Don’t let ‘toxic productivity’ ruin your life


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The symptoms of toxic productivity may be different for everyone. But if it’s a challenge you’re facing, consider trying these strategies to keep toxic productivity at bay:

  1. Set a daily core three
  2. Link “whats'” to “whys”
  3. Take deep breaths
  4. Shut down

I recently read a blog post by Scott Ninneman in which Scott says: “The beautiful thing about helping others is that you don’t have to be an expert. No, instead, you only have to be a little further along than the person you’re assisting.”

Generally, I like to show up for you as the expert. But sometimes my expertise comes from my own seat on the struggle bus, maybe just a row or two ahead of where you’re sitting. Today’s going to be one of those days.

I’ve always prided myself on my productivity. I’m a go-getter, an over-achiever. I was voted Teachers’ Pet in my high school yearbook. And oh yes, there’s a photo. But in the past couple of years, I’ve noted that my drive to achieve has started to feel more like a need, a compulsion. It’s as if being busy is the thing, rather than the means to a purposeful outcome.

In trying to better understand my own experience, I encountered the idea of toxic productivity. It feels…like me. And I’ve made some strides toward overcoming it. And my goal today is to share some actionable insights I’ve picked up and put into practice along the way.

What is toxic productivity?

I’m not knocking productivity. Like exercising or saving money, it is truly a virtue… until it’s not.

Productivity, in my book, is the act of doing or delivering things that yield a benefit or positive outcome—like shipping a product to your client, publishing a blog post designed to attract new customers, or learning a new skill that will support your professional goals.

Productivity becomes toxic when the act of doing—of just being busy—is the goal. It’s the inability to stop doing or producing even when the need for an outcome has abated. Your customer is happy, your blog is published, you’ve learned enough for today. And yet, you keep going because stopping or shutting down scares you.

Toxic productivity hangs out at the same parties as workaholism and hustle culture. It’s not the party the cool kids are going to.

What are the indicators of toxic productivity?

The slope from productive to toxically productive can be a slippery one. It may manifest differently in everyone. But here are some of the signs I—and my family—noted in my own behavior.

  • My energy was low. I was burned out, exhausted, and not resting sufficiently because shutting down was so hard for me to do.
  • My creativity was low. I was so busy doing, churning, executing that I was missing out on opportunities to imagine, to wonder, to explore possibilities just for the fun of learning something new.
  • I was counting down to Monday. So weird, right? But I was. The weekends gave me anxiety because it was hard to justify working on days designated for friends and family. I felt unproductive when really I should’ve been feeling like I earned the right to rest.
  • I always felt behind. Though all of my client commitments were being met beyond expectations, I still always felt there was more I should be doing, and I never let myself celebrate what I had achieved.

Have you experienced any version of these yourself? Are you finding yourself chasing down tasks or activities that no one else is demanding of you? Your signals may be different. But if you’re feeling off in any way—exhausted, overwhelmed, always on the go—consider toxic productivity as a potential villain.

How can you overcome toxic productivity?

It’s totally simple. Just swallow the toxic productivity pill and you’ll be a new person by morning! Kidding. Though that sure would be nice.

Like so many things worth overcoming, it’s a journey. But the other side of toxic productivity doesn’t have to be rest. You don’t need to stop being productive. In fact, I give you permission to still have busy seasons, even seasons of chaos. I assure you that I still do.

The thing to overcome is the need to always be busy. So the antidote is to be busy with purpose, with intent, with focus, and with a clear understanding of when it’s time to rest.

I’m still on my journey. But I’m making real progress. Here are some of the strategies I’m now using to ensure my busyness is aligned to purpose. Consider experimenting with one yourself.

1. I set a daily Core Three.

Each day in my bullet journal, I begin with a statement of three priorities for that day. These are the three must-do’s in order for my day to be complete. Sure, there may be other tasks that need to get done, but as long as these three have been delivered on, I get to call the day a win.

These priorities may be work-related, like sending off a client deliverable or having a successful sales meeting. But they also include things like taking a walk with my daughters, or calling my dad, or reading a chapter of a book I’m working through. There are no hard parameters as long as each has a clear purpose, and I’m only allowed three per day.

2. I link “whats” to “whys.”

Nothing is permitted on my to-do list unless I can articulate the purpose it serves.

In the earlier days of my business, my to-do list included social media posts or people to reach out to or online courses I “needed” to take. I was so overwhelmed by execution I had lost sight of purpose.

I thought I needed to post on social media because other business owners were doing so. But I couldn’t articulate the way in which it was specifically serving me.

I felt like I should be learning something every day… but the cost of all this learning was that I was never pausing to process, reflect, and actually implement the lessons.

I needed to reassess the value of what I was doing, and infuse some intention back into my days. I do this by listing a “why” next to each “what” on my to-do list.

3. I take 3 one-minute breaths per day.

I’m embarrassed to tell you how much willpower this requires. And yet, it does. Three times a day for 60 seconds I stop what I’m doing and just sit. It’s not a meditation per se. It’s simply a moment in which I pause and be still.

The experience isn’t mountain-moving, but it’s a tiny reset. It forces me to check in with myself, to confirm I’m doing something meaningful or intentional. Sometimes at the end of that 60 seconds, I simply return to what I was doing. But sometimes that brief pause helps me to redirect to something more intentional.

I have an inner wisdom I couldn’t hear before because I never gave it room to speak. You too have this wisdom. How can you turn up its volume?

4. I turn off.

I state an end-time to my “productive” day and I force myself to honor it. Given client commitments, there are days when I’m going until 10 P.M. But those are rare and purposeful.

