Surviving Narcissistic Abuse Blog

Toxic Productivity and Healing

November 8, 2021

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

Twenty years ago I was working for a retail bookstore that consulted with a company to increase employee productivity. They streamlined how we completed store tasks. “Touch a book once,” remains a thought in my head on a daily basis--when I’m running errands, cleaning my house, getting out of my car, and even guiding my child. This focus on efficiency toward increased productivity to make every minute of every day count has become a chronic condition.

I’ve observed a downward trend of people doing things that are enjoyable without a purpose other than enjoyment—puzzles, books, and artwork. In place, people seem to be working harder or engaging in distractions that overstimulate our brains without enhancing a 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 something outside the self. 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.” Does this mean we feel unworthy when we engage in activities that do not contribute? It seems so, since we tend to label ourselves (and others) as selfish and experience discomfort or even guilt when we get downtime. More and more people are unsure what to do with 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 emotional outbursts and other "crap," 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. Distractions delay healing and increase the likelihood we will blow our emotional debris around the environments we hold most important without regard for the relationships that will suffer.

How to notice you are suffering from toxic productivity:

  • checking your emails/work apps before bed and/or upon waking

  • eating while working

  • viewing enjoyable activities as inconveniences

  • justifying activities that seem unproductive

  • struggling to adapt to changes in plans

  • increased irritability

Tips to combat toxic productivity:

  • Put technology away when involved in other activities (and your attached watch on airplane mode)

  • Do one thing at a time

  • Clear ALL phone notifications related to work, rather have a work schedule for checking email and other work-related apps

  • Eat at the dinner table

  • Develop a hobby, or several

  • Read an hour before bed (something not work-related)

  • Workout/move daily

  • Use mindfulness

  • Do nothing at all 😉

Treat yourself as you would want emotionally significant others to treat you.

Wiitten by Michelle A. Minette, MA, CHLC