How to Combat Today’s Productivity Obsession

In today’s hustle culture, we feel the pressure to be always “on” — and that way lies burnout. Try these four ways to reduce the strain and reclaim your brain.

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Courtesy of Alex_Po/Shutterstock
Courtesy of Alex_Po/Shutterstock

Our obsession with productivity has gone rogue. We wring every last drop of efficiency out of the day from the time we wake up and check messages to the time we close our eyes at night, often right after scrolling through emails and tweets one last time. Even our social lives are streamlined and optimized, thanks to social media.

We may be working a lot, but where’s it getting us? The costs are high, leading to two-thirds of workers suffering from burnout and rising rates of depression and anxiety. In addition to being unhappy, burned-out workers are substantially more likely to take a sick day, look for a new job, or land in the emergency room, according to Gallup.

Prodeep Bose, executive vice president of growth and innovation for The Bloc, a health creative agency, compares our maximization mentality to the allure of packaged foods, which are marketed as the best way to make it through the day but ultimately detract from our health. “Just as the world of boxed foods has fed more people but ravaged human health through obesity, metabolic syndrome, allergic and immunologic reactions, cardiovascular dysfunction, and cancer,” he notes, “the ‘always-on’ world and its false projection of productivity has fractured the intrinsic stability of the human consciousness and all but destroyed the mind’s ability to observe and correct itself.”

Thankfully, the effects of productivity obsession can be mitigated by recognizing the warning signs of burnout and taking intentional steps to loosen our grasp on the belief that productive equals worthy.

The Productivity Paradox

Productivity obsession has led to a culture of “performance workaholism” and “workism,” the idea that work is not just a means to an end (money) but rather forms the core of our very identity. Americans work more on average than citizens in other developed countries, and even teens idealize the work life. A Pew Research Center report found that 95% of teens rank having an enjoyable career as one of their highest priorities, whereas fewer than half of them had equal concern for getting married or having children.

Examples of workism are everywhere. At WeWork offices, neon signs admonish workers to “Hustle harder.” A Nike ad campaign commands viewers to “Rise and Grind.” Elon Musk’s infamously tweeted that “There are easier places to work, but nobody every changed the world on 40 hours a week.”

The funny thing about our productivity obsession is that it doesn’t actually lead to more — or better — work getting done. In fact, the opposite is true. Recent research shows that managers who get bitten by the bottom-line bug, caring about output and results above anything else (such as employee well-being), end up with lower-performing teams. Constant pressure to perform can cause mental paralysis, and then we get nothing done at all.

Reversing Burnout

Just because our culture is manically obsessed with productivity doesn’t mean you have to be. Use the following strategies to stop burnout, take a step back, and refresh your mind, body, and spirit.

1. Solve for patterns, not just problems.

If you’re feeling burned out or consistently stressed, step back and try to identify any recurring problems. Individual bad days (“A client sent me a nasty email”) are unlikely to cause burnout, but repeated stress (“I’m getting assigned extra work every week”) will. If you can identify the root of the issue, you can proactively work on finding solutions, such as discussing your work capacity with your manager.

2. Do something inefficiently.

Engaging in nonproductive, not-so-optimized activities can go a long way toward combating the pressure to perform; it can help you re-engage with the world around you. Walk to the coffee shop a few blocks away rather than driving. Call or visit a friend instead of texting. Leisurely browse a local bookstore rather than relying on Amazon’s algorithms. “At a time when the pressure to maximize production seems particularly intense, we should give ourselves permission, now and then, to pass some time that serves no obvious purpose. We should allow ourselves to be surprised, to encounter the unexpected,” advises Rob Walker, a writer for Wired.

3. Find the joy in every task.

No job is a party, and some tasks are as tedious as they are necessary. Learning to focus on what you do enjoy at work will make you feel less productivity-burdened while fueling forward progress on projects. You can also take steps to proactively fill your day with more of what you love. Volunteer for assignments that interest you, leaving less room in your day for the projects you’re not so crazy about. Beyond tasks, bring a sense of play and joy into work by joking with colleagues, listening to music you love, or taking breaks by walking outside. These may sound like touchy-feely ideas, but research shows that play can increase productivity by 20%.

4. Pull yourself away.

It’s necessary to detach from work — not once a year when you go on vacation, but regularly. Establish an end-of-day ritual to signal to your brain that work has ended, and then make it a point not to check email the rest of the night. Schedule a tech-free day once a month. Regular exercise, even if it’s just a midday walk, can help you detach, as can mindfulness techniques such as meditation and yoga. If you need an assist, make plans with a friend after work so you have to leave by a certain time.

Our culture glorifies work and getting things done, but our obsession with productivity is actually hurting both our mental health and our performance at work. That’s not to mention the worst consequence: causing us to miss out on everything else that’s worthwhile in life. Chances are management isn’t going to tell you to get less done, so take control of your own burnout by fighting back against the tendency to do-do-do until you drop.

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