For most of us, “productivity” is something positive, desirable, even healthy—especially when it comes to work.
But productivity also has a dark side, which I’ve been experiencing more and more recently.
Perhaps you have too, but maybe you don’t even realize it. Toxic Productivity is so insidious, it often goes unchecked for long periods. It tends to appear most in times of stress, which we (collectively, as a society) are currently enduring in extreme quantities.
If you want to learn how to work effectively while under stress, you first need to understand what Toxic Productivity is and how to avoid it. Here’s a quick introduction to the idea, in case it’s new for you.
Think of productivity as a spectrum. In the middle, you have “healthy” productivity. This is where you’re working hard, getting things done, feeling satisfied and accomplished at the end of the day. In this state, you’re thriving.
But, if you go too far to either end of the spectrum, your healthy productivity turns toxic, and this is what tends to happen during times of stress.
Right now, for example, we’re all experiencing something brand new—a global pandemic—and our lives have changed dramatically as a result. Many of us are consumed by worry for the future; financial, health, and family concerns dominate our mental landscape.
And yet, many of us are also expected to work during this time. So, while we have all of this natural emotion about the current situation, we also have the nagging belief that we still need to be productive.
So, we tend to go in one direction or the other. Some of us go FULL FORCE into productivity. We use work as a distraction from everything else going on. It becomes an excuse to avoid dealing with reality. We bury ourselves in projects and to-do lists as a way of escaping our feelings. Generally, the work we produce isn’t especially high quality, but it’s quantity we’re after. The more we do, the less we have to deal with the true cause of our stress. It’s still there; it’s just temporarily hidden.
Of course, some of us go in the opposite direction. Our feelings are so overwhelming, we’re unable to focus long enough to do much of anything. Often, we bounce back and forth between tasks, trying desperately to get something—anything!—done, but struggling every step of the way. And the worst part is, we waste the majority of our energy beating ourselves up. The less we get done, the worse we feel, and the harder it becomes to get anything done. It’s a toxic, vicious cycle.
In times of stress, most of us end up on one end of the spectrum or the other. Both are equally detrimental: Either your work is overshadowing your feelings, or your feelings are overshadowing your work.
Healthy productivity exists right in the middle. It’s balanced. You’re paying attention to your feelings and your work—you’re giving them both the attention they deserve, but neither gets ALL the attention.
It’s healthy because both things matter. Your feelings are important, especially in times of stress. If you just bury them and pretend they don’t exist, they’re likely to come out sideways at some point—and that’s when we do things we later regret.
But work is important too. In the right dose, it can, indeed, be a positive distraction. Plus, for most people, work supports your livelihood. If you don’t take care of those responsibilities, you’re just adding to your stress.
So, the question then becomes: How do we avoid the toxic ends of the spectrum? How do we continue to work in a healthy, productive way even while under stress?
My solution is pretty simple: I try to stay aware of my place on the spectrum each day, and I consciously aim for the middle.
When I’m feeling especially inspired to get things done, I go for it. But I don’t let it consume me. I still take walks, call friends, and check in with myself throughout the day. I’m able to get a lot done, but I also feel steady and stable—not manic.
When I’m feeling uninspired and just want to wallow in fear and anxiety, I push myself to do a little work anyway. If I can’t do much, I don’t dwell. I give myself permission to try again tomorrow. But often, a little work feels good, and so I do a little more.
I don’t always strike the perfect balance, but I find that trying to do so is rewarding enough. It gets me closer to the middle than I ever would be otherwise.
This concept is especially applicable right now, in the midst of social distancing and everything that comes with it. But it’s something I think we can all use moving forward as well. After all, stress is inevitable. We’re experiencing a heavy dose of it right now, and we’re also learning important tools for managing it moving forward.