There is a fine line between what is good for us and what isn’t. In a society that glorifies output, and within the current comparison era of social media, the ‘keeping up with the neighbours’ mindset is heightening. This has led to a rise in ‘toxic productivity’ and it’s having a negative impact on our mental health, during what is already a sensitive time; a global lockdown.

For most of us, we’ve found ourselves on furlough, out of work, or sticking with an unhealthy job due to needing to pay the bills. The novelty wears off, and we’re left with the uneasy sense that we should be doing ‘something’ with our life.

We’ve grown up embedded in a society that glorifies work and productivity. Watching our efficiency and output are eagle-eyed managers, as though we’re emotionless robots on the ever-revolving supply chain wheel.

A blip in output leads productivity experts to become involved, problem-solving, and troubleshooting their way into being the answer, despite the employers being the true driving force within the machine.

Now, don’t get me wrong, productivity is important, and working smarter (not harder) will produce results. Yes, we’re paid a wage for a reason and even if you look at it on a transactional basis, we have to deliver in return for pound sterling each month.

Yet the key is; we’re not emotionless.

We’re creatures of emotion. We think, feel, and hurt, with repercussions of each leaving their own impact on our health. It’s almost expected that we trade some of our wellbeing for work productivity. But we have to relearn the correct balance.

Making this harder is a complete global shutdown. Whether through necessity, or boredom, many have begun side projects and ventures. This is to ease the invisible burden of non-productivity, a bad habit we have learnt through our professional conditioning. It’s exacerbated when you see others beginning their own race on social media, parading that they’re ‘doing something they love’, which is how the comparison mindset kicks in. “

They’re doing this, so-and-so is doing that, I should be as well.”

Before you know it, you’re forcing yourself into a race you don’t want to compete in. But remember, behind the scenes, they’re overcoming their own personal struggles as well.

We’re in a global lockdown. Everyone is under a level of stress not seen before in our lifetime. Surviving, self-care, and wellbeing are more important than any level of output currently, and you should never, ever feel bad for prioritising yourself.

If you’re out of balance, and productivity is coming before your health, friendships, and relationships, you’ve leaned too far towards toxic productivity.


What is toxic productivity and what are the signs of it?

Toxic productivity is putting your work output above your health and/or relationships.

Focusing on toxic, it is defined as “causing unpleasant feelings; harmful or malicious”. If you’re having these feelings due to whichever medium you’re committing your mind to, then your balance is off. In whichever work it may be, you’ve tipped out of sync and your mind and body are trying to tell you that with several signals. As sore muscles need rest to grow, a fragile mind needs the same.

Overworking the mind leads to stress, and you can only begin to produce results again when it is safe to do so.


A man unhappily sat on a wall, questioning his day.
Photo by whoislimos on Unsplash

Some signs of toxic productivity can be:


  • It’s having an effect on your mental health

Without putting a finger on it, you know.

Whether that manifests itself as anxiety, restlessness, or depression, you feel an undeniable weight on your mental health. Yet, you continue to work, which contributes to the downward trend further.

It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be broken.


  • Harming your friendships and relationships

You’re already in a pressured environment of a lockdown, and even so, you find yourself focusing more on the anxiety created by work than focusing on those who matter.

You may feel like you’re retreating into your shell, as ‘others don’t understand’. By doing so, you’re alienating those close to you, who you need to remember will have their own way of dealing with this situation too.

It’s a dangerous route to go down, as in the current climate, we need each other more than ever.


  • Burning out

You feel that your energy is dwindling, your mind feels full and you’re wondering how to keep it up.

Once you’ve finished what you’re working on, you don’t want to do or say a thing.


If any of these sound familiar because of how you’re working, it’s likely to be a sign of toxic productivity. If these are true for you, it’s time you put you first.


How to overcome toxic productivity

A person relaxing with a cup of tea and reading a book.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Although I’ve laid out some steps below, they are my techniques for the race I’m running.

You are your own person, with individual drives and a complex web of emotions, intertwined within a unique situation. Use them as a rough guide, sure, but toxic productivity thrives on stopping you from being who you want to be.

Adapt as necessary.

Do you.


Acknowledge your feelings

Burying them, or pretending they’re not there, will do you no good.

Such suppression of feelings can lead to serious consequences, whereas acknowledging them allows you to ask the correct questions of yourself. The answers you get back can inform how you move forward from there.

Deep down, if you feel you’re being productive just for the sake of it and it’s affecting you, listen to yourself.

As soon as you know, you can adjust your lifestyle as necessary.


Find where your balance currently is and accept it moves

Life isn’t always equal. It’s not always easy and it sure as hell isn’t always straightforward.

Sometimes, some weeks or some months, you may be surging ahead, achieving, and being happy with it.

Suddenly, you’re hit with an overwhelming barrier, a plateau of which you can’t climb.

Do not ever feel bad for this; life isn’t a line on a constant upward trajectory. You’ll hit bumps in the road and sometimes you’ve got to alter your speed or course. In these moments, trying to push through at the same rate will do more harm than good.

If you need to take your foot off the gas and work on you, so be it. This might not mean stop altogether, but to assess how you can continue to move forward, be productive, yet without it taking its toll on you.

Such a reset can set you back up for success when you’re ready.


Remember it’s about you, so ditch the comparisons

This doesn’t need to become complicated. Avoid the social media comparison mindset, it should bear no mark on your life, neither should it.

Like getting fit, this is not a sprint against others, though nor is it a marathon. This is your life and a challenge only against yourself. Comparisons do no good.

If I feel my differential tipping out of a balance, I go for a walk around the docks near where I live, come back and then watch episodes on Netflix. For you, you may love drawing or seeing friends.

Whatever brings you genuine happiness is your tool for success.

Who cares what others are doing and where they are in their own race. Just focus on being well and on the lane in front of you.


Set realistic goals

Sure, you can push yourself to achieve more.

There’s nothing wrong with being the right kind of productive. But when you’re putting a level of pressure on yourself to achieve results which then unbalance you, you are out of sync with your capacity, or not giving yourself enough self-care.

Again, assessing your balance will allow you to see how you feel and how to set your vision moving forwards.


Work on you

As you would train your body to run, you need to train your mind for the challenges it will face.

Meditation, even at a beginner level, allows you to learn things about yourself that you wouldn’t hear over the rumble of everyday life.

Working on your self-talk and developing a self-care routine puts you front and centre. This means you can create a solid personal and emotional base, on which you can then build positive productivity from there.


Take your time

Put yourself first. There isn’t a timeframe on that.


This article took at least a week to write. Normally, I could throw 1500 words out in two hours. I had created my plan and I knew what I wanted to cover. I have targets in regards to my own writing and how much I want to do each week.

Yet, a lot of personal things hit me all at once. If I forced myself to write this purely because “I have to do it”, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, nor would it have been my best work. On top of that, the personal issues would then snowball into a bigger mess than they need to be. Toxic productivity at it’s finest.

I needed a step back and a few relaxing days of doing close to nothing. I’ve now finished writing this piece from a place where I’ve genuinely enjoyed doing so, and no doubt created better work than if I “churned it out”.

Learning not to beat yourself up over putting yourself first is something everyone could do with learning.

Sometimes we need it and it does not affect your drive or motivation to succeed in life. Your decisions will have no impact on other people’s races, as theirs will have no outcome on yours.

Slow it down, recuperate and then focus on bettering yourself again, but only when you’re ready to do so.


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