Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 4, 2022

Toxic Productivity for Writers - Do You Have It?

by Karen DeBonis

hands stress typing on keyboard

In May 2023, I will become a published author for the first time. Learning as I go and with every new tidbit of knowledge, I realize how much more there is to learn—launch teams, media interviews, book readings, blurbs, Amazon and Facebook ads, trailers, preorders… I have to do it all, I think. I have only one shot. I must succeed. Every time I take a break, I think about all I could be doing, everything I should be doing.

Is this normal newbie jitters? Or have I succumbed to toxic productivity?

This term was first coined in the 1970s by New York Times best-selling author Dr. Wayne Dyer. He defined it as:

"a state of mind where people feel they have to be productive all the time, no matter what the cost, be it personal relationships or family life."

Of course, our Western culture was built on unhealthy expectations of work output. Then, when COVID sent many employees home to work, toxic productivity—also called "workaholism on steroids" began to bleed into our personal spaces as well.

But most writers wrote at home long before the pandemic, so how do we know if our drive to create prose or poetry has become problematic?

Some signs of toxic productivity are common to other stress-inducing habits or work environments: sleeping poorly, fatigue or exhaustion, eating too little or too much, foregoing exercise, neglecting relationships, relying on alcohol or other drugs to relax. But there are a few signs that are specific to toxic productivity. Below, I put them in the context of a writer’s life.

6 signs of toxic productivity for a writer

1. You feel guilty taking breaks. When your partner sees you in the kitchen getting a snack, you feel the need to defend yourself before you hurry back to your writing desk.

2. Downtime makes you anxious. You’re having coffee with friends, but you can’t concentrate on the conversation, you keep looking at the time, and finally invent an excuse to leave.

3. You resist doing things that are not goal-oriented. You stop journaling or writing for pleasure because those won’t get your WIP done.

4. Time spent doing anything other than writing feels like a waste. You lose interest in hobbies you used to enjoy.

5. You’re hooked on self-help books, webinars, and classes. Although self-improvement is a worthwhile pursuit, you’re never content with what you learn and end up feeling worse about yourself.

6. Achieving your goal is unsatisfying because it signals an end of your productivity. You don’t experience joy and satisfaction in a completed or published WIP, but instead feel anxious and purposeless. (Writers may experience this as post-publication depression.)

If these signs don’t help you make a clear assessment of your writing life, the key identifying characteristic of toxic productivity may clarify your tipping point:

The key identifying characteristic of toxic productivity is “producing for the sake of producing.”

And what if you conclude these signs do apply to you? What’s the big deal?

Like any lifestyle that encompasses chronic stress and an intense workload, we associate toxic productivity with a variety of health risks.

Potential health consequences of toxic productivity

Write every day

This has me wondering about one of the most common pieces of advice given to writers: write every day.

Could this recommendation fuel an unhealthy drive to produce?

Some do

Many creatives excel with this type of consistency. Memoirist Marion Roach — my first IRL writing mentor—insists that writing daily is the key to success:

 “The when, where and how of writing…cuts to the chase, shuts down the excuses, stops the long soulful sharing and simply commands that you – wait for it – sit down and write every day.”

Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity secret is to use a large wall calendar to mark off days when he writes jokes. "Don't break the chain,” is his motto, meaning don’t allow a day to go unmarked.

Bestselling author Jeff Goins says,

 “If you want to get this writing thing down, you need to start writing every day. No questions asked, no exceptions made. After all, this isn't a hobby we're talking about; it's a discipline.”

Curious to know more? James Clear, a NY Times bestselling author, investigated the daily routines of 12 Famous Writers, many of whom insist on daily writing.

Some don't

I don’t write every day, unless you count tweets, emails, texts, and grocery lists. And even if I wanted to sit my behind in my chair and tap away for a set amount of time or a certain number of words, my chronic health issues sometimes make it impossible to concentrate. I know I’m not alone. Is there another model to follow? Is daily writing a must?

I dug a little deeper and was surprised to find many successful writers who do not write daily, like Cheryl Strayed, Carmen Maria Machado, and even Lin Manuel Miranda, creator of Hamilton, who said, "The moment my brain got a moment’s rest, ‘Hamilton' walked into it.”

