Career Advice

Always Working? Here’s How To Tell if That’s Healthy Ambition or Toxic Productivity at Play

Photo: Getty Images/10'000 Hours
Question:

I work a lot, and I know it. And in an age that values prioritizing work-life balance and a pushing away of hustle culture, sometimes I wonder if my relationship with my ambition is healthy. I don't hate my job—in fact, I find it energizing. But, does my always-working mentality translate to something more akin to toxic productivity than healthy ambition?

Answer:

I’ve learned a lot of lessons about burnout through my experiences, research, and the experiences of my friends and clients at Hooky Wellness. Before I started this work, burnout was less widely discussed, which didn't present the need to examine whether my own relationship with work reflected that of toxic productivity. Spoiler alert: It did, and that's why this question, in particular, speaks to me.

I’ve always prided myself on my work ethic, level of responsibility, and, at some points, the number of jobs I somehow was able to manage simultaneously. Working hard was always my primary objective and the way in which I contextualized my own success. At 24 years old, for instance, I felt blessed to have a full-time job, moonlight as a waitress, and found a nonprofit all at once. But eventually, my personal life started requiring more of my time and energy, and some of my professional experiences started to sour. I began feeling the effect of the short end of the hustle-culture stick materialize: burnout.

At the time, not much felt different about my day-to-day except that working harder would no longer solve my problems. Words and ideas no longer came easily, and even the things I had enjoyed felt like they had a layer of ash on them. My personal life was spiraling, and what I had the most confidence in—my ability to perform—was failing me. Once I started to recognize that my core issue might be tied to my mental health, I realized that even the process of getting support was feeling overwhelming.

But, I got help, and have since been on a journey to unpack my relationship with toxic productivity and reaffirm my professional belief system to come from a place of healthy ambition. The hardest part, for me, has been in making choices with my time and energy that fall within the gray space of binary decisions. That is, not everything can be as simple as yes versus no, busy versus available, or even healthy versus toxic.

What makes these non-binary choices even harder to make is that things in our life change over time: our bandwidth, our expectations, our priorities, and our relationship with productivity. And because we’re often overwhelmed or lacking the energy or space to take a step back, it can be tough to even see these shifts.

I use a set of questions to help me think through how productivity is impacting different aspects of my life, and specifically whether it's landing as more toxic or as healthy ambition

What’s worked for me is to conduct a quarterly self-reflection focused on evaluating my relationship with productivity for that period of time. I use a set of questions to help me think through how productivity is impacting different aspects of my life, and specifically whether it's landing as more toxic or as healthy ambition. Some of the questions I use are below, so ask yourself to see where you land.

On a scale of one (not often) to five (very often) how often are you:

  1. Selecting productivity over your family and friends?
  2. Selecting productivity over your well being?
  3. Selecting productivity because you feel you have no choice?
  4. Feeling guilty that you are not producing?

Now, how do you feel about the results?

This is a simple exercise, and if any of my answers make me feel uncomfortable, I know where to focus my next steps. Practicing this kind of introspection with yourself is a great step to take, and doing so in partnership with a licensed therapist can provide for experienced support when you need to dig deeper. Or, you can start with introspective sessions with yourself.

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