Always On: The Toxic Productivity Trap And How To Avoid It

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A Culture of Toxic Productivity

The culture of toxic productivity is an insidious one.

You may feel like you’re super efficient, a high achiever and someone who gets things done if you’re always available and always on. The truth though is its extremely ineffectual, unproductive and does not make for a happy or fulfilled person.

Toxic productivity exists in countries, organizations and it can also exist in the form of the internal little voice that tells us that we need to be productive and to get more done. And is often linked to feelings of poor self worth.

996 Culture

In China, this abusive, workaholic way of living is referred to as ‘996 culture’. This is because employees are expected to work from 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week. And this is especially true for those working for software and tech giants.

Alibaba Group Holding’s head, Jack Ma praised 996 culture as a ‘Huge Bliss‘. He stated “If you want to join Alibaba, you need to be prepared to work 12 hours a day, otherwise why even bother joining?”

Shenzhen is the third most populous city in China, and a global center for technology, research, manufacturing, business and economics and finance, finance, tourism and transportation. It recently became China’s first city that requires workers to take paid leave, by law. In China, paid leave varies but is generally 5 days leave after working for 1 year.

Yet even though this legislation has been passed, it isn’t well enforced and many companies simply don’t comply. This culture of toxic productivity in China has resulted in a number of deaths and suicides.

It’s not just China.

America’s Hustle Culture

Many, if not most salaried employees in America work 45 hours a week – and that’s just their day job. There is real pressure to work long hours and start a side hustle in order to be considered successful. It’s estimated that around 25% of Americans have a side hustle and around half spend 15 to 20 hours a week working on their side gig.

Working harder, faster and longer has become normalized and being busy and productive is lauded as a virtue.

It’s also pretty common nowadays to receive work related emails in your inbox over the weekends, and many employees aren’t taking their vacation days.

So, What is Toxic Productivity?

While the above examples are extreme, we’ve been conditioned into believing that being productive is a good thing – and it is, within limits. But this is where the line gets blurred.

What is the difference between productivity and toxic productivity?

Toxic productivity is a compulsive need to always be productive, often to the detriment of your relationships and your physical and mental health and well being.

What Does Toxic Productivity Look Like?

It’s when you are constantly pushing yourself to get things done, quickly moving from one task to the next – relentlessly.

And these self-imposed tasks are very often reactive and unplanned rather than something which you’ve given adequate thought to. This often means that the results are less than satisfactory – and probably means you’ll need to redo them.

The thing is, it doesn’t stop there.

Once you’ve completed a task or project, you’re still not done because you sit and think of how you could’ve done better, or that you should have done more – and you feel real guilt about it.

toxic productivity

The Effect of the Pandemic on Toxic Productivity

With the Covid-19 pandemic, people were working from home and found they had a lot more time on their hands. This was due to a lot less time spent on the commute to and from the office – and let’s be honest, with only the dog to judge you, less time spent on personal grooming and more time in your pajama pants.

Always On Technology

Technology was supposed to make our lives easier but with emails, texts, WhatsApp, Slack, Asana etc we became accessible 24/7. And when you’re working from your living room, it becomes difficult to clearly delineate when work time ended and leisure time began.

This was further exacerbated by the guilt that many felt at still having a job, when so many people had lost theirs. And so this resulted in self-induced pressure to prove themselves.

In times of fear and uncertainty, when circumstances are beyond our control, we focus on the small things which are within our control. It’s a coping mechanism and a way for us to feel worthy and in control.

Where does Toxic Productivity Lead?

In a word,it leads to burnout.

You end up feeling frazzled, short-tempered and a misery to be around. Chances are you’re utterly exhausted and lash out at those closest to you.

You wake up tired and cranky. It affects your state of mind, your health and your productivity.

A Sign Of Unprocessed Trauma

According to Specialist Counsellor Melinda du Plooy …”Keeping busy all the time is oftentimes a sign of unprocessed trauma. The busier one is the less time you have to think about the past and the things that haunt you.

You have to keep going. The moment you stop, you start to feel uncomfortable. Staying busy means you are productive, and in the mind of a person who suffered trauma being productive means ‘I am worth something’. Unfortunately this hyper productivity is a coping mechanism that is not sustainable and becomes toxic very quickly”…

How to Avoid The Toxic Productivity Trap

In order to avoid toxic productivity, Melinda advises that you:

  1. Set clear boundaries.
  2. Create a distinction between your work life and your home life.
  3. Practice mindfulness or meditation.
  4. Prioritize your mental health and get help to work through trauma by seeing a counselor or psychologist. Working through the trauma will give you peace. The memories will stop haunting you and you will get to a place where you can just be – without all the noise.

Practicing mindfulness will help you to sit through the initial uncomfortable feeling you can expect from not being busy.

By establishing boundaries you are setting “rules” for yourself and others to follow so they know what you’ll allow and you know what you will allow – it creates some accountability and keeps you (and them) in check.

It’s hugely important that the divide between work and home life is made clear. Especially with so many people now working from home, the lines become blurred. The pressure to perform becomes higher. You put in more time and more effort. When that happens there is no down time. You just keep going and very soon burn out.

Setting Yourself Up For Success

Here are some tips to implement that will go a long way to ensuring your peace of mind . And when you’re on an even keel and feeling good, you’re happier and more productive. It’s a win-win.

  • Set clear, realistic and attainable goals. Ask your supervisor or manager to help you with this.
  • Make sure you create buffers in your schedule. Its unrealistic and unhealthy to schedule every single minute of your time, so be sure that you give yourself 15-20 minutes between meetings and Zoom calls.
  • Stand up, stretch regularly and drink a glass of water.
  • Practice 5 minutes of slow, steady, deep breathing
  • Go to the bathroom and splash water on your face
  • Eat a healthy snack

Practice self-care. Remember, this looks different for everyone. It could be jogging or unwinding by watching Korean dramas on Netflix, or reading the latest thriller. Perhaps for you it would be taking time to paint or sketch. Or simply daydreaming and allowing yourself to simply be.

We’re all aiming for a life of fulfillment – and that looks different for everyone, too. But a sure fire way to misery, burnout and adverse health conditions is to be constantly on-the-go, always busy and always on.

Let us help you free up time in your busy schedule so that you have more time to yourself. Time to breathe. Time to consider the big picture – for your business and your life.

Book a Discovery Call Today and let’s make that happen for you.

Jennifer Brown

Jennifer Brown is a professional copywriter and entrepreneur with extensive experience in ecommerce and online ventures. Passionate about start-ups, her words connect people – share new ideas – spark conversations and put people in touch with the people, products, services and companies that make all the difference.

Jennifer Brown

Jennifer Brown is a professional copywriter and entrepreneur with extensive experience in ecommerce and online ventures. Passionate about start-ups, her words connect people – share new ideas – spark conversations and put people in touch with the people, products, services and companies that make all the difference.


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