On the flip side, when my must-do’s are light, I’ll absolutely shut down at noon and go grab lunch with a friend.

There’s no right time to end your day—it’s simply about the act of having an ending and the discipline to honor it.

My current phase of productivity isn’t totally without moments of toxicity. But I’m getting better every day. And if you’re struggling, I wish you the same.

This article originally appeared on Quick and Dirty Tips and was syndicated by

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What nightmares can tell you about your health

What nightmares can tell you about your health

Intense nightmares are often the result of normal things like garden-variety stress — or they could be a signal of a physical health issue.

All dreams occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is essential to mental health. “You need REM sleep to integrate current emotional material into long-term memory,” explains Patrick McNamara, Ph.D., associate professor of neurology, Boston University School of Medicine.

This means your brain uses dreams to make sense of what you experience every day. “If you disrupt REM sleep, whether through respiratory problems, intense hormonal changes or stress, that emotional content just sits there and irritates the brain. You get nightmares as a result.” These dark dreams usually occur later in the night, and women get them more often than men.

In general, you shouldn’t worry about the content of your nightmares, says Dr. McNamara. Lots of people have bizarre dreams. But if you experience nightmares often, talk to your doctor. Most times they are a result of stress, anxiety, certain medications, family history, and hormonal changes. However, other more serious issues could be the cause:

Intense nightmares in the elderly can result in some unfortunate medical side effects and health conditions. 

Bad dreams cannot only disrupt sleep but can play a direct role in high blood pressure, sleep deprivation, and can even lead to the following more serious health conditions.

  • Heart disease
  • Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases
  • Psychotic episodes
  • Sleep apnea

A 2003 Swedish study discovered that in elderly men and women, increased nightmares were associated with an increase in irregular heartbeats, as well as in spasmodic chest pain. That same study also found that the occurrence of chest pain and irregular heart beats increased in 40- to 64-year-old women with frequent nightmares and poor sleep. The occurrence of spasmodic chest pain was further increased after menopause.

Most heart attacks occur in the early morning when REM is occurring, because REM places stress on the body.

“When we switch into REM sleep, our breathing becomes more rapid, irregular, and shallow, our eyes jerk rapidly in various directions, and our limb muscles become temporarily paralyzed,” says the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “Heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and males develop penile erections. When people awaken during REM sleep, they often describe bizarre and illogical tales.”

So it’s not the nightmares that are causing physical stress but rather the REM sleep, which in turn causes the nightmares.

“REM sleep is a stressor because it is stimulating your amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for emotions. Combine this overactive amygdala with poor cardiac health, and you are much more vulnerable to having a heart attack. It’s as if a person with cardiac problems is riding up a hill. It makes the autonomic nervous system overreact,” says Dr. McNamara. (Except in this one instance, nightmares cannot physically harm you.)

Three recent studies published in The Lancet Neurologyhave shown that people with REM sleep disorders who experience intense nightmares that manifest physically during sleep (ie: screaming, crying, punching, and kicking) are at risk for developing Parkinson’s Disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. Healthy people experience a paralysis during REM sleep. People with Parkinson’s, and related neurodegenerative disorders, however, lose the ability to maintain paralysis in REM sleep. This allows them to act out their dreams, which people who don’t have neurodegenerative disorders generally cannot do.

A new English study found that children who suffer from frequent nightmares or bouts of night terrors may be at an increased risk of psychotic experiences in adolescence.

“Our recent research that looked at being bullied and nightmares indicate that experiences during the day are still processed at night and this alters stress responses physiologically. Both of these have been related to increased risk of developing mental health problems,” says Dieter Wolke, Ph.D., lead author of the study, Professor of Developmental Psychology and Individual Differences, The University of Warwick Department of Psychology.

However, we’re not talking about the occasional nightmare: Parents should be concerned when the nightmares occur regularly – over months and even years, adds Wolke.

Nightmares not only warn of possible conditions in your future; it can also alert you to health issues you currently have and may not be aware of. If your nightmares are increasing and the content is often about not being able to breath, have your healthcare professional check you for sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a chronic condition that occurs when you have pauses in your breathing or shallow breaths while asleep. Sleep apnea wreaks havoc with your REM sleep due to lack of oxygen.

William Kohler, MD, medical director of the Florida Sleep Institute, Spring Hill, explains, “Patients have had terrifying dreams of drowning or suffocation.  In reality, their airway is blocked off.” A recent study published in Sleep Medicine found that the nightmares disappeared in 91% of patients with sleep apnea were treated with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy.

If your nightmares are not a symptom of illness, there are therapies and treatments to stop disturbing dreams. Treatments for nightmares include:

  • Hypnosis
  • Imagery Reversal Therapy (IRT)
  • Medication

Hypnosis is lead by a trained therapist that attempts to reframe your nightmares using suggestions to your subconscious. You’ll be instructed to tell yourself when you have a nightmare, “I’ve had nightmares before and nothing bad has ever happened, nothing ever will happen.”

IRT asks patients to confront the images of their nightmares in a safe place, such as a therapist’s office. You draw, describe or write about the scary thing, and then confront it. Look at it, talk directly to it, challenge it.

Then you draw/describe/ write about it again, and make it less scary by rewriting the script. That person stalking you is really trying to give you a present, for example. “This does work but it takes time. You have to do it for many weeks,” says Dr. McNamara.

Medication can also help improve sleep quality. A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry showed that the drug prazosin could decrease nightmares caused by post-traumatic stress disorders. In patients with severe nightmares caused by a traumatic event, the drug has been shown to be effective in diminishing frequency and severity of nightmares.

This article originally appeared on and was syndicated by

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