Toxic productivity: the constant need to “do”

Like everything, productivity is good… in moderation. So what happens when the “grind” becomes too much?


Wren Bulawin

Toxic productivity occurs when a productive mindset warps into a cycle of constant guilt and self-criticism regarding one’s work ethic. Many people with this mindset may take on far more work than they can handle, which may cause them to feel overwhelmed and guilty for being “unproductive” or not using their time efficiently enough.

Wren Bulawin, Open Canvas Manager, Assistant Features Editor

Toxic productivity. 

The phrase itself is an oxymoron. Historically, productivity has kept the world turning for centuries; productivity is the reason why humanity not only survives, but thrives. So how can productivity, something that all members of society constantly strive for, possibly be seen as something harmful?  

Many students are familiar with burnout, yet most don’t question its roots until fully exhausted and far overworked—and even then, they only heal just enough to get back to work again. Toxic productivity is exactly that: the point where productivity becomes self-sabotage and the constant, obsessive need to “do” until we are finally undone. It is the subtle yet dangerous predecessor of burnout where work no longer takes over play, but forgoes self-care and physical well-being instead.  

Psychologically, these mindsets stem from the action bias theory, which suggests that humans tend to favor action over inaction. The same urge to tap our feet while waiting for something to happen also contributes to our constant need to do something productive in our lives. As such, inactivity is seen by society as “lazy,” while productivity is seen as the pinnacle of society. 

Unfortunately, the life-long pressure to become “workaholics” begins with academia, and only builds up from there. What once was a friendly competition for gold stars soon evolves into a ticking time bomb measuring the four years left to build the perfect high-school life. Faced with a pressure to stay competitive for college, students cram as many advanced classes and flashy extracurriculars as possible into their schedules, leaving little time for hobbies and relaxation. 

If you’re surrounded by people who are constantly pushing, you feel like you have a need to push, too.

— Zaara Narwal (12)

“A lot of the pressure is put on by teachers,” said senior Zaara Narwal. “When you walk into freshman year, there’s a [lack of] tolerance for anything. [They say], ‘You need to start doing it all now,’ even though you have so much time.”

Additionally, with performative hustle culture and the aestheticization of academic productivity becoming increasingly popular online, the pressure to place work over play has never been greater. 

“If you’re surrounded by people who are constantly pushing, you feel like you have a need to push, too,” said Narwal. “And it makes it worse knowing that, with everything they do, they’re doing the absolute most of.”

A culture that rewards overworkers and punishes slackers is bound to create backfiring mindsets. As such, many students feel guilty with themselves at the end of the day, constantly wondering what more they could have done to get further ahead or better improve their efficiency. 

“I felt suffocated because I had to follow my tight schedule every day. I was bored and frustrated because I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do,” said senior Ongek Ongthongkam. “I just felt unhappy about myself.”

Some may even find themselves cutting down on sleep, meals, and self-care, opting to make up for lost time in an attempt to stave off their “productivity guilt.” 

“I feel bad if I didn’t study the whole four hours, [especially] if I messed up, joked around for 30 minutes, and didn’t get as much work done as I could have,” said senior Alex Casillas. “If I messed around, I’ll be like, okay, now I need to compensate and study for four more hours.” 

“I won’t stop working until I finish my work for that day,” added Narwal. “I just feel like, if I have time, I should be using it. And I know that I can use it towards something worthwhile.” 

Experiencing negative thoughts towards work is the first major symptom of toxic productivity, and if left untreated, can spiral into mental distress, burnout, and even chronic stress. This leads to an endless cycle of demotivation and a lack of productivity, which only perpetuates until the guilt becomes consuming. 

Nipping these thoughts in the bud is key. But how can people identify the toxic mindsets from the beneficial ones?

First, reflect on yourself, your goals, and your work. Remind yourself what you’re fighting for, but also ask yourself if you’re happy with your progress—not just academically or at work, but also mentally and socially as well. 

“If you’re pushing yourself [too much], you’re likely not going to be proud of the work that you’re producing,” Narwal said. “Once you start questioning, ‘Am I happy doing this? Was this worth it?’ that’s when the line is crossed.” 

Once you’ve identified your current state, the next step is to reframe your mind to see productivity not as a competition, but as self-growth. Create some positive self-affirmations for yourself rather than dwelling on the toxic ones, and make sure to remind yourself that progress is progress, no matter how slow and insignificant it may seem. 

“You have to be okay with not sticking to your plans. You need to step away and realize, ‘Hey, I’m a person. I’m not a machine,’” said Casillas. “Things take a lot of time to work towards.”

Second, reflect on your schedule, and once again, ask yourself if it benefits you academically and mentally. Contrary to what the early high-school experience makes you think, colleges look for quality over quantity, and cramming your schedule full of showy extracurriculars may risk coming off as ingenuine, so don’t be afraid to cut down on some activities. 

“If you overplan your life, it’s just gonna break down. You can’t just overwork yourself to overwork yourself,” said Casillas. “If [your work] is not making you happy, and if it’s not helping you get towards your goal, get rid of it.”

You need to step away and realize, ‘Hey, I’m a person. I’m not a machine.’

— Alex Casillas (12)

Finally, reorganize your priorities as much as possible, weeding out unnecessary obligations and ensuring you make buffer time for self-care and leisure. 

“There’s the ‘fake schedule,’ which is the fun schedule, and then there’s the ‘[real] schedule.’ You gotta make sure [the ‘real schedule’] is not too strict. You can’t be strict with life,” said Casillas. “At least have two hours of time a day where you can just cool down, away from the ‘real schedule.’”

“[A schedule becomes unhealthy] when you spend more than eight hours on something that’s mandatory,” added Ongthongkam. “[So even] if you really want the job or the school you want to go to, you should definitely take some time off to do what you really want to do, personal-life wise.” 

But the most important part comes with post-recovery. In a culture that romanticizes “doing,” be sure to remind yourself that perfection isn’t everything, and reject any guilty thoughts comparing your productivity to others. And know your limits—sometimes it’s okay to settle for mediocrity at best.

“You need to know your boundaries and when it’s okay to say, ‘I’m done,’” said Narwal. “Don’t feed into the competitive nature that’s already in your school. Just do what you know is good for you and your health.”

With the end of the school year in sight, now’s the perfect time to re-evaluate your mindset and growth, whether you’re a senior with new beginnings or a newly-acclimated freshman. 

“Just realize that, at the end of the day, you are your own individual,” said Narwal. “So do what makes you happy, and do it in whatever way that makes you happy.”