Toxic Productivity

Toxic Productivity and Perfectionism

When was the last time you put together a puzzle? Created art…just to create art? Read a book for entertainment? Let me add, when was the last time you did any of these things free of guilt?

Twenty years ago I was working for a retail bookstore. After consulting with a company focused on increasing employee productivity, they put in place a new operating system to streamline the operations of the store. “Touch a book once,” remains in my head as a phrase I hear often, despite the passing of time. When I’m headed to my basement, cleaning my house, getting out of my car, and even guiding my child.

Among both clients and friends, I’ve observed a downward trend of engaging in behaviors that are enjoyable while engaging different areas of the brain—puzzles, books, and artwork. In place, people seem to be engaging in distractions that overstimulate our brains without enhancing skill, and often two at once. How many of you stream shows while playing games on an app?

While enjoyable behaviors appear to be decreasing, focus on productivity outside businesses seems to be increasing. Friends and clients complain about feeling lazy or even guilty if they are engaging in behaviors not considered productive, which seems to be defined as tasks that contribute to earning money or on which others rely, such as household chores. Even my creative friends who produce crafts or artwork are often encouraged to sell their items as if making money changes the time from wasted to worthwhile.

In a March 2021 interview on the topic of “toxic productivity,” Dr. Joanne Barron said, “Many of us have been raised in this culture and have learned that our self-worth is only based on what we do, not just our intrinsic value as humans.” This translates to feeling unworthy as a human being when we engage in activities that do not contribute, hence feeling selfish and guilty when we get downtime, or worse, not knowing how to use downtime.

Down time, not distracted time, is extremely important for our brain. According to Ferris Jabr (2013), after researching the topic almost ten years ago, “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.” When we engage in downtime activities we are resetting/refreshing our brains. In a way, we are turning off some brain processes and activities to focus on other brain processes and activities that will enhance the brain processes and activities that are taking a break. For example, have you ever tried to continue to vacuum when your vacuum cannister is full? Continuing to “be productive” beyond our abilities leads to a loss of information and the spilling over of moods and other crap all around us, much like a full vacuum canister. We actually become not just unproductive, but counterproductive.

Why are video games, streaming shows, and playing apps not effective? They are mere distractions. It’s similar to putting the vacuum away with a full container and then using it again without emptying the cannister. A distraction is unable to refresh the brain.

How to notice you are suffering from toxic productivity:

  • You check your emails/work apps before bed and/or upon waking
  • You eat while working
  • Enjoyable activities become interferences
  • You struggle to adapt to changes in plans
  • You are more irritable

Tips to combat toxic productivity:

  • Technology
    • Put the phone down (and put your watch on airplane mode) when in social/family situations
      • Meals
      • Riding in the car
      • When in the presence of others
      • Watching television
    • Clear ALL notifications related to work, rather have a work schedule for checking email and other work-related apps
  • Eat at the dinner table
  • Have a family/friend game night (not electronic)
  • Have art/science/outdoor activities regularly planned
  • Read an hour before bed (something not work-related or crisis-related)
  • Work out/move daily
  • Use mindfulness
  • Do nothing at all 😉


Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime – Scientific American

Discussing The Harms Of Toxic Productivity With An Expert Psychologist – GREY Journal

10 WARNING Signs You Definitely Need A Break (

Need a Break? 52 Ways to Do It–When You Need It Most |


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Disclaimer: This content is intended for educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for mental health or medical treatment. It is important for those with clinical and medical diagnoses to receive the appropriate treatment from trusted and trained practitioners.