Toxic Productivity: Feeling Like You're Not Doing Enough

Toxic Productivity: Feeling Like You're Not Doing Enough
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Do you often feel like you’re ‘not doing enough’? Are you living with a permanent to-do list built into your mind? A list with an addendum of ‘shoulds’ that tortures you. One that claims You ‘should’ be doing this or ‘should’ be doing that, or you ‘should’ve’ finished that, and you ‘should’ve’ started the next task.

Society is extremely competitive today. It’s one where you’re soon taught that productive people never stop and that resting or simply doing nothing is synonymous with laziness and waste of time. In fact, you’re told that time is money and you have to know how to take advantage of it and make it profitable.

This causes you to become trapped by feelings of chronic stress and permanent dissatisfaction. Indeed, it doesn’t matter how much you make, how much you produce, or how many hours you put into your day, it’ll never be enough for that inner torturer who judges you every moment and doesn’t allow you a minute’s rest.

Toxic productivity is a new term to describe an increasingly common reality: the need to be productive at all times.

man with the feeling of "not doing enough"

Toxic Productivity Syndrome or the feeling of ‘not doing enough’

Work, home, family… The day has 24 hours, but even so you always seem to lack time. There’s always that anxious feeling of not doing enough. Even those who are unemployed aren’t spared. For example, they tend to feel they’re not sending off enough resumes or applying for enough jobs.

Thinking about not being productive enough is a mental trap. The renowned psychologist, Albert Ellis told us this many years ago. Indeed, few thoughts orchestrate as much suffering as I should or I have to. They’re mental devices that attack your happiness. In addition, they lay the foundation for anxiety and depression disorders. As a matter of fact, there are few things as overwhelming as the feeling of not being good enough or not doing enough.

Toxic productivity syndrome is here to stay

Toxic productivity is a new term that defines a reality that’s increasing more and more. This means that the feeling of not doing enough has intensified exponentially.

You might find yourself becoming a martyr of virtual work. You force yourself to learn new skills. For example, languages, cooking, new recipes, courses. As a matter of fact, few people use their free time to rest and mentally reset.

This mental focus isn’t new. In fact, it’s been lying dormant in the cellar of your self-awareness. However, in the context of change and uncertainty it rises up and your self-demand becomes greater. You have to work harder not to lose your job, and study more to stay competitive. Furthermore, the more effort you make, the more you feel you’re not doing enough.

You’re living in a culture where your self-esteem is based only on what you do. Therefore, the harder you try, the more you’re worth. However, if you’re not seen to be doing something to improve yourself every day, you feel like you’re worthless.

Why do you have the constant feeling of ‘not doing enough’?

The feeling of not doing enough is a cultural product that you’ve internalized from an early age. In fact, you measure your worth on what you do and how much time you spend doing it. Furthermore, you continue to assume that the person who invests the most hours is more productive. Also, that the one who accumulates the most accolades is brighter and more capable.

The feeling of always having to have more is the result of your education, your social context, and even your social media. Because, in this context, whoever publishes more has greater visibility, and whoever gets the best photo and uses the best filter, gets the most likes. For this reason, you find yourself having to try much harder in almost any kind of scenario.

Behind toxic productivity lies self-demand and perfectionism. These two dimensions are often related to anxiety disorders and depression. The University of Utah and the University of Saint Louis (USA) conducted research that highlighted the effect of this maladaptive perfectionism: the appearance of mental problems.

The feeling of not doing enough is nothing more than a cognitive distortion. Sooner or later it leads to suffering. In fact, negative valence emotions, social comparison, lowered self-esteem, and even depression often appear.

Sad and apathetic woman

How to act when you’re faced with the feeling that nothing you do is enough

Allowing yourself to do nothing for a few hours is really helpful. That’s because, by doing this, you’re taking care of your physical and psychological health. However, it’s not easy to change your internal narrative. In fact, cognitive distortions are like the cobalt or tungsten in your cell phone, they’re always there, they’re an integral part of you.

Fighting the syndrome of toxic productivity (or the feeling that you’re not doing enough) requires that you stop feeling guilty when you relax. Furthermore, you must reduce the ‘shoulds’ and the ‘have tos’. Breaking that spiral of self-destruction and suffering requires being aware of your thoughts, attitudes, and internal dialogue.

Planning your rest times, setting yourself less demanding goals, and allowing yourself just ‘to be’ instead of pressuring yourself to achieve the unattainable will undoubtedly be a good start.


All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Devarajan, Vimeeka & Sinha, Pranjal & Kulsoom, Zainab & Lakhotia, Chetna. (2021). A study on how the COVID-19 lockdown affected Productivity, Anxiety, and Internalization of negative thoughts. 2455-6211.
  • Fan LB, Blumenthal JA, Watkins LL, Sherwood A. Work and home stress: associations with anxiety and depression symptoms. Occup Med (Lond). 2015 Mar;65(2):110-6. doi: 10.1093/occmed/kqu181. Epub 2015 Jan 14. PMID: 25589707; PMCID: PMC4402380.
  • Hu KS, Chibnall JT, Slavin SJ. Maladaptive Perfectionism, Impostorism, and Cognitive Distortions: Threats to the Mental Health of Pre-clinical Medical Students. Acad Psychiatry. 2019 Aug;43(4):381-385. doi: 10.1007/s40596-019-01031-z. Epub 2019 Feb 6. PMID: 30725427.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.