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When Doing is Your Undoing: Toxic Productivity

Why doing less is often more efficient—and healthy.

Key points

  • The need to constantly "do" can turn toxic and is often ineffectual and unproductive.
  • Cultures of toxic productivity exist—in countries, organizations, and within ourselves.
  • Taking time to reflect and decide on a course of action is better than reacting and "doing" mindlessly.
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Source: Prettyvectors/123rf

Always busy "doing" things? If so, you may be suffering from "toxic productivity," a destructive rather than productive behavior.

I imagine you’re thinking, "Productivity is good, right? What could possibly be toxic about getting things done?" But toxic productivity, in contrast with regular productivity, is an obsessive need to always be productive, regardless of the cost to your health, relationships, and life.

Another term that you might hear for this is "action bias" or "doing bias." If you’re driven to continuously "produce" or "do" things, whether at work or at home, the results are frequently not your best—they're usually delivered instantaneously and without sufficient forethought, analysis, planning or reflection. And if, in the doing, you’re also exhausted and burned out—or feeling guilty for not doing more or better—you are very likely suffering from this action bias and/or toxic productivity.

Often, I see coaching clients who have a challenge in front of them, and their first impulse is to do something, at once. Anything. They don't want to sit with the problem, they don't want to think about it, they don't want to spend time in the diagnostic phase, nor do they want to take time to reflect on any options for action. All they want to do is hear what the issue is—sometimes without even fully understanding it—and then quickly get straight on with the "doing." Whatever their reason, these clients, like many people, just want to get on and "do"—even if this means giving a knee-jerk reaction that gets poorer results.

Why Do You Do What You Do?

There are all sorts of reasons for this toxic productivity.

Number one is that "doing" often feels more comfortable than "not doing." There's often a personal or cultural bias for "doing"—a firm belief that action speaks louder than words, that it’s a virtue to act fast, or there’s a need to conform to the national work ethic. This is something that transcends job role or career level. In the workplace, leaders want to demonstrate that they are successful, which they usually equate with being productive. There is also a competitive culture amongst junior staff wanting to stand out as keen, hard workers in order to progress in their careers. And thus, a culture of toxic productivity can develop throughout an organisation.

You only have to Google "work-life balance" to see how pervasive this problem is. While the pandemic has led to more people working from home, increased use of technology means that it’s hard to switch off from work when emails, texts, and work are available to us wherever we are, 24/7.

The pandemic, especially, seemed to encourage this toxic productivity. Despite people having more free time due to quarantine, working from home (no commuting time!), furlough, or job loss; many felt they had to double their efforts and be seen "doing" more. This drive was underlined by self-imposed expectations of working from home (a need to prove themselves) as well as social media bombardment about learning new languages, baking bread, holding events by Zoom, or getting fit. Instead of slowing the pace and taking tock, there appears to be a need to "do"—and often, to also demonstrate publicly how much you’re doing.

Psychologist Kathryn Esquer, founder of the Teletherapist Network, says, “We could have used our free time to rest, recharge, and restore ourselves, but many of us filled those hours with more work as a way to feel worthy, fulfilled, and in control.”

And what’s more, doing "enough" is never enough for people who fall into the toxic productivity trap. Such people are never satisfied—they could always have done more, or done things better. And this dissatisfaction is accompanied by guilt.

What’s more, research has shown that embracing a culture of "busyness" actually wrecks productivity, separates us from our families and prevents us from developing deeper relationships with work colleagues.

What to Do About Doing?

Toxic productivity can be very unhealthy and destructive to our lives. And so the moral of this story is: Fight this bias, just as you would do with any other implicit bias you hold and act upon.

How do you do this?

When faced with an issue, problem or challenge slow yourself down and:

  • Give yourself permission to discern. Not everything needs to be tended to or resolved immediately by you. In fact, we don’t always have to be the one to intervene even if it feels like we are the ones who need to intervene. Ask yourself: What is the worst thing that will happen if I take 24 hours to think about this before leaping into action?
  • Exercise your emotional intelligence. Take some time to consider and appreciate what you're feeling about the issue and your desire to intervene. Name the feelings that comes up for you. What is the unmet need behind the feelings that propel you to jump into action? What does this tell you about your current leadership style?
  • Cultivate your curiosity. Spend more time in a contemplative phase, to understand your desired outcome, parties involved, issues, factors, options, and their implications. Ask open-ended questions and listen mindfully to the responses as you build an informed picture of what might be going on. This keeps you in reflection and diagnosis longer.
  • Be choosy about your action. Not every situation and/or issue requires our action. Be choosy about when you will/not intervene. Not only does this set boundaries for you, but it creates space to others to problem-solve.
  • Enact boundaries and practice self-care. Take time out from "doing"—walk in nature, meditate, play sport, relax, or enjoy hobbies, family life, and socialising. It helps if you can see a relaxing day as productive in itself—it has rested you and given you peace of mind, after all!

Sometimes, you can be too busy. If you aim to be productive, make sure that your productivity is the product of choice and in the service of your personal and professional goals so that you are able to nourish yourself and others.

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