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  • Writer's pictureEaston Gaines, MSEd, PsyD

Toxic Productivity: What to do when it never feels like enough

Do you feel like you keep doing more but never do enough? You may be caught in a cycle of toxic productivity. It can be an easy trap to fall into as, often, it assists in achieving our self-imposed goals.

“i have this productivity anxiety that everyone else is working harder than me and i’m going to be left behind cause i’m not working fast enough long enough and i’m wasting my time” - Rupi Kapur

Thoughts that we aren’t doing/being "enough" can drive us to act in ways that don’t align with our values. We may subconsciously keep ourselves busy by compulsively working in order to avoid dealing with issues in our current reality.

Being productive is not good or bad. In fact, doing things, especially when they are aligned with our values, is quite fulfilling. But when productivity is driven by our mind's rules and "shoulds," it is a good indication that productivity has turned toxic.

It’s understandable that we get caught in overdoing.

Evolutionarily, our brains are designed to shift into "go" mode when it thinks we don’t have enough resources and need to compete for scarce goods (food, shelter, a partner). Our modern society (social media, our education system) floods our drive system with messages that we could be doing more or might fall behind.

How to get unstuck

To step off the toxic productivity treadmill, it helps to recognize that you are stuck – and that your attempts to be “productive” are pulling you in directions that are unhelpful for where you wish to go.

First, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. When you feel like you aren’t doing enough, what do you do?

  2. How is this working for you?

  3. What are the costs?

Second, recognize your thoughts are not facts.

Your mind is an expert at producing thoughts - it does this all day long. Thoughts can influence our behavior. Once you begin to notice the unworkability of certain thoughts, you can practice defusing them with this simple exercise:

  1. Name it: Label your toxic productivity thoughts. "That is my doing mind wanting me to do more."

  2. Normalize it: Given the world we live in, this thought makes sense. Thank you, mind. I get it, it makes sense you would have that thought.

  3. Nevermind it: Is this thought working for me to build the life I want? If not, nevermind your mind!

Next, allow and accept toxic productivity.

If you are used to doing things to mollify feelings that you aren’t enough or to please people, stopping this cycle is likely to not feel very good (e.g., an extinction burst). When you stop making yourself “feel better” by doing more, the thoughts and feelings might rise to the surface.

They might sound like:

  • I feel anxious when I am still

  • I feel afraid there is not enough

  • I feel sad that I am not where or who I “should” be

  • I feel scared that I am going to be forgotten

  • I feel alone and long for people to see my value

  • I feel guilty when I take time off

  • I feel shame that I am not enough

Practice acceptance of these feelings by allowing yourself to FEEL the guilt, shame, fear, anxiety when without acting to get rid of it. Notice your experience in your body, make space for it, open up and allow it. Check out this talk and meditation for more.

To transform productivity anxiety into flexible productivity:

Choose “doing” when it links to your values

Follow your intrinsic pull toward what you love

Attune and respond to your body’s needs

Stay present while you move in directions that matter to you

Pursue wholesome purposes

See yourself as a process, not a product

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