And I love this by New York Times-bestselling author Daniel Jose Older:

Here’s what stops more people from writing than anything else: shame. That creeping, nagging sense of ‘should be,’ ‘should have been,’ and ‘if only I had…’ Shame lives in the body, it clenches our muscles when we sit at the keyboard, takes up valuable mental space with useless, repetitive conversations. Shame, and the resulting paralysis, are what happen when the whole world drills into you that you should be writing every day and you’re not.

Letting go of “shoulds” is poetry to my ears.

As I look over the information here, I think about my own writing life. I’ve never considered myself a workaholic, but I do find it difficult to stop when I’m in flow with any kind of project. I’m currently finishing up my final manuscript revisions, and it’s been all-consuming. When I need to rest or take a break, I revise. I justify it because soon I’ll be handing my manuscript over to the publisher, and then I’ll establish some balance.

Of course, I’ll have marketing to do…

My writing habits aren’t ideal, but remember that the bottom line of toxic productivity is “producing for the sake of producing,” and I certainly don’t do that. But I’m glad to know the warning signs so I can keep myself from that slippery slope in the future.

As far as our writing routine, perhaps the most important tidbit of wisdom to add to your cache, newbie or veteran, is this: you do you and I’ll do me, as the saying goes. Or, in the much more eloquent words of Daniel Jose Older:

“Every writer has their rhythm. It seems basic, but clearly it must be said: There is no one way.” 

* * * * * *

Are you on the slippery slope of toxic productivity? If not, what is “your way?”

* * * * * *

About Karen

Karen DeBonis' memoir Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived, about the collision of motherhood, people-pleasing, and her son's medical crisis, is forthcoming from Apprentice House Press in May 2023. You can read more of her story at www.karendebonis.com.

Top image by Nattanan Kanchanaprat from Pixabay

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23 comments on “Toxic Productivity for Writers - Do You Have It?”

  1. Thanks for pulling this information and quotes together for a very thought-provoking post. I recognize some of these traits--especially #5. I also see the productivity drive and feeling that I'm not measuring up leading to depression and NOT writing. Keep inspiring us with your ideas! Best of luck on your new book.

    1. I'm so glad you found this helpful, Irtrovi. Maintaining balance in our writing life isn't easy. Now that you know some of the warning signs, I hope finding balance comes easier for you. I wish you luck!

  2. Congratulations on your book and welcome to the club!

    question is, who are we (writers) trying to measure up to? It's great to have goals, but when they makes you sick, that's not good. I have wound up ill after the writing and self-publishing process of three of my books from the stress of it.

    Some say you should write a book every year. Why? Who made that rule? Do what's best for you.

    1. Thanks, Pamela! I can understand getting sick from the stress. When I ratchet up my marketing, I know I'll be at risk. Regarding how often we publish--I'm 63, and my memoir may be my one and only. Or maybe not. But even the thought of publishing a book a year raises my blood pressure, lol. Do you have another WIP?

  3. Ooof. This one hits very close to home for me. I would add an addendum to #6: you finish one thing and immediately begin another because you feel so far behind that you can't celebrate the win. I recognize those health risks, as does my doctor. My response has been to implement a strict no stress policy in my life with my clients and myself. Lately, I've been seeing the stress creeping back in. I've been cutting back my availability and trying to increase family time. It is a work in progress. Thanks for a well needed reminder.

    1. I'm glad this resonated with you, Lisa, although I'm sorry your stress interferes with the celebration of your latest accomplishments. And you have a lot of accomplishments! I imagine the writing life will always require balancing the scales of family and personal needs vs writing obligations. Keep working at it, though--it will be a win worth celebrating!

  4. Congratulations on your book! And WOW!! What a great article. Very affirming for me. Thank you! I’m so impressed that as a new writer you have this figured out. I have witnessed with great sadness new writers ruin their health and forego important relationships.
    This was a timely and important post.
    I will tweet it because it is so needed!!!

    1. And WOW--thanks for your enthusiasm, Kathