Breaking Out of The Toxic Productivity Circuit

In our ever busy world, Jojo Tung pauses to reflect on the workaholic habits deeply rooted in our society.

Image from Unsplash.


Published on
December 25, 2020

I’ve always known I could get a bit obsessed with maximising my time. I would plan my schedule down to the minute, fill every slot back-to-back with tasks and at the end, rate the day based on the amount of work I completed.

I figured that was what being productive meant and it wasn’t until the Covid-19 circuit breaker that I suffered the burnout from toxic productivity.

What Toxic Productivity Means

Trickling from hustle culture and workaholism, toxic productivity is an unhealthy obsession with productivity. Though we feel driven to accomplish more, it stems from harmful motivation, and along the way it moulds into a complex that measures self-worth based on how productive we are.

Throughout the circuit breaker, I’ve had the dreadful pleasure of bouncing back and forth the two extremes of the productivity spectrum. On one end, I become so consumed by work and spare no time for anything else or myself. On the other, I’m so overwhelmed by my emotions that I cannot focus on accomplishing a single task.

Initially, I thought this was a unique side effect of the circuit breaker – that we were more obsessed with productivity because we were spending all our time at home.

Yet reflecting upon it, I was already living the toxic life even before Covid-19 emerged. It occurred in school when sleeping six hours was a privilege instead of a basic human necessity. We glorified sleep deprivation and the one who pulled the most all-nighters was supposedly the most hardworking of all.

If anything, the circuit breaker only accentuated our underlying toxic culture of hustle and productivity.

Recognising Toxic Productivity Traits

During the stay-home period, I was never more preoccupied with to-do lists. They became an indicator of whether I was making good use of my time and it almost felt like a drug, where each time I ticked off a task I would get a short burst of gratification.

As the days passed, I remember how badly I wanted to slump into a 3am sleep schedule, yet I was swamped with guilt whenever I wasn’t doing anything slightly productive. In turn, I would exhaust my mornings to nights staring at my laptop just to accomplish the smallest of tasks.

Looking back, it was all in a bid to convince myself that the more hours I spent working, the more productive I was. This begs the question: are the hours put into work authentically productive or an addiction to keeping busy?

It stretched to the point where I felt uncomfortable with any relaxation time. Even as I tried to while my time away on YouTube, the algorithm would recommend videos condemning procrastination, serving as an unforgiving reminder that I wasn’t working hard enough.

Interestingly, I wasn’t the only one drowning in remorse. In a survey conducted by HYPE, 83 per cent of 130 respondents felt guilty when they were not productive amid the stay-home orders.

Achieving Healthy Productivity

We can all benefit from taking breaks and rewarding ourselves with leisure time. Prohibiting myself from working past midnight is a stepping stone to becoming comfortable with resting earlier and setting aside untouched time for family, friends and especially myself.

Another tried and tested method is through practising mindfulness in our day-to-day life. It invites us to be hyperaware of our immediate environment, such as shifting attention to our breathing. Whenever we feel suffocated by work, this could help us to detach from destructive patterns and reframe our priorities. Applications like Calm and Headspace are great ways to kickstart this habit.

Whenever I get distracted, I use the Pomodoro technique which ensures optimal performance by splitting up work into 25-minute intervals, separated by five-minute breaks.

In the same way that toxic tendencies have been so ingrained in our lifestyle, we must likewise be disciplined in practising healthier habits. Perhaps, it seems that a little procrastination isn’t too bad for us after all.

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