Productivity addiction: when we become obsessed with productivity

The business and productivity app market is worth billions of dollars. Every day, there is a new productivity tool popping up, a book about productivity being published, and millions of people reading and sharing content related to personal productivity. It started as a measure of efficiency for the production of goods and services. Somehow, along the way, many of us have become addicted to productivity.

Why are we so obsessed with being productive?

At its core, productivity addiction is based on the same reward systems as other addictions. By providing constant reinforcement — for example financial rewards in the form of salary increases, or social rewards in the form of work recognition — productivity can become a goal in and of itself, resulting in compulsive behaviours.

This phenomenon is maybe more common than you would think. Two nationally representative studies carried out in Norway and Hungary reported similar results. In Norway, Dr Cecilie Andreassen and her team found that between 7.3% and 8.3% of Norwegians are addicted to work. In Hungary, a team led by Dr Zsolt Demetrovics suggests that 8.2% of Hungarians working at least forty hours a week are at risk for work addiction. Dr Mark Griffiths estimates the prevalence of work addiction in the United States to be around 10%, mentioning some estimates as high as 15% to 25%.

It doesn’t help that being addicted to productivity may be a “mixed-blessing addiction” (a term originally used to describe work addiction in the 1980’s), making it more socially acceptable and potentially hiding the negative effects for longer.

Similar to someone who is addicted to exercise, a productivity addict may initially be successful in their career, earn a lot of money, and receive encouraging work accolades. But, in the long term, being obsessed with productivity can have unintended consequences, such as burnout, family issues, and health problems.

The BBC ran a story about productivity addiction where Dr Sandra Chapman from Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas explained: “The problem is that just like all addictions, over time a person needs more and more to be satisfied and then it starts to work against you. Withdrawal symptoms include increased anxiety, depression and fear.”

Are you addicted to productivity?

At least in the Western world, our education has often taught us to tie our self-worth to how much we contribute to society. The more we contribute, the better. “I work, therefore I am.” Being productive feels like a way to improve our self-worth.

This positive reinforcement can make it hard to realise we may be falling prey to productivity addiction. However, there are five tell-tale signs you may be addicted to productivity:

  1. You don’t want to “waste” any time. Productivity addicts may suffer from time anxiety, an obsession about spending our time in the most meaningful way possible. As Dr. Alex Lickerman described it, time anxiety stems from these recurring questions: “Am I creating the greatest amount of value with my life that I can? Will I feel, when it comes my time to die, that I spent too much of my time frivolously?” Trying to always optimise the way you spend your time and struggling to do nothing may be signs of productivity addiction.
  2. You tend to turn hobbies into side projects. Let’s say you become interested in gardening, and really enjoy spending time in the garden, learning about different kinds of flowers and plants, and caring for them. You may be tempted to turn this hobby into something more productive, maybe by starting a newsletter about gardening, or a small business selling gardening guides.
  3. You feel guilty when you don’t hit your targets. Whether it’s inbox zero or tackling a long to-do list, being addicted to productivity may result in a hard time falling asleep in the evening because you haven’t managed to be as productive as you had hoped to be. Instead of closing your laptop and forgetting about it until the next day, you may struggle properly disconnecting because of the guilt you feel around not hitting these (sometimes artificial) targets.
  4. You always make work a priority. Are you rushing to finish dinner with your family so you can get back to work? Cancelling plans with friends so you can finalise a presentation? Cutting short your night of sleep to attend an early meeting hosted in a different timezone? While it happens to most people to have to make concessions from time to time, productivity addicts will tend to always choose work over other important areas of their lives.
  5. You constantly feel busy. Dr Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, describes being “crazy busy” as a numbing strategy that allows us to avoid facing the truth of our lives. She half-jokingly wrote: “I often say that when they start having 12-step meetings for busy-aholics, they’ll need to rent out football stadiums.” This numbing strategy may even give us the illusion of productivity.

Luckily, productivity addiction is not a disease, and it is possible to make a few simple changes to avoid falling into its trap for long enough that we start experiencing its negative consequences. 

How to manage productivity addiction

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to get rid of our obsession with productivity, but practising mindful productivity is a great way to manage productivity addiction.

  • Make space for self-reflection. Recovering from productivity addiction starts from understanding its source and mechanisms. What are the rewards that make you obsess about your productivity? Is it money, recognition, something else? What patterns have you noticed in the way you work that hurt other areas of your life, such as time with your family or sleep? Journaling can be a great way to reflect on your relationship with productivity.
  • Define meaningful priorities. For many, work is an important part of their identity. But it doesn’t have to be the only defining aspect of your worth. What else do you care about? What are areas you would like to explore outside of work? Are your priorities aligned with your values? Instead of automatically creating endless task lists, ask yourself: what would be a meaningful goal I can work towards?
  • Don’t pin the butterfly. Remember that not all hobbies need to become hustles. Try to keep some hobbies that are just that — hobbies. Spaces of self-expression where you can experiment and play whenever you feel like it, outside of the constraints of productivity.
  • Reconsider your relationship with time. Time anxiety can lead to a daily feeling of being rushed that makes us feel overwhelmed and panicky. We think we are making the most of our time, but instead we are rushing through our precious time without savouring every second of it. Take breaks, become comfortable with doing nothing, and most importantly, define what “time well spent” means to you so you can make space for these moments.
  • Create your own system. Instead of relying on prescriptive productivity methods that may not work for you and create even more stress, progressively design your own system by experimenting and iterating. Incorporate your meaningful priorities, hobbies, and insights about the way you work best to ensure you can achieve your goals without sacrificing your mental health.

Finally, pay attention to your triggers. As a recovering productivity addict, you may need to always be careful about not falling back into old patterns whenever you start a new job, a new hobby, or set a new exciting goal. Practising self-reflection and paying attention to your mental health will ensure the way you work is more enjoyable and more sustainable.

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