As you start a new year tomorrow, It’s time to do some evaluation as to how you’re really doing.

Carey Nieuwhof shares some incredibly insightful thoughts about “Toxic Productivity.”

Guest Post by Carey Nieuwhof

If you’re a driven leader, chances are you are always pushing yourself to hit new goals, produce more, and become more efficient. But what many don’t realize is that your drivenness can easily slide into toxic productivity. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of that drive is admirable. After all, if you’re fortunate enough to have meaningful work and you want to accomplish something with your life, those are laudable pursuits. And, yes, your life and leadership improve significantly when you become more efficient, productive, and organized. But too much of a good thing can actually become a bad thing. Even productivity can turn toxic. As much as I’m a student of productivity and have written a book that’s helped tens of thousands of leaders become more productive, taken to its extreme, productivity becomes counter-productive.

There’s a point at which applying the strategies, tactics, and tips associated with productivity can make a good thing go bad. Sometimes with devastating consequences. It’s ironic, but hyper-productive people whose productivity has gone toxic experience the same overwhelm that disorganized people do. Toxic productivity can also lead to burnout, which is something no leader wants (here are 11 signs you might be burning out). Toxic productivity is a trap. You think you’re going to solve a problem, but by over-applying productivity strategies, you end up making yourself more stressed, not less.

So how do you know whether your fascination with productivity is turning toxic?

Here are 9 warning signs you’re starting to suffer from toxic productivity.

1. You Can’t Take a Break

One sign your obsession with productivity is counter-productive is that you find yourself unable or unwilling to take a break.Everything in your life has become about being more efficient and more productive. This means you can end up spending all your waking hours working. The problem with that, of course, is that you were not designed to work all day every day and never get a break. As the burnout epidemic has made clear again and again, leaders who never take a break end up breaking. As this study from the American Psychological Association shows, taking breaks actually makes you more productive and increases both your job and life satisfaction.

2. You Have No Hobbies…or Life

A second sign you’re struggling with toxic productivity is that you have no hobbies, or life for that matter. And no, taking a break from work to watch Netflix, YouTube or TikTok is not a hobby. By definition, a hobby costs you both time and money. It should also take your full focus, whether your hobby is cycling, woodworking, cooking, crafts, painting, gardening, photography, scuba diving, or learning a new language. If you can’t answer the question “what’s your hobby” in 3 seconds or less, you probably don’t have one. Far too many leaders have no hobbies and no life outside of work. And that’s a cost not worth paying.

3. You Work Because You Can. And You Almost Always Can.

To make matters worse for productivity over-achievers, work now follows us everywhere via phones and laptops. You used to have to go to the office to do work. Now the office goes to you and with you everywhere you go. And because you can work, you do.

4. You’re Experiencing Productivity Shame

For a lot of driven leaders, it’s hard to sit still. But productivity shame goes deeper than that. So what is productivity shame exactly? According to Rescue Time, productivity shame involves the feeling that you aren’t allowed to do things that are “unproductive.” You feel guilty when you spend time on hobbies (see above), watch a movie, or simply sit back and relax. In other words, if you’re not working, you’re not satisfied.

5. Relief is always 3 months away (the blank calendar trap)

One reason toxic productivity is so deadly is that you can trick yourself into believing it’s going to get better, soon. And by soon, I mean 3 months. Example: you might say to yourself May has been crazy, but August is going to be awesome. The reason it’s easy to fall for that is when you look three months ahead in your calendar, it looks pretty blank. The problem is, that’s precisely what May looked like back in February. It’s what October looks like in July. And so we fool ourselves into thinking that relief is three months away. Except it never is. And that’s the problem with blank space on your calendar. Blank space in your calendar is a trap. It looks like freedom, but it’s jail disguised as liberty.

6. Your Closest Relationships Are Suffering

The people who pay the greatest price for toxic productivity are not your co-workers—they’re the people closest to you: Your spouse, your kids, and your friends. You blow them off, tell them to wait, explain that you’re too busy, and bury your head back in your laptop. The people closest to you should have the best experience of you. But toxic productivity creates the opposite impact: The people closest to you get the worst of you. What’s worse, of course, is that you’ll eventually quit or retire from your job. You never retire from being a parent.

7. You’re Always Trying to Set New Records

For top performers, work can become a little like how Google Maps has become to some of us: you’re always trying to beat the ETA by just a few minutes. And once you shave a minute off your arrival time, the gauntlet is set to shave another minute or two off to see if you can arrive even faster (I’m speaking for a friend here. I’m sure I’ve never done this….) Productivity turns toxic when you’re never satisfied with your current progress or results. It always has to be just a little faster, a little better, and always up and to the right. What’s worse, this kind of behavior gets rewarded. Workaholism is the most rewarded addiction in America. If you drink too much, you get fired. If you work too much, you get a raise and promotion.

8. There’s No Finish Line

As noted, the challenge with productivity is that you can always get better. You can always become a little more efficient, a little more effective, and download a new app or master a new skill that helps you get a little more done in less time, which, of course, creates more time for more work. Which means there’s no finish line. Ever. Every piece you wrote could be a little better. Every day you spend could have been a little more optimal. As leaders who have burned out know, though, if you don’t declare a finish line to your work, eventually, your body will. It’s called burnout.

9. You’re Still Overwhelmed

Healthy productivity has a finish line and leads to a full life, not just a full work schedule. It allows you to sleep at night, take a real vacation, work out, make time for hobbies and friends and family, and still get much more done at work. Toxic productivity never leaves you feeling satisfied. It leaves you feeling overwhelmed. Without a new strategy and approach, it’s easy to continue to do what you are currently doing and:

  • Sacrifice family on the altar of work
  • Overcommit and underdeliver
  • Have no time for what you actually want to do
  • Struggle to get time off to refuel and relax

Worst of all, other people—other tasks, jobs, and projects—will continue to hijack your life. It’s time to change that by implementing a strategy that works for you as you begin 2024.