How to Spot the Signs of Toxic Productivity, According to Experts

There isn’t much solid research on the consequences of productivity that goes into overdrive, but we can gain some insight by looking at what experts have learned about perfectionism. Numerous studies suggest that perfectionism can hurt your health and lead to burnout, which is characterized by feeling physically and mentally depleted or exhausted, stressed, unmotivated, and overworked, according to the APA.23

Anxiety, insomnia, and irritability—which can also be signs of burnout—are often associated with toxic productivity as well, Rheeda Walker, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Houston, tells SELF. These red flags can be hard to notice because they often develop slowly and subtly impact your day-to-day life, Dr. Walker says. For example, you might blame your lack of sleep on your late-night social media habit, without realizing you’re actually scrolling as a subconscious way to unwind.

To be clear, Dr. Walker doesn’t think toxic productivity always leads to burnout, especially for people who recognize early on that they’re setting themselves up for exhaustion and take steps to recharge. But it can still be detrimental even if you don’t reach full-blown depletion, because feeling generally stressed, anxious, or like you can’t give yourself a break can take an emotional toll—and impact your health and relationships—over time.

How to tell if you’re falling into the toxic productivity trap

This pattern can be tough to recognize—especially if you’re the type of person who has always had high personal standards. Here are a few questions to consider that might help you figure out if your productivity is, indeed, toxic:

How do you feel when you imagine doing a task on your to-do list?

Are you excited about it, or does it fill you with dread? These emotional cues can clue you in to which tasks you find draining, says Dr. Walker. Of course, there are some obligations that you can’t skip, but there are still ways to preserve your energy: Dr. Swody also suggests asking yourself if you need to do the activity immediately (maybe you can send that email in the morning when you’re more well-rested) and with 110% of your energy (perhaps you can set aside 30 minutes versus an hour to set up networking coffee dates, and maybe one per month instead of four is plenty). This question is important, she says, because with toxic productivity, people often feel the need to accomplish tasks all the time without prioritizing or delegating them.

How do you feel when you truly pause?

Try taking a conscious break—maybe for a day or even just a few hours—from the “productive” activities you do purely out of habit, like checking your email every 30 seconds, say, or filling out your schedule with potential business opportunities. What feelings bubble up? If you experience shame or guilt for taking a break or doing something “unproductive” (like streaming a beloved TV show), that can signal a harmful attitude about productivity, Dr. Dattilo says.

How do you feel outside of work?

Experiencing a sense of accomplishment tied to work can feel really satisfying in the moment, making it harder to determine if your productivity is in unhealthy territory. That’s why reflecting on how you feel physically and emotionally outside of your job(s) can be a helpful exercise.