“I feel like I’ve always got to be productive,” a client told me. She continued, “I feel on the edge of burnout though.” I ask, “Do you ever take time off?” Then I add, “I love days when I’ve got little or nothing to do. In fact, I often plan my week to be sure I’ve got enough free time.” She was so surprised and said, “I would love to be able to do that! I really can’t afford to burnout.”

She thought about it a moment, then continued, “At the same time, I wouldn’t know what to do with a couple hours of free time. Besides, there really is so much that needs to get done.” She said both of her parents were also workaholics who believed in hard work as a way of life.

That leader had fallen into the “productivity trap.” The productivity trap refers to a situation where we have become hyper focused on productivity. Instead of raising productivity, it actually lowers it. Burnout, decreased well-being, and a diminished quality of life result as well.

Extensive research has documented how and why overemphasis on productivity actually decreases it. Checkout Inc. magazine’s article, “New Study of 1 million People: Happiness Makes You Dramatically More Successful.” It’s one of many useful references.

We know we’re in the productivity trap when the pursuit of getting stuff done overrides long-term goals, good health, and doing the things we really enjoy. My new client said that half an hour into a symphony concert or dinner with a friend, she starts thinking about what she should be doing that would be more useful.

A singular emphasis on productivity is counterproductive for the people you work with as well as you. I have worked with several leaders whose unrelenting push for increase productivity cost them, their people, and their organization dearly.

In all of those situations, employees were burning out at an increasing rate, causing a very expensive high turnover rate. One leader lost his wife and family from his over commitment to his work.

A third was retired. He couldn’t wait to enjoy traveling that world. But his need to be productive didn’t end with retirement. It had become a part of his self- definition. He is still working just as hard as ever as a volunteer. No time to travel.

Where Does the Productivity Trap Come from?

We come by our overemphasis on productivity with a lot of help. Western socialization teaches us that “you have to work hard to get ahead.” Some credit Martin Luther and John Calvin with the so-called “protestant work ethic.”

Their teaching emphasized the idea that hard work and thrift were signs of God’s favor. And that we have a moral duty to work diligently to prove our devotion to God and achieve material success.

Historical developments like industrialization and capitalism and our emphasis on meritocracy and individualism also contributed. The advent of factories and the pursuit of profit created a culture that placed a high value on productivity, efficiency, and maximizing output.

The idea that we must “work hard to succeed” is ubiquitous. Many consider those who don’t work hard to be “lazy” and “good-for-nothing.” Harsh pejoratives.

As mentioned in the Inc. article, the opposite is true. Spending time not being productive turns out to be necessary for success. In addition, there is more to life than being productive. Other aspects of life, such as plenty of time with the people we love and doing the things we personally enjoy are important to fulfilling ourselves as human beings.

Escaping the Productivity Trap

Getting out of the productivity trap isn’t easy can be done. It involves conscious changes to our beliefs, priorities, and actions.

It starts with being aware that your automatic and overwhelming drive to be productive is a product of your socialization that was useful at some point in your life. But no longer. It has become unproductive and unhealthy.

With that awareness, you gain the ability to consciously choose for yourself how you define yourself and how you define success. We are not static creature who cannot change our beliefs, even the beliefs about who we are.

Decide for yourself what you want your values and priorities to be. Modify them whenever sound and current data suggest your beliefs are no longer well founded. Take the time to choose for yourself what matters in your life.

Then align your actions with the priorities you have chosen. Make conscious choices about how you spend your time and energy.

Being self-aware, choosing consciously, and acting according are extraordinary behaviors. We rarely are able to develop these skills by ourselves. We need support to remind us of all three when we, once again, forget them.

We need the help of others when we our new awareness must do battle against our old habits and beliefs. We cannot depend on ourselves to resolve these internal conflicts without the support of good friends, colleagues, and significant others.

Be intentional and specific about requesting the support you want and need. Tell those whose support you want, that you have a goal of living a fuller life. Then ask them to notice we they think you may have fallen back into your old productivity trap.

Request that they ask you if what you’re doing is working for you whenever they suspect that you’re operating from your old pattern. Ask them to be persistent until they see you are once again being consciously intentional.

Breaking free from the productivity trap is a journey that requires patience, self-reflection, and support. Be willing to reassess your beliefs, experiment with different approaches to life, and adjust as needed. Use your support system!

The purpose of your life is to enjoy it in a wide range of ways. Being productive is only one way to enjoy life. Enjoy the other ways as well. Take time to enjoy the people you care for. Don’t allow guilt to distract you. Take time to enjoy cultural activities or whatever floats your boat. Take the time to enjoy yourself


Photo of Michael F. Broom, Ph.D. smiling

Michael F. Broom, Ph.D.

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