says. “I think some of us struggle with monotony.”

What does toxic productivity look like?

Toxic productivity comes in various forms, depending on the underlying ambitions of the individual. For example, if your goal is higher revenue, then you’ll constantly compare your earnings with others to justify why you need to work more. 

Here are other signs you may be a victim of toxic productivity:

  • Feeling guilty, anxious, and restless when you’re not working

  • Having relationships with friends and family on the fritz

  • Lacking self-care (hair, skin, diet, exercise, rest)

  • Allowing work and personal life to overlap constantly

  • Working through break times to “get ahead”

  • Focusing is difficult, and procrastination often sets in

  • Sacrificing sleep to get more done

  • Getting sick more often

Left unchecked, toxic productivity can lead to a variety of mental and health conditions.

“We’re taught to believe that the more we work, the more successful we’ll be. But what we don’t realize is that this way of thinking can lead to burnout, anxiety, and depression,” says Dr. Harold Hong, a psychiatrist at drug and alcohol addiction detox center New Waters Recovery.

For instance, chronic stress is a common outcome of overworking, which increases your chance of getting heart disease, concentration impairment, and depression. 

Avoiding toxic productivity to save yourself (and your business)

Recognizing you’re stuck in a toxic productivity loop is the first step to overcoming it. But what do you do from this point to prevent falling back into your old ways?

Here are several tips for developing healthier work habits. 

Shift your mindset and focus

Overworking isn’t just something you do — it becomes who you are. Your mentality about work needs to change so you can refocus your energy. 

But first, figure out the root cause behind your workaholism. 

Maybe you have underlying:

  • Fears of failure 

  • Feelings of inadequacy 

  • Stresses of losing money or status 

These worries stem from your views of yourself. Try shifting how you view success — for instance, if you feel inadequate, look at your past accomplishments. Collect messages, testimonials, and other proof from customers praising your work, skills, or traits. 

Whenever negative feelings arise, look at this folder and focus on the positives instead of the negatives. 

Others in your industry aren’t the bar to reach or outdo. Focus on your progress and allow yourself to feel gratitude for your milestones. 

Set clear and healthy boundaries

Create strict guidelines that determine when, how, and where you work. Define these based on your lifestyle and family needs. For example, set a time to work before the kids wake up and then during school time. Once they’re home, sign off for the day. 

Some other ideas to set a better work-life balance:

  • Pick a place inside or outside the home to work (and only work in these locations)

  • Commit time for hobbies and activities each week

  • Identify a healthy workload and stick to it (i.e., learn to say no)

  • Make self-care a priority (e.g., eight hours of sleep, drinking water, exercise)

  • Inform clients/managers/team members about your boundaries (e.g., use status updates on shared channels like Slack)

  • Speak up against clients/managers that overstep your boundaries

  • Avoid checking emails after work hours or on weekends 

  • Say no to unnecessary meetings and calls 

Once you draw your lines in the sand, work hard to maintain them. Set an alarm at your time to sign off, so you don’t miss it. Schedule things to do at the end of your workday — like a gym class or a get together — so you’re forced away from work.

Build a sustainable schedule

Try creating a schedule you’ll stick to. Here are a few ways to ensure you get enough things done without overdoing it:

  • Set specific hours for deep focus based on when you have the most energy (e.g., 4-5 hours is the average time most people can deep focus daily)

  • Add multiple breaks throughout the day, or try the Pomodoro method (five-minute breaks after every 25 minutes of work)

  • Never schedule back-to-back meetings (e.g., have an hour between each)

  • Include days off and vacation days to relax (e.g., no work or emails allowed on these days)

  • Put self-care into your schedule (e.g., time to drink water, stretch, exercise, eat a healthy snack)

  • Work around your children’s schedule to avoid headaches and clashes in activities

The goal is to schedule all the important things in your life, including nonwork activities and rest time. 

On days off, temporarily disable app notifications to avoid checking social media, emails, Slack, and other work-related distractions. Instead, try to spend the time off thinking or working on personal interests.

Stay on track with productivity apps

Sticking to your daily goals is critical to prevent the excuse of working more to “catch up.” There are many project and task management tools with features like alarms, time-tracking, and scheduling to keep everything on track. 

A few options include Trello, Asana, and Clickup.

But don’t overload your schedule with too many to-dos, or you’re back at square one. One way to avoid this is to use the Eisenhower Matrix to prioritize tasks, which works by categorizing duties based on whether they’re important and/or urgent. Anything that’s not important or urgent should be scheduled for a later time or deleted altogether. 

Then to ensure you stay deep focused on high-priority tasks, block distractions (e.g., apps and websites) on mobile and desktop devices using apps like:

  • Freedom: Blocks distracting websites and apps (e.g., social media, email, unimportant notifications) on all your devices.

  • Serene: Helps you complete one long task by breaking it into shorter sessions throughout the day. 

  • Forest: Plant a virtual tree when you’re ready to focus, and it’ll grow into a forest (pick up your phone before the session is over and your virtual tree will die).

  • Reclaim.ai: Create a list of work and nonwork tasks, give rough instructions on when you want to do them, and it’ll schedule everything on your calendar. 

If you’re unsure of how much time it takes to complete a task, time yourself for a month using a tool like Clockify or RescueTime. See which tasks eat up most of your time, then determine if you need more hours for them in the future, or if you can delegate them. 

Barnaby Lashbrooke, founder of virtual assistant platform Time Etc, learned to lean on others after suffering from burnout while working 100-hour weeks. 

“I tried outsourcing absolutely everything — from social media posts to the day-to-day running of my business. I even hired a driver, because I thought I could use the journey time to work,” he recalls. 

The experiment failed because you can’t outsource everything, but it was a valuable lesson for identifying what she should and shouldn't delegate on any given day.

Lashbrooke now meticulously plans his schedule to achieve better work-life balance. 

“Every half hour in my calendar is accounted for, which I use like a timetable,” he says. “I strictly work 35 hours per week and no more.”

Seek expert help

On the verge of burnout? Then maybe it’s time to find a therapist to help manage your stress. Various treatments are available, from medications to exercises to retraining your way of thinking. 

For example, Dr. Hong states that CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) addresses the negative thought patterns that fuel toxic productivity. It challenges your thoughts about productivity and reframes them in a more positive light. 

If you’re looking for resources to improve your habits, these books may be helpful:

  • Essentialism: Teaches you how to prioritize essential tasks (projects, laundry, appointments) and cut out, delegate, or delay nonessential tasks (e.g., things that add little to no value to your life or business).

  • Atomic Habits: Helps you develop good habits and break bad ones (e.g., creating efficient business systems, improving parenting)

  • Effortless: Provides actionable tips for making essential activities easier and/or more fun (e.g., listening to your favorite podcast while submitting invoices to clients), so you’re productive without burning out.

Once you pull away from the hustle and bustle of toxic productivity, you may find joy in spending time on other things. And who knows, you may encounter greater success by slowing down, zoning in, and being the best you possible. 

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