Are You a Victim of Toxic Productivity? Ask Yourself These Three Questions

You are not your to-do list

toxic productivity: woman at desk with six busy arms
Alisa Zahoruiko/Getty Images

We’re a few weeks into the New Year and perhaps you’re already groaning under the weight of your resolutions. Or falling behind in your goal-setting plans and feeling burned out. Or obsessing that somehow, some way, there needs to be more hours in the day to accomplish all the tasks and activities you desire. How else will you measure up to the standards you and your family, friends, society…the universe!...definitely have for you? Congratulations, you may have toxic productivity!

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A pop psychology term (and TikTok talking point) that’s bubbled up in the past few years, toxic productivity is loosely defined as a detrimental fixation on achievement and activity that leads to less life satisfaction, not more. It can show up in your career, your family life, even in your neighborhood (step away from the Next Door app!). In the interests of well-being, we spoke to a psychologist about how to know if you’re a victim of toxic productivity, and how to realign your schedule to be less stressed and more content.

Meet the Expert

Dr Elisabeth Crain is a seasoned psychologist who maintains a clinical practice at the Hillside Wellness Center in Sherman Oaks, California. Using person-centered and psychodynamic therapy, she tailors her approach to clients of all ages. Specializing in anxiety and personality disorders, self-esteem and women's issues, familial and relational problems, modern parenting, trauma and narcissistic abuse recovery, Dr. Crain uses a practical and adaptable approach to address the psychological nuances of modern life.

What Is Toxic Productivity?

“Toxic productivity refers to an unhealthy obsession with productivity that can lead to burnout, stress, and a diminished sense of well-being,” Dr. Crain says. “It involves prioritizing constant work or task achievement, without considering the negative impact on mental and physical health.”

Toxic productivity has a sound-alike and similarly prevalent social trend—toxic positivity—which occurs when the denial of a person’s entire experience is missing and only "positive" emotions are condonable or acceptable, precluding expressions of negative or unfavorable emotions. “Both toxic positivity and toxic productivity are scenarios that can be characterized by an unrealistic emphasis on maintaining a positive outlook, often at the expense of acknowledging and processing genuine emotional experiences. Toxic productivity specifically is rooted in an excessive drive for work and achievement."

Do I Have Toxic Productivity?

Dr. Crain suggests asking yourself the following questions to help gauge whether your approach to productivity is healthy, or if it may be veering into toxic territory:

  • Am I prioritizing self-care? “Evaluate whether you allocate regular time for self-care or relaxation. Are you neglecting your physical and mental well-being in pursuit of work or productivity?” (And, BTW, crossing items off your to-do list doesn’t qualify as “self-care”.)
  • Do I have a good work-to-relaxation ratio, or do I feel guilty for resting? “Reflect on how well you balance work commitments with personal life. Are you consistently sacrificing personal time for work, leading to burnout and fatigue? Assess your mindset towards rest and breaks. Do you experience guilt or anxiety when taking breaks, and feel that you should constantly be working?”
  • Do I define my self-worth by my productivity? “Consider whether your self-worth is closely tied to your productivity levels. Do you feel a sense of inadequacy when not constantly checking tasks off your to-do list?”

Is Toxic Productivity More Prevalent in Women?

“I believe that the issue of "toxic productivity” is person-dependent, not gender-dependent and goes back to what emotions or behaviors were deemed appropriate in someone's childhood or upbringing,” Dr. Crain says. “While societal expectations and gender roles may influence the distribution of responsibilities (typically, girls/women are tasked with more housework or caregiving responsibilities), both men and women can experience the negative effects of toxic productivity. It's more about individual experiences, upbringing and the learned attitudes towards work and self-care. For instance, if a child witnesses their parents prioritizing constant work without taking care of themselves, they are likely to adopt similar patterns in their adult lives.”

OK, So I Have Toxic Productivity—What Should I Do About It?

Yep, you guessed it, Type A workaholic toxic productivity Good Girl! The antidote to toxic productivity is self-care. People who are overworked and overstressed may experience a misbalanced lifestyle, and Dr. Crain says that self-care needs to be inserted into their—into your, if you’ve read this far—daily routines. “This can be whatever feels good for them, that helps them relax, or whatever helps tend to their own needs in a nurturing way,” Crain suggests. Going on vacation, taking a bath, going on hikes, meditation, spending time with supportive friends or family members, going on walks, getting exercise, eating nourishing foods, reading or cooking are some behaviors that, while seemingly innocuous, become surprisingly helpful when moved to the top of a to-do list.

And yes, these actions are going to feel unnatural, even time-wasting, at first. “If and when feelings of guilt come up, stop and recognize those feelings. Recognize that guilt is rooted in a place of lack. Exploring this aspect in therapy can help you cultivate self-nurturance, making the practice of self-care more familiar,” she says. “If adding self-care into your life feels overwhelming, consider gradually integrating mini acts of self-care. This step-by-step approach allows you to build a sustainable and manageable routine.”

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dana dickey

Senior Editor

Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space...