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3 Tips for Overcoming Toxic Productivity in Work Life

Published:
February 19, 2024
February 19, 2024
Learn how one woman overcame toxic productivity to refocus her life on family and friends.

Throughout my life, work has always been a source of solace. My mother battled both leukemia and breast cancer when I was a child, and she often received treatments in other states. Similarly, my father had a severe chronic illness that made it hard for him to be fully present in our home life. As a child, I realized that while I couldn't control much in my environment, schoolwork would always be a constant. In working to achieve high marks, I could forget my troubles at home and concentrate on the facets of life I could control. No doubt, associating work with comfort contributed to my decision to pursue a PhD and become an English professor. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, I felt helpless and destabilized in ways reminiscent of my childhood. While others focused on hobbies like baking bread, I immersed myself in work — attending trainings, scheduling meetings, and transitioning my courses to online formats replete with bells and whistles. Moreover, rather than scaling back in other areas, I joined more committees, read more, published more, and acquired more skills — all while homeschooling my two young children. Accomplishing tasks and feeling in control became my driving force: work was my first line pandemic response.

In March 2021, I had an epiphany. During an intense period of organizing a large, campus-wide initiative, I remained on Zoom from morning till night for a few weeks straight, even answering emails between sessions. One night at bedtime, my five-year-old daughter pointed out that I hadn't been present for her in the last few weeks, despite being in the same house. It dawned on me, as I was staring into her tear-filled eyes and telling her I’d find time for her later, that, if I were to be honest with myself, I had attended my most recent late-night Zoom meeting simply to feel accomplished. In reality, that meeting could have succeeded without me. The time with my daughter I could never get back, though. I realized my relentless pursuit of productivity was driven by my need to prove myself in the face of the pandemic's challenges, and I was hurting others in the process. My relationship with work had become toxic.

I discussed my realization with a counselor and together, we worked on a new to-do list for my life that focused on removing tasks rather than adding them. I reflected on my values and identified toxic productivity as the culprit. Toxic productivity occurs when a person assesses their self-worth based on work output. While I would say to others that I valued my family over my job, my work increasingly took precedence over them, especially during the pandemic’s start. I always found time for teaching and lesson planning. Play, rest, worship, exercising, and connecting with friends were luxuries I couldn’t seem to afford myself. I felt guilty if I wasn’t constantly working. Only through checking off tasks on my ever ballooning to-do list did I feel valuable. It was clear I needed to change.

Recognizing my toxic relationship with work was a major first step, but overcoming its stranglehold on my life has taken time. Now that I know that I suffer from this inclination to work when stressed, I often reassess my values and evaluate how they align with my workload. 

Here are some tips I use to battle toxic productivity and maintain well-being:

  1. Create a list of your highest values and aspirations.

Assess how much time you actually spend on activities that fulfill these values. Adjust your schedule to prioritize activities that you care about such as play and rest. Delete unnecessary work items as you add enjoyable ones.

  1. Take breaks from the computer and spend time outdoors.

Disconnecting from work and immersing yourself in nature can help you remember that there's more to life than the screen and its attendant pull to accomplish seemingly never-ending tasks. Use moments away from screens to reconnect with your values through meditation, prayer, or journaling.

  1. Prioritize relationships by reaching out to family and friends you've been putting off.

Don't treat spending time with loved ones as a reward for finishing work. Recognize that relationships are essential for your well-being and make time for them regardless of how busy you may feel you are.

Recently, as I was doing dishes, my now seven-year-old daughter and I discussed the end of the spring 2023 semester. I apologized for being busy, but she assured me she didn’t feel lonely in the way she had during the height of the pandemic. We were connected still: I was simply busy. My young daughter understood the difference between a time of increased busyness and being toxically productive — even when I did not. Her affirmation of feeling connected filled my heart with joy, contrasting totally with the feelings I had two years earlier when I’d encountered her tearful, lonely face. Significantly, my relationship with work, and my family and friends, has altered dramatically since I recognized my struggle with toxic productivity. Even during my busiest times, I make sure to schedule quality time with those I love. There will always be more work — time with family and friends is finite. It is when we aspire to fulfill our core sense of values day in and day out that we can enjoy a life well-lived.

As a Catholic convert, Mother Teresa's approach to work has always resonated with me. Thus I end with her wisdom. "Work without love is slavery," she once said. For those of us who have struggled with toxic productivity, it is important to remember that the purpose of work should not be about personal accomplishment. If it is, then the work we do — no matter what type it is — loses its inherent goodness. Mother Teresea’s words can serve as a litmus test, based on love, to evaluate how we are comporting our work lives. Are we driven by love and freedom, or by fear and enslavement? If our work lacks love, if it lacks a gaze toward others, it is a breeding ground for toxic productivity. As such, we, and those we care about, lose out on the love our work ought to take into the world to transform it — and us — for the better.

Creators:
LuElla D'Amico
Published:
February 19, 2024
February 19, 2024
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