Toxic Productivity — What is it and where does it come from anyway?

This is something I have been thinking about a lot lately. I am planning to write 3 posts in this mini-series, but it may end up being 4. I have quite a bit to say. A little disclaimer, I am not a psychologist so I’m not an expert, but I have a few insights based largely on my own experiences and a little reading.

So what is it?

To start with a theoretical definition, Toxic productivity is the desire to be productive at all times.

It goes beyond that really to being a ‘need’. We feel we need to be productive all of the time. This doesn’t just mean being a workaholic. Because work is just one aspect of our lives. It can mean we are obsessed with cleaning, sorting and organising our home, or always looking at our personal finances. I also believe that it can manifest itself quite differently in different people. Some of the things I’ve got in view here, don’t fit neatly into the definition of Toxic Productivity that most of us will think of, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t. It just depends on our character and our motivation. For example, some of us may always be on the phone or seeing people, thinking that if we have a spare moment, then we should be using that catch-up with friends, to support and encourage them.

Toxic productivity will hit us all differently as we will all have a different understanding of what it means to be productive. If being productive, means being effective with the time and resources we have, using them well and using them to serve a ‘good’ purpose. Then it will depend on what we value and see as ‘good’. I’ve put good in inverted commas there as I do not mean some moral good (though it includes that), but I mean what we value, which will include protecting ourselves and others from harm on the one side and actively seeking benefit for ourselves or other on the other side.

It also hits us differently as being productive has many different elements to it and any one of them can become toxic and harmful to us if over-emphasised.

And at this point, we need to acknowledge that it seems to not affect some people at all. There are totally stress-free all day every day, at least in appearance anyway. We should be thankful for this, no matter how annoying it is for us.

So, let’s move beyond a theoretical definition to a practical one. I believe, that most often, toxic productivity is driven by fear. It is more often than not, driven by the ‘protecting ourselves from harm’ end of the spectrum. Toxic Productivity is a situation where any aspect of productivity, work or process by which we get things done takes on a significantly greater place in our behaviour or thinking than it actually warrants and to our detriment or the detriment of those around us.

This can manifest in a multitude of different ways. Constant tweaking of the systems we use to get things done, searching for that perfect system that enables maximum productivity, living convinced that the reason we are stressed is that our system is not good enough. Or app switching. Changing our to-do list manager or notes app or whatever as we again, seek to maximise our efficiency. Re-organising our work or re-planning our time as we desperately try to keep on top of everything. It can manifest in imposter syndrome, as we believe we are not good enough and live in fear of the day when we are ‘found out’. It can manifest in overloading or overwhelming ourselves with more and more stuff, and an inability to say no. It can be seen in being ‘always on’ in practice or in our minds. There is always so much to do, that we cannot, do not or will not take any time out to rest or relax or simply enjoy ourselves. Or it can lead to being ‘always on’ in our minds. As Yoda would say “never his mind on where he was hmm, what he was doing”. Always mentally consumed with work or the things that need to be sorted, or the different tweaks we could make to our productivity set up to better get things done. These are just some examples. And they almost always lead to stress, anxiety, fear and a near-constant feeling of failure and not being enough. And if these feelings and practices sustain themselves for long enough — they can be truly harmful to us and those around us. Toxic.


Why do we suffer from this?

I have a number of theories. At their core, each one stems from a small number of common sources. The conclusion I am coming to is that most of these are internal. As in they begin within ourselves. And to provide a solution, it is there we must look. But solutions and for a later post.

Now please do not mishear me. I am not saying that external factors play no role at all in this. But, it occurs to me that these external factors mix with the internal ones to produce the results we have in view. And external factors, for most of us, are largely out of control, at least in the short term. What I mean by this is if you are working for an organisation where the work environment is not good. You cannot change the environment, not quickly, and the success of your endeavour will not be fully in your control. You can leave, thus changing the external factor, but these things take time. The internal factors I am going to look at can be changed. Yes, it will take time, and time to have any impact, but you have more control and influence here.

Ultimately, we behave & think the way we do because we believe that doing so will meet a need that we have or it will protect us from threat. This is all wrapped up in human nature.

