How to Prevent Burnout? 8 Steps to Overcome Toxic Productivity 

How to Prevent Burnout? 8 Steps to Overcome Toxic Productivity 

We live in a world where productivity is one of the most valuable skills. We admire people who work endlessly from morning to night on their professional and personal goals and find rest a waste of time. They feel guilty at the thought of doing nothing. But even extreme productivity is not the key to a happy life and professional fulfilment. In fact, it can take a toll on your physical and mental health to the point where you burn out over time. How can you recognise it early and find a balance between working towards your goals and relaxing?

What is toxic productivity?

You may be thinking, what’s wrong with being hard-working, taking one course after another, learning new languages, playing guitar, reading self-development books and following the latest gastronomic trends in Japanese cuisine in your spare time? After all, it helps us grow professionally, economically and personally. The problem arises, however, when we set our alarm for 5am even over the weekend, knowing that you don’t want to waste an hour of time when you could be working on yourself. In that case, you’re already dabbling in toxic productivity, which is defined as an unhealthy desire, even obsession, to be productive at all costs. [1]

We can say it’s a kind of upgraded workaholism. It goes beyond the boundaries of working life. A person who has fallen victim to toxic productivity works endlessly at their goals like a hamster running in a wheel. They work overtime every day, set unrealistic goals, forget self-care, and often obsess about perfection. But just like the cute rodent, sooner or later they run out of energy. It doesn’t matter if it’s a few months, a year or more. At some point, the consequences will probably come in the form of burnout, relationship or health problems. Achieving goals is not a sprint, but rather a marathon, for which you need to distribute your strength carefully.

What is toxic productivity?

Can dopamine dependence be to blame for extreme productivity?

We all know the satisfying feeling when you successfully complete a challenging task. At that moment, you forget about the endless hours spent in front of the computer and the regrets of neglecting your partner or skipping your favourite sporting activities. But now, you have caught up with everything, and the most important thing is that you managed to hand in the challenging task on time. That satisfying feeling is mainly due to increased dopamine levels, which our brain perceives as a well-deserved reward. [2]

But as we eat, our appetite grows and so does our craving for dopamine. You just want to experience that feeling of satisfaction all over again. And now, maybe even more intensely. That’s why you’ll immediately embark on another, even bigger project, putting your promise to give more to yourself and your partner on the back burner. You’re living on the edge, and your head is working nonstop at high speed. Your body is flooded with adrenaline almost nonstop. But over time, you build up a tolerance to dopamine and adrenaline, and you have to go to greater extremes to achieve a sense of contentment and a certain degree of tension. So behaviours associated with toxic productivity can be highly addictive from this perspective. [2]

8 warning signs of toxic productivity

The warning signs of toxic productivity are often easier to spot in others than in ourselves. If your friend works eighty hours every week, learns Spanish, goes to CrossFit every day, spends their weekends on marketing courses, but still feels like they’re not doing enough, you’re probably going to recommend that they cut back. Yeah, well, it’s easy to see the problem with others, but with ourselves, it’s kind of a blur. So you keep ignoring that flashing warning light until something goes wrong, and your determination crumbles like a house of cards. Therefore, you’d better check yourself for any of the toxic productivity manifestations mentioned below.

What are the signs of toxic productivity?

1. You can’t switch off even in your spare time

Do you have trouble relaxing even with your friends over wine, during a trip with your family, or for that matter on vacation? Your mind is always racing with thoughts of work or some other productive activity you could be doing instead. It’s as if you’ve lost the ability to switch into relaxation mode, to live in the present and enjoy time with those closest to you. [2]

Maybe you can’t even slack off when it comes to sports, which most of us consider a form of relaxation. You want to set new PRs at every workout, you have to outrun everyone you meet when you run, and you consider a mountain hike a race to see who can be first up the hill. Hence, the pure joy of movement has been replaced by the pressure to perform.

2. You must justify every action

Going on a wellness weekend with a friend? What on earth would you do there? After all, you won’t have time for your projects, and sitting in a hot tub for hours with other half-naked people is the last thing you feel like doing. You just don’t want to waste your time on activities that won’t get you anywhere or make you a better version of yourself.

