fbpx The Warning Signs of Toxic Productivity

Mental Health - Depression and Anxiety | September 20, 2022, 6:00 CDT

The Warning Signs of Toxic Productivity
If you connect productivity to your self-esteem, your mental and sexual health may suffer.
Anna Herod

Written by

Anna Herod
A man stares at a collection of post-it notes placed on a wall at work.

The pressure to be productive in all aspects of life—including your sex life—can feel pervasive.

Even when you're at peak productivity, there's often a lingering sense you should somehow be doing more—despite working over capacity already. And when you take a well-earned vacation day, you may think lying on the couch and catching up on your favorite Netflix series is a waste of time, despite the fact that rest and relaxation are what your body needs.

Feeling that you're constantly failing to meet the arbitrary benchmark of "productive enough" can sometimes lead to low self-esteem and mental and physical burnout.

"Living or working in an environment where someone's value is based on how much they can contribute usually leads to overwork, shame and burnout, by creating the unhealthy expectation that we should be productive at all times," said Anna Clark-Miller, a licensed professional counselor at Dallas Therapy Collective who also owns a consulting business that offers training in areas such as maintaining mental health at work.

Clark-Miller said many of her clients who say they feel insecure about their productivity have unrealistic expectations of themselves, a situation that only reinforces a sense of inadequacy.

"Whenever we try to meet superhuman expectations, we will end up feeling like a failure, not because we've failed but because perfection was never a realistic goal to begin with," she explained. "While setting goals and deadlines can be good tools for motivation, they become problematic when the expectations don't allow us to be normal, breathing human beings."

Evaluating your definition of productivity

Productivity can be a great motivator when it means you're able to consistently complete tasks you consider vital. The problems arise when what we deem as acceptable productivity isn't realistically possible.

"We experience pressure to be productive from a lot of sources, including family, friends,

significant others, supervisors, society and even ourselves," said Kylie Sligar, a clinical psychologist in Dallas who specializes in working with people who have experienced trauma. "This high level of pressure to be constantly producing can lead to negative self-talk when we are not performing how we expect to be. Often, our self-worth gets tied up with our ability to be productive, which can get harmful really quick."

Negative self-talk may include telling yourself you're lazy or a failure because you haven't been productive. Sligar explained that once a toxic view of your relationship to productivity sets in and begins to damage your self-worth, you become more likely to experience burnout, anxiety and/or depression.

The pressure to be unrealistically productive can be pervasive, as can the effects of that pressure. Experts indicate that when individuals have mental health struggles such as anxiety or depression, their personal relationships—particularly romantic and intimate ones—suffer. In treating these conditions and their root causes, you can significantly benefit all areas of your life, including your sexual health.

Practical tips for reframing

When the pressure to be productive feels a little intense, it might be time to shift your outlook, Clark-Miller explained.

"When you start to feel guilt, shame or dread about your to-do list, working harder isn't the solution," she said. "Rather, it might be your body's way of letting you know that something has gotten out of balance and needs attention. A good place to start is with a self-inventory of your physical, emotional and spiritual needs."

To take a self-inventory of your needs, it's helpful to assess what you've been pouring your time and effort into each day. It's also important to think about what you're missing and to ask yourself if you have a healthy balance between work and play, action and rest, routine and variety. Finally, you should think about how you might reprioritize your mental and physical health needs.

"The good news is that the more that you practice self-care, the easier it will be for your brain to focus on productivity when the time is right," Clark-Miller said.

Sligar recommended five tips for building a healthier relationship with the idea of productivity:

1. Get curious about the role productivity plays in your life

Sligar recommended asking yourself the following questions:

  • How important is productivity in your life?
  • What does being productive mean to you?
  • What are your beliefs about rest and play?
  • Where did you learn these beliefs?

2. Set boundaries with yourself and others

"Our time and energy are some of our most valuable resources and there is not an unlimited supply; use yours intentionally," Sligar said. "If this is an area you need more help with, I highly recommend the book 'Set Boundaries, Find Peace,' by Nedra Glover Tawwab."

3. Clarify your values

Sligar suggested asking yourself the following questions to help bring your values into focus:

  • What gives your life meaning?
  • When are you the most joyful?
  • What are you doing when you feel this way?

Use your values to guide your decisions related to balancing productivity with rest and play.

4. Be kind to yourself

"Monitor your negative self-talk and correct it in the moment," Sligar said. "Tearing yourself down is not making you more productive, but quite the opposite. Talk to yourself as you would to someone you respect and love."

5. Be patient

"A lot of us have been stuck in ways of producing and [in] patterns of negative self-talk for the majority of our lives," Sligar explained. "These things do not change over time. Stay committed and give yourself the space to make mistakes."

Society has a long history of pushing the pressure to be hyperproductive at all times, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon. But experts say changing the way you engage with pressure and how you judge your own success can have positive effects on your mental health.

"There is no template or quick fix to this," Sligar said. "Everyone must do their own work to create what type of relationship with productivity works best for them and their lives."

Anna Herod

Written by

Anna Herod

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