I stress that I am not a psychologist and so I am nervous of straying into a field in which I have little expertise. That having been said, this is my current thinking on a topic I am working on in order to help myself out of a very difficult time of life. Therefore I am going to suggest some possibilities. You’ll note that this list mostly contains things from the positive side of fulfilling a need and then later, the negative counterpart of protecting from harm. And for those of you who like this sort of thing — I have organised it as a chiasm. So 1, matches with 10, 2 with 8 and so on.

1. The myth of living stress-free — the pursuit of the unobtainable

David Allen famously advocated a ‘mind like water’, and this has been further clarified as living a life without stress. I’m not sure this is what he was getting at. The point he made was that a stone throne in a pond does create a splash and ripples, but ultimately the pond has processes to deal with this so the ripples subside and stop. Much of the app switching, planning and re-planning we do comes from a sense of not being fully on top of everything. We want to be stress and anxiety free and so we work, to capture everything, organise everything well and keep on top of everything. This is not a bad thing. But, when it becomes a need, it can be toxic. Being late, or forgetting an appointment or a task becomes such a catastrophe in our minds that we HAVE to be on top of everything all of the time or we cannot cope.

Let me say, living stress free is unobtainable if this is how we define it. As mere mortals, we cannot be on top of everything all of the time. So the belief that we should be, and the pursuit of such, can very easily become toxic and harmful.

2. The need to be needed/valuable

This is one we often stray into. We all have a desire to be liked and to be loved. That’s normal. That’s good. Where it becomes a problem is if our need is for others to need us and to be valuable to them. This can lead to us ever striving more and more to prove our worth to those around us. When it becomes a need that is inflated beyond all proportion, it becomes a major source of stress. I’ll conclude this in point 7 below.

3. The need to be the best

This is where the competitive drive comes in and it can also be an extension of the need to be needed. Where we begin to feel we will only be valuable and needed if we are the best at something. Now, expertise is not a bad thing. Nor it is a bad thing to strive to become a specialist. Nor is competition innately bad. The problems begin when we cannot accept ourselves if we are not the best. And so we continually strive to be better and better and to be seen as better and better. And so we live continuingly comparing ourselves to others, continuingly judging ourselves. And it becomes a need that must be met, to the detriment of everything else.

4. Perfectionism

For some of us, being the best just is not good enough. I can think of people I have known working on tasks and projects far beyond what they required, deep into the night day after day, constantly trying to improve their work. But it is never enough. This can also be seen in the desire to have the perfect workflow and productivity system. It has to be perfect in order for us to be stress free. It has to be perfect so we never miss anything and so we never fail. If only I could solve this problem, then it will be perfect. But perfectionism is hungry for eternity. It will never be satisfied in this earthly world we inhabit. And to pursue perfection, whilst often touted as a great weakness to have, can be hugely toxic to ourselves, our health, our families, and the environments we work in.

5. The God Complex.

I’ll say more about this one in my conclusion. But this is the ultimate extension of perfectionism. I have mentioned in a previous post about the stated aim I gave myself for my own productivity system:

A comprehensive system, with a long term view that effectively keeps track of everything coming up, in varying levels of detail and that enables me to clearly and accurately see what I need to do, what others need to do in a proactive way, without overwhelm, with minimal input and management and that does not rely on things being stored in my head.

In trying to set up this system — I failed. Crucially I think the reason for my failure is that I lack the 4 key skills necessary to pull this off. Those being omniscience (being all knowing), omnipresence (being everywhere all at once), omnipotence (being able to accomplish anything I can conceive) and having perfect foresight (being able to know the future without error).

6. The fear of the unknown, especially the unknowable

This idea of perfectionism often stems from fear of the unknown. So our system and our workflow have to be perfect so we do not miss anything, forget anything and are able to keep on top of everything. The presentation needs to be perfect. My calendar always needs to be up to date. The house must be spotless. Every lunch must always have the perfect balance of nutrition, either for my own health or so I can be a perfect parent. Whatever we miss, whatever we forget, that is the thing that could be our downfall. So we work hard to ensure our plans, proposals, presentations, projects and productivity systems are perfect. Because we fear the thing we miss, the thing we haven’t fully considered. We fear it, so we work endlessly to account for it and be prepared for it. We fear it, so we cannot stop thinking about it. And so we cannot rest or relax. We are always ‘on’ and cannot switch off or let our guard down.

