Identifying Unhealthy Productivity… | Counseling | Therapy

Identifying Unhealthy Productivity Culture

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The desire to be our best, and to do our best is an understandable one. However, what do you do when you start to measure your day by efficiency? What do you do when you fall into unhealthy productivity culture? With personal and professional obligations seemingly on the rise, unhealthy productivity culture is especially relevant in 2020. Here are ways to recognize if you’ve fallen into unhealthy productivity culture.

Defining Unhealthy Productivity Culture

Before discussing the ways in which to recognize unhealthy productivity culture, it’s important to first define it. Productivity isn’t inherently bad. It is simply the amount of work done within a period of time. In fact, under certain conditions, striving for productivity can be beneficial (e.g., completing work projects before their deadlines). Productivity becomes unhealthy once efficiency becomes the measure of success and happiness. Within unhealthy productivity culture, the person’s goal is to complete as many tasks as possible to feel good about themselves. Because there will always be more tasks to complete, the person is setting themselves up for failure, which naturally causes disappointment. This has some overlap with perfectionism, but is also different. Perfectionism is the desire to be or do the absolute best. A person may define the “perfect worker” as someone who completes every task plus ten. However, a person can still feel pressured (internally or externally) to complete as many tasks as possible that has nothing to do with perfectionism (e.g., “I have to turn in as many projects that I can or my boss will get upset.”). Overall, unhealthy productivity culture is the internal and external messages that glamorize a preoccupation with efficiency. Here are ways to assess whether you have fallen into unhealthy productivity culture.

Determine How Objectively Busy You Are

There’s a difference between being busy and having unhealthy productivity. The main distinction involves necessity. If a single mother has to work eight hours, cook for her family, and clean her house everyday, could one really accuse her of having unhealthy productivity? She doesn’t really have a choice. Meanwhile, being disappointed that you did not organize your spice rack, closet, and basement could be an example of unhealthy productivity culture. To make this easier, think of the consequences of not completing a task. If there is considerable harm (e.g., child neglect, financial insecurity, not having access to utilities), then that is likely a need. Meanwhile, if the consequences are mild or insignificant, that is likely a want. For instance, making food for your children is a need, but rearranging their room is likely a want. You can delay a want, but you cannot delay a need.

To make this more clear, take a moment and think about all of your responsibilities for the day. Create a list using this sentence as a prompt: “Today, I need to…” After you have done that, earnestly reflect on the importance of each item. Here are two examples of how this can look.

Today I need to…

  • Prepare my kids for school
  • Buy groceries
  • Pay my electric bill
  • Make dinner
  • Fix my car’s flat
  • Clean the cat litter

Today I need to…

  • Finish this book I’ve been reading
  • Respond to work emails on my day off
  • Clean my oven
  • Check in with both of my parents
  • Organize the kitchen drawers
  • Look up which color is best for painting my bathroom

In the first list, it’s likely that the person is legitimately busy, while the second person is perhaps experiencing unhealthy productivity culture. Once again, a key difference surrounds the word “need.” A person may convince themselves of a need that is in actuality a want. Ask yourself if you “want” to do something or if you “need” to do it (e.g., “I want to finish this book” vs. “I need to finish this book.”). If it’s more of a want, then you may be falling into unhealthy productivity culture.

Assess How You Measure Your Day

As mentioned earlier, a great way to assess unhealthy productivity culture is to reflect on the way in which you measure your day. There’s a high chance that you already do this without thinking about it. For instance, several people do a mental assessment of their day while lying in bed at night. Take some time to consciously reflect on how you measure your day. Ask yourself the following questions.

  • I know that today was good because…
  • Today was disappointing because…
  • If I could redo part of my day, it would be…
  • If I had more time, I would have done…

After you’ve completed the questions, analyze your answers. What stands out to you? For example, did you focus on experiences, tasks, or obligations? If the majority of your answers revolved around non-essential tasks, you’re likely falling into unhealthy productivity culture. Remember, it’s not unhealthy to feel compelled to complete crucial obligations. Unhealthy productivity culture is convincing yourself that you need to stay busy to feel good about yourself, when in actuality, you don’t.

Check in With Your Emotions

Another effective way to assess unhealthy productivity culture is to reflect on your emotions. Some people try to stay busy not because they have to, but because they are trying to distract themselves. The distraction may involve feelings of anxiety, powerlessness, or personal judgment. Regarding anxiety and powerlessness, they go hand-in-hand. Many people feel stressed over matters outside of their control (e.g., work dynamics, their parent’s health, the future). Trying to stay productive by completing as many tasks as possible can give a perception of control. Meanwhile, some people try to be productive to distract from personal judgment. A person may have internalized the belief that they’re lazy or that they’re a bad parent, spouse, or friend. Regardless of the veracity of the belief, working as hard as possible can seemingly exorcise the fear of being lazy. After all, it’s hard to call yourself lazy when you stay busy 16 hours of the day. So, how can you actually check in with your emotions?

To reflect on the intersection of your emotions and productivity, purposely choose a time where you’re not in the middle of something urgent (e.g., work, cooking, watching children). Next, literally spend five minutes doing nothing. You’re not on your phone, you’re not checking email, and you’re not prepping for a future task. You are sincerely doing nothing. After five minutes have gone by, what did you feel? If certain thoughts were racing through your head, what were the emotions behind them? Write down what you felt to make things more concrete. After you have done so, see if the written emotions revolved around fear, stress, criticism, and personal judgment. If they do, there’s a good chance that you may be involved in unhealthy productivity culture. Here’s an example of how this check in can look.

Initial Emotions: discomfort, stress

Initial Thought: “I shouldn’t be wasting my time. I can’t sit around all day.”

Emotions Based on Thought: self-criticism, fear of being lazy

Additionally, if you couldn’t even complete this activity, then that’s a good sign that you’re likely deep into productivity culture. Once again, unhealthy productivity culture is the factors that convince a person to stay busy, even when they don’t have to. Not only does that perception create a strain on the person, but it also dissuades them from taking time for self-care. The first step with solving a problem is to first recognize it. To assess unhealthy productivity culture, you can determine how objectively busy you are, assess how you measure your day, and check in with your emotions. If after doing these activities you believe that you’ve internalized unhealthy productivity culture, try seeing a therapist for help. You can find one at

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