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Toxic Productivity: What It Is, How It Holds You Back, and What You Can Do Instead

Debbie Peterson, President and Keynote Speaker of Getting to Clarity, LLC. provides tips on how to handle toxic productivity.

By Debbie Peterson, President and Keynote Speaker, Getting to Clarity, LLC

Debbie Peterson is a certified Trainer of NLP at the Master Practitioner level through the Association of Integrative Psychology. Over the past 10 years, she has presented to thousands of employees, leaders, and clients at various sized companies and organizations. Debbie presented a powerful session, From Frustrated to Focused: Mindset Strategies for Career and Business Growth, this past March at Forum sur le leadership des femmes de l'IAEE. Here, Debbie shares valuable information about toxic productivity: what it is, signs to look for and how to make the changes that will help you achieve clarity.

Do you feel like you are always busy but not getting anything done?

If so, you may be experiencing toxic productivity. This is a common problem for people in leadership positions, especially women because we have so much going on. It can hold you back from achieving the impact you want to make and the influence you want to have in your leadership and life. In this article, I will paint the picture of what toxic productivity is and what you can do about it.

Toxic productivity is the idea that we should be productive all the time and that any downtime is wasted time. This toxic mindset can lead us to push ourselves too hard, often leading to burnout. It can also cause us to focus on quantity over quality mindset, and then we aren’t showing up the way we want to. Toxic productivity makes us feel like we are not doing enough, even when we are working around the clock, and that’s where we get trapped.

Essentially, it’s high-functioning on steroids, and with the normalization of remote work, it’s only gotten more prevalent.

The problem with toxic productivity is that it is not sustainable. We cannot keep up that level of intensity forever, and eventually, it will catch up with us. That is why it is so important to find ways to reduce toxic types of productivity in our leadership and our lives.

How do you know if you have it? Here are some defining markers of toxic productivity.

You feel you have failed if you haven’t gotten the entire list accomplished, even if you know the list was unreasonable, to begin with. You always think you could have done more.

You feel like a slacker if you take any time for yourself because you feel you should be doing something. Ever tell yourself you’ll rest when you’re dead?

You may be fatigued because you’ve been running at an unsustainable pace. You know you have too much going on but don’t know how to stop.

You define yourself as a workaholic, maybe even with a chuckle, but deep down, you’re serious.

You can’t switch it off at the end of the day. The phone doesn’t stay put away, calls happen in the evening during family time, and your brain wakes you up in the middle of the night to remind you of all you have going on.

Work is more important than eating or self-care, and you’re starting to skip meals and workouts.

If you’re reading this and thinking, yep, yep, and yep, here are five tips to help get toxic productivity under control in your life:

The first tip is to sit down and figure out what is really important to you.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but so many of us go through life on autopilot without taking the time to think about what we really want.  What area of life is most important to you right now? If it’s your career, that’s great, but if it’s family or health and fitness and those two areas are at the bottom of your list, that’s important to know and recognize. Your job is not to focus on everything but the most important aspects of life for you at this moment because as your life changes, so do your priorities. Also, the world will continue to spin without your constant supervision. I know, that was a tough one for me to learn too! So let go or loosen your grip on the things that aren’t a priority.

The second tip is to set clear boundaries between work time and personal time.

So how do you set these boundaries? First, you need to be clear about your priorities and communicate them to the people in your life. This is where toxic productivity can creep in when we try to do everything and be everything to everyone. Be honest with yourself about what is realistic and what isn’t, and don’t be afraid to say no to things that aren’t a priority. Ultimately, we teach people how to treat us, and if people are walking over us, then somewhere, we have some boundaries to reinforce, maybe even with a tough conversation to go with it. So put away the phone, block out the calendar, and say no.

The third tip is to make yourself take breaks.

Taking a break seems like it wouldn’t make much of an impact, but it’s the consistency you do it. Set a timer on your phone or watch to get up and walk away. Moving your body, even if it’s just walking to another part of the house or office, signals to your body and mind that the pattern has been interrupted, and you get to reset. Doing this allows you to come back to your work with fresh eyes and gives you a bit of a recharge. It also gives you the distance to see things from a different perspective. Gamify it if you have to. Any day that you take 2 or 3 breaks, you get a prize!

The fourth tip is to set an intention for your day.

What is the best outcome you could have today? What would be a successful day on your terms? Just thinking about this at the beginning of the day gives instructions to your mind to say, “this is what I want to find.” It gives you guidance on what to say yes to and when to say no. You might even want to create a list of what is most important to accomplish – but no more than 3 “doable” things. Take some quiet time in the morning and take control by saying what is important to you because either you are influencing your day or you’re giving permission to other people and things to exert their influence over you.

The fifth and final tip is to pursue joy and happiness!

What brings you joy? What makes you happy? Do you know? Build time into your day and your week to do the things that put a smile on your face. No one will do it for you if you don’t do it for yourself. And keep in mind that it’s not selfish to prioritize your joy or happiness; it’s necessary. You cannot give from an empty cup. Fill yours up first so that you can be overflowing with the energy required for when others need it, which is frequently, right?

So, what will it be? Music in the car? Meditation in the morning? A walk at lunchtime? Turning off the phone at the end of the workday? You get to decide because joy and happiness is an inside job. No one can define it for you.

To distinguish between joy and happiness, Brene Brown says, “Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience.” And I wholeheartedly agree. Joy is not happiness – happiness is what we feel when things are going our way. But joy… joy is something different entirely. It’s that deep sense of contentment and satisfaction that comes from living a life that feels purposeful and meaningful to us. It’s an emotion that comes from within, not from our circumstances.

I hope that this article has brought an awareness of what toxic productivity is and whether you are falling into its trap. This awareness is the first step to changing your mind and getting the Clarity and the joy you deserve!

A propos de l'auteur

Debbie Peterson runs a speaking and coaching business to help her audiences and clients develop a focused mindset for fulfilling professional results by harnessing the power of their thoughts. She is the creator of the “Career Clarity Mastermind” and “The Way Forward in Leadership and Life Mastery Program” for women leaders and emerging leaders who want to create next-level success without sacrifice. In addition, she is a professional member of the National Speakers Association, Women’s Speakers Association, and an author with her book, Clarity: How Smart Professionals Create Career Success on Their Terms. Find out more about Debbie at

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