How to Combat Toxic Productivity

While productivity is a virtue so many of us chase, is it possible you've fallen into the trap of toxic productivity? Modern Mentor shares her own experience with toxic productivity as well as the strategies she's using to combat it.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #670
The Quick And Dirty

The symptoms of toxic productivity may be different for everyone. But if it's a challenge you're facing, consider trying these strategies to keep toxic productivity at bay:

  1. Set a daily core three
  2. Link "whats'" to "whys"
  3. Take deep breaths
  4. Shut down

I recently read a blog post by Scott Ninneman in which Scott says: “The beautiful thing about helping others is that you don’t have to be an expert. No, instead, you only have to be a little further along than the person you’re assisting.”

Generally, I like to show up for you as the expert. But sometimes my expertise comes from my own seat on the struggle bus, maybe just a row or two ahead of where you’re sitting. Today’s going to be one of those days.

I’ve always prided myself on my productivity. I’m a go-getter, an over-achiever. I was voted Teachers’ Pet in my high school yearbook. And oh yes, there’s a photo. But in the past couple of years, I’ve noted that my drive to achieve has started to feel more like a need, a compulsion. It’s as if being busy is the thing, rather than the means to a purposeful outcome.

In trying to better understand my own experience, I encountered the idea of toxic productivity. It feels…like me. And I’ve made some strides toward overcoming it. And my goal today is to share some actionable insights I’ve picked up and put into practice along the way.

What is toxic productivity?

I’m not knocking productivity. Like exercising or saving money, it is truly a virtue... until it’s not.

Productivity, in my book, is the act of doing or delivering things that yield a benefit or positive outcome—like shipping a product to your client, publishing a blog post designed to attract new customers, or learning a new skill that will support your professional goals.

Productivity becomes toxic when the act of doing—of just being busy—is the goal. It’s the inability to stop doing or producing even when the need for an outcome has abated. Your customer is happy, your blog is published, you’ve learned enough for today. And yet, you keep going because stopping or shutting down scares you.

Toxic productivity hangs out at the same parties as workaholism and hustle culture. It’s not the party the cool kids are going to.

What are the indicators of toxic productivity?

The slope from productive to toxically productive can be a slippery one. It may manifest differently in everyone. But here are some of the signs I—and my family—noted in my own behavior.

  • My energy was low. I was burned out, exhausted, and not resting sufficiently because shutting down was so hard for me to do.
  • My creativity was low. I was so busy doing, churning, executing that I was missing out on opportunities to imagine, to wonder, to explore possibilities just for the fun of learning something new.
  • I was counting down to Monday. So weird, right? But I was. The weekends gave me anxiety because it was hard to justify working on days designated for friends and family. I felt unproductive when really I should’ve been feeling like I earned the right to rest.
  • I always felt behind. Though all of my client commitments were being met beyond expectations, I still always felt there was more I should be doing, and I never let myself celebrate what I had achieved.

Have you experienced any version of these yourself? Are you finding yourself chasing down tasks or activities that no one else is demanding of you? Your signals may be different. But if you’re feeling off in any way—exhausted, overwhelmed, always on the go—consider toxic productivity as a potential villain.

How can you overcome toxic productivity?

It’s totally simple. Just swallow the toxic productivity pill and you’ll be a new person by morning! Kidding. Though that sure would be nice.

Like so many things worth overcoming, it’s a journey. But the other side of toxic productivity doesn’t have to be rest. You don’t need to stop being productive. In fact, I give you permission to still have busy seasons, even seasons of chaos. I assure you that I still do.

The thing to overcome is the need to always be busy. So the antidote is to be busy with purpose, with intent, with focus, and with a clear understanding of when it’s time to rest.

I’m still on my journey. But I’m making real progress. Here are some of the strategies I’m now using to ensure my busyness is aligned to purpose. Consider experimenting with one yourself.

1. I set a daily Core Three.

Each day in my bullet journal, I begin with a statement of three priorities for that day. These are the three must-do’s in order for my day to be complete. Sure, there may be other tasks that need to get done, but as long as these three have been delivered on, I get to call the day a win.

These priorities may be work-related, like sending off a client deliverable or having a successful sales meeting. But they also include things like taking a walk with my daughters, or calling my dad, or reading a chapter of a book I’m working through. There are no hard parameters as long as each has a clear purpose, and I’m only allowed three per day.

2. I link “whats” to “whys.”

Nothing is permitted on my to-do list unless I can articulate the purpose it serves.

In the earlier days of my business, my to-do list included social media posts or people to reach out to or online courses I “needed” to take. I was so overwhelmed by execution I had lost sight of purpose.

I thought I needed to post on social media because other business owners were doing so. But I couldn’t articulate the way in which it was specifically serving me.

I felt like I should be learning something every day… but the cost of all this learning was that I was never pausing to process, reflect, and actually implement the lessons.

I needed to reassess the value of what I was doing, and infuse some intention back into my days. I do this by listing a “why” next to each “what” on my to-do list.

3. I take 3 one-minute breaths per day.

I’m embarrassed to tell you how much willpower this requires. And yet, it does. Three times a day for 60 seconds I stop what I’m doing and just sit. It’s not a meditation per se. It’s simply a moment in which I pause and be still.

The experience isn’t mountain-moving, but it’s a tiny reset. It forces me to check in with myself, to confirm I’m doing something meaningful or intentional. Sometimes at the end of that 60 seconds, I simply return to what I was doing. But sometimes that brief pause helps me to redirect to something more intentional.

I have an inner wisdom I couldn’t hear before because I never gave it room to speak. You too have this wisdom. How can you turn up its volume?

4. I turn off.

I state an end-time to my “productive” day and I force myself to honor it. Given client commitments, there are days when I’m going until 10 P.M. But those are rare and purposeful.

On the flip side, when my must-do’s are light, I’ll absolutely shut down at noon and go grab lunch with a friend.

There’s no right time to end your day—it’s simply about the act of having an ending and the discipline to honor it.

My current phase of productivity isn’t totally without moments of toxicity. But I’m getting better every day. And if you’re struggling, I wish you the same.


About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.