3. Fatigue is the new norm

All the overtime, courses and self-development activities also take their toll in the form of lack of rest and sleep. You wake up every day with a half-dead battery, and you don’t even try to cover up the circles under your eyes anymore. You’ve accepted the feeling of exhaustion as the new norm and survive on sugar-filled sweets and litres of coffee. But you rarely allow yourself to rest, because you have so much to do. [1]

Signs of toxic productivity

4. You don’t devote any time fot your hobbies or friends

The line between your work and leisure has been blurred for long now, and with that the time and space for hobbies and a social life has just disappeared. You may delude yourself that you are an introvert and like to spend time alone. But the truth is you’ve probably lost a fair bit of interest in other people and seemingly unproductive leisure activities while meeting all those challenges. You may even be judging others for spending their time aimlessly and doing things just for fun. [3]

5. You are available at all times

It doesn’t matter if it’s Sunday morning or you’re at your best friend’s wedding, when you get a new email from a client, you respond right away. If you’re not on the computer, you always have at least your mobile phone handy to respond immediately to whatever comes in. Even at your firm, they’ve got used to being able to contact you at any time and you just can’t say no. [3]

6. You feel like you’re constantly not doing enough 

Even with all the extra hours, volunteer weekends, and free time devoted to self-development books, you can’t shake the feeling that you’re still not doing enough and you’re still missing out on something. And so, you add more. Sleep is overrated, after all, and that eighth cup of coffee will give you the energy for more productivity for hours to come. But it’s still not enough. This phenomenon is referred to in English as “productivity shame” or the feeling of shame stemming from the impression that you are not productive enough. [4]

How does extreme productivity manifest itself?

7. You deceive yourself about taking time off 

Now you’re going to work hard, and in a few months you’ll be working only eight hours every day and keeping all your weekends free. But somehow you subconsciously know that this is not true and you are just trying to fool yourself. Because when you finish one project, you always jump right into the next one, you keep putting off the time to rest and rewrite almost the whole year’s vacation into the next year. [3]

8. Your relationships are at an all-time low

You and your colleagues get along great, maybe because you do the job of two. What’s worse are the relationships with your family and friends. You can’t pretend to them that everything is fine. You don’t make time for them, you sometimes blow up due to stress and get into unnecessary arguments. Relationships that you don’t put any energy into suffer from this and some fade away, which you often realise when it is too late.

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What are the causes of toxic productivity?

On the one hand, there are the Nordic countries, where six-hour working hours are preferred as an ideal tool to maintain work-life balance. But the majority of the modern world still believes that even eight hours of work is not enough to succeed. Add to that the fact that many people work from home and have no clear boundaries between work and rest, they can find themselves actually sitting at the computer all day and falling into bed in the evening exhausted. But it’s not just home office that can spark the need to be as productive as possible. [5]

What is the most frequent cause of toxic productivity?

  • High demands on yourself: People with high ambitions always have new goals to work towards. You don’t settle for just anything and are always trying to stay one step ahead of others. You use extreme productivity as a tool to achieve anything you set your mind to.
  • Motivating people around you: If you only have highly productive people around you who are always going full throttle, you probably can’t resist the urge to go the extra mile either.
  • Fear of losing your job: If you work in a competitive environment where mistakes are not forgiven, you may feel pressure to be highly productive. You don’t want to give up your hard-earned position to someone new.
  • Social networks: On Instagram or TikTok, there are all these posts with the key to unlocking life potential, better productivity, 5am routines, tips on how to get rich and still get in shape for life. But this over-motivated social media environment can stir up feelings of inadequacy and a toxic desire to be endlessly productive. [6]
  • Living in a hurry: It’s not just on social media that it’s trendy to be rushed and busy all the time. For some time now, especially among young people and millennials, the so-called Hustle culture has been popular, which glorifies, i.e. celebrates, people working from morning till night and 100% focused on productivity that will bring about success, fame or fortune. [7]

For more on why social networks can be harmful, read our article How Does Constant Scrolling on Social Media Affect You? 

The negative impacts of toxic productivity

Can toxic productivity negatively affect your health and quality of life?

Living in constant tension without some way to vent it is exhausting. Lack of sleep, stress, high doses of caffeine and fast food can also take their toll on your physical and mental health. Not to mention there is no time to nurture your relationships and personal life.

1. Causes long-term stress

A fast pace of life is full of stress, which, especially in a chronic form, hurts our body. This can manifest itself in back pain and headaches, poor digestion, or impaired immunity, leading to more frequent illness. In extreme cases, it can lead to serious illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure or heart rhythm disorders. [8]

If you want to learn more about the consequences of stress, read our article Why Is Stress Dangerous and How to Reduce It?

2. It is the perpetrator of psychological problems

Your mental health can also fall victim to over-productivity. Typically, this starts with reduced self-confidence and self-worth, leading through to anxiety and depression, and often leads to burnout syndrome. Feelings of failure and inferiority are no exception. These consequences are just as serious as the physical ones. [7-8]

3. Threatens your quality of life

The above-mentioned negative health consequences are the first factor that will deteriorate your quality of life. Add to this a non-existent social life, a lack of interest in other people and zero self-care and you have a recipe for reduced life satisfaction. However, the good news is that it is never too late to make a change and prevent these consequences. [9]

Toxic productivity can lead to burnout

If you figure out that toxic productivity is affecting you and you want to do something about it, you’re halfway there. Acknowledging the problem is the first step to solving it. The tools below can then help you achieve a healthier approach to productivity.

1. Set boundaries between your work and leisure time

First of all, it’s a good idea to set some kind of a time limit for work, hobbies, rest and other everyday activities.

It might look something like this:

  • time for work obligations: 8:00-16:00
  • gym or a run: 16:30-18:00
  • rest and time with family: 18:00-20:00
  • reading a book and learning new English words: 20:00-21:00

When creating your plan, don’t forget about food and getting seven to nine hours of sleep. It is not necessary to stick to this schedule at all costs, as every day can be different. The main thing is to find at least thirty minutes for yourself during the day, when you can relax a little. Apart from sports, a sauna, a massage, doing puzzles, painting a picture or having a coffee with a friend can also work. [2]

If you want to learn more about why it’s important to separate your work and rest time, read our article Work-Life Balance: How to Successfully Balance Your Work and Personal Life?

How do you plan your work and leisure time?

2. Learn to say “NO”

Let’s stay with boundary setting for a while. After all, you should have these boundaries in both your personal and professional life. Before you nod again to a favour or request, think about whether you really have the space and energy to do so. You should be able to stand up for yourself and be able to say no when your own responsibilities are pressing and you can’t keep up with anything else. In that case, don’t be afraid to turn down a request to help someone with an explanation.

3. Set realistic goals

While overly ambitious goals can drive you to unprecedented results, they are also a fast track to burnout. This time try to write down goals that will challenge you, but at the same time won’t drive you into the clutches of toxic productivity.

How to set realistic goals?

  • Use the SMART technique: your goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. For example, if you want to improve your English, you can set aside twenty minutes each weekday after dinner to read through five to ten pages of an English book and write out ten new words. You’ll be more likely to stick to this than if you just tell yourself you want to read an English book. [1]
  • Stick to short-term goals: once you have some long-term goals, such as annual goals, try breaking them down into separate quarters and weeks. Short-term goals feel more achievable and won’t stress you out so much. Again, you can use the book example. Does a goal of reading ten pages a day or twelve books a year make it easier for you?
How to set goals properly?

4. Write down your priorities

Set what is important to you not only in your professional life, but also in your personal life. Think exclusively about your desires and needs, not the demands of your boss or your parents. This list will help you focus on what you really want and help you make the necessary changes in your life. Try answering the following questions as you write it: 

  1. What are your values, what is important to you in life? (try to avoid materialistic needs such as money or a house)
  2. What do you want to conserve, improve or change? Look back at the last six months. What do you want to take from it for the future, what do you want to improve or change completely? This may relate to your relationships, work, self-care or even financial management.
  3. Does your current employment work for you? Can you answer questions such as what are your strengths and weaknesses, what is expected of you at work, and what do you expect from your job? [11]
Take breaks while working or studying

5. Take regular breaks while working or studying

It’s understandable that you want to finish your work as soon as possible, but on the other hand, it’s not ideal to work at a frantic pace for eight hours without a break. Even a short five-minute break can be beneficial. If you change your surroundings or go outside for a while, it might help you come up with a new idea or thought for your work. This is especially recommended if you are dealing with a problem or are really stuck in a rut. Give yourself some distance, go for a walk, and then come back to the problem. It may offer you a whole new perspective and solution. [12]

Try the Pomodoro technique

Set a timer on your phone for 25 minutes to focus on work or studying. Then take a five-minute break (go for a drink, walk, stretch) and follow up with another 25-minute concentration block. This technique is ideal for demanding workloads or studying for a tough exam. Instead of a stopwatch, you can use an online Pomodoro timer or mobile app. [12]

6. Do nothing

At this point, the idea of doing nothing will be about as unrealistic to you as winning a million dollars in the lottery. You may also be terrified of the idea of being left with nothing but your own thoughts. What if you learn something disturbing about yourself? But reconnecting with your true self is probably just what you need.

Try just sitting or lying down on the couch for a few minutes. Forget your mobile phone, the book you’ve been reading, or that podcast you’ve been meaning to listen to. Just close your eyes and relax for a while. It’s in these moments that you get the best clarity on where you’re going, what you want or don’t want. Doing nothing is difficult for some and takes practice, but over time you will find that it gives you so much more than reading self-development books. [13]

For more self-care tips, see our article Self-Care: How to Take Care of Yourself and Be Happier in Life?

7. Take a break from your smartphone and other smart devices

Along with doing nothing, technology-free time is another superpower that can help you get off the toxic productivity merry-go-round. These days, it’s not enough to step away from the computer to disengage from work. In fact, most of you have an internet-connected smartphone with you at all times, which receives work emails, messages and various notifications. That leaves you thinking about work all the time, even in your free time.

You can start by turning off your notifications. The next step is to be on your phone, tablet and other electronic devices as little as possible during your free time. Try reading a non-demanding book or going for a walk without your phone in your pocket. But if you absolutely need it with you, switch it to airplane mode. In addition, try to limit your time on social media. These can put unnecessary strain on your brain and also have a negative effect on your psyche. [12]

Why go offline sometimes?

8. Try to simplify your workload 

Don’t work harder, work smarter. The following tips can help you become more efficient: 

  • Use a planner: Write down your most important tasks, deadlines, appointments, doctor’s visits and everyday things like shopping or workouts. It’s up to you whether you choose an electronic or paper planner. It will help you keep track of what’s coming up and help you learn to use your time efficiently.
  • Avoid multitasking: While tackling several tasks at once can feel like a time-saver, it also increases your error rate and the likelihood that you’ll have to redo the whole thing in the end. Rather, complete one task and then move on to the next. [14]
  • Try to automate what you can: Nowadays, a lot of work tasks can be simplified. Try thinking with your colleagues about whether some of your activities could be automated, giving you more time for more important tasks. Your colleagues in the IT department can also help you with this.
  • Use modern tools: the chatbot Al has been in vogue lately and can be an ideal addition to any team. It can help with just about anything and answer even the most tricky questions.

What should you remember?

Toxic productivity is proof that even excessive self-fulfilment is not the key to a happy life, but leads to burnout and other health problems. If you feel like you’re constantly not doing enough, are always available to deal with work issues, or overlook your needs, this may be the case for you. Thus, you should try re-evaluating your priorities, setting new goals, scheduling breaks, or using modern tools to streamline your work. Remember that the ability to rest properly is just as important as working on personal growth.

Do you have anyone among your friends who you think works too much and maybe doesn’t realise it? Share this article with them and help them adopt healthier work habits.


[1] What Is Toxic Productivity? Here’s How To Spot The Damaging Behavior. –

[2] The Healthy.. 9 Signs Toxic Productivity Is Impacting Your Life. –

[3] 9 Warning Signs You’re Suffering From Toxic Productivity. –

[4] Altrogge, S. Productivity shame: Why you never feel like you’ve done „enough. –

[5] Psychology Today. When Doing is Your Undoing: Toxic Productivity. –

[6] Carissang. What is toxic productivity, and how do we navigate it in the workplace? –

[7] Sampoerna University. Hustle Culture: Definition, Impact and How to Overcome It. –

[8] Psych Central. The Long-Term Effects of Stress: Physical and Mental Effects. –

[9] Toxic productivity will ruin your life: 8 solutions to address it. –

[10] Asana. Is your work ethos toxic? –

[11] Psych Central. 9 Tips for Identifying and Living Your Priorities. –

[12] UNLEASH. Toxic productivity: How to spot it. –

[13] Paperform Blog. Are You Suffering from Toxic Productivity? –

[14] Working Smarter, Not Harder: 15 Tips for Making It Real. –

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