7. Overvaluing negative inputs

This one has my name written all over it. Our perfectionism, our fear of the unknown can manifest itself by an over valuing of negative inputs. Whatever they may be. So negative feedback on something, criticism or even our own mistakes that we notice with the benefit of hindsight. For me, the reason why is largely obvious. If 99% is not good enough, then 1% marks the difference between acceptable and not good enough. 1% fault therefore may as well be 100% as far as I am concerned. If we fear the unknown, seek perfection, seek to be the best, or need to be valuable to people, then anything that isn’t good, any failure is unacceptable. Now that is an exaggeration. I have yet to meet someone, myself included, who viewed things this way. But my point stands. The negatives get valued way out of proportion to the positives. This is can be true both in how we value the different types of feedback we get and also in how we give feedback to others. Who among us, in giving feedback, has thought long and hard over what positives we can say because we feel we ought to say something positive before we dive in to list of crits? And because of all this, the mistakes, the errors, the things that could be better, end up being the things we focus on. These are after all the things that we need to change.

8. The fear of failure

We are afraid to fail. I have heard it said so many times, by so many people, that failure is the best teacher. That the most successful people in life are in fact the biggest failures if measured by the number of times they have tried and failed. So much so, that the tag line of a training scheme I was once a part of was ‘make them fail’. The idea being, that the fear of failure a.k.a. being risk averse, is the biggest killer of our potential. Our need to be always productive can be fueled by a fear of failure.

9. The fear of man — or more specifically, rejection by man

And this is where that fear takes us. We fear failure because we fear rejection. Fear of man really boils down to our need for acceptance, or, as stated above, our need to be valued and needed. The flip side of this is a fear of rejection. A fear of having no place. So we work, we strive, we continue to tweak and tinker with our systems. We do so to be noticed and noticeable at work, at home, and across the board. To be seen and known as valuable. All to avoid being cast aside by the very people we are desperate for the acknowledgement and approval of.

10. Stress/Adrenaline addiction

This kind of links to point 1. Whereas some of us work and strive in pursuit of that mythical stress free life, others of us are addicted to stress because of the adrenaline rush. Addicted to being busy. It can tie into all of the others above to a degree. As an aside, one of the most tragic scenarios is where this addiction to being busy, leads us into a life of ‘busy work’. I mean the situation of being always busy, but never productive. Always adding things to list after list but never really the right things. I have worked with people before, worked closely with them, where they were always busy busy busy, but I still cannot work out what they actually did. This busyness makes us feel important, and gives us that false sense of significance that we crave.

So those are some of the reasons where this toxic productivity comes from. Things that fuel that need to constantly be getting things done. That fuel a continual search for ever more efficient and thorough ways of tracking everything. Things that prevent us from switching off, prevent us from truly resting and relaxing. Things that, if we can’t figure out how to stop them, can very easily lead to burnout. But more on this in the next post.

The heart of the matter….

At this point, I always want to ask the question, ‘What is the heart of the matter?’ Well, at least as far as my experience goes, it is having some kind of a god complex. An inability to come to terms with and accept my own weakness and limitations. A desire to exert control over my environment and circumstances that is caused by a fear of anything that is out of my control. And, it is driven by fear that if we cannot be all things, all at once, then we are somehow not good enough, not worth it, and will be found out. We have to be always on, have to be always operating at peak efficiency, and can’t make any mistakes. And so, weakness, limitations, we cannot tolerate. I wonder if any of that resonates with you?

This isn’t about blame. It isn’t about beating ourselves up, which we are all prone to do. I know plenty of people for whom the fear and the need for control of things are very much learned behaviours, taught to them by trauma. But this isn’t about blaming other people either. It’s about recognising the problem we are facing today and seeking to change. To find a better way. I will explain in more detail in post 3 why blame and guilt are not helpful or needed here. But change also how and why change is possible.

External factors in the now will play a part in this. The key one is of course, other people. Now we need to be careful here, as we cannot pin the blame on others for our own issues. But again, it’s about recognition and understanding. You stick a person like me in a room with a narcissist and I can promise you, it is a recipe for disaster. But it is a recipe with two ingredients, not one.

In fact, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that whatever you mix this toxic productivity with, it is a recipe that you do not want to end up with the finished article.

And it is a recipe with a heavy price tag, and it is this that I will turn to examine in my next post.

This is a difficult topic and I am genuinely aiming to be helpful. It would be useful for people to comment their own thoughts on this matter. Both in support of mine and to disagree with anything I have said. Especially if it’s areas where I have communicated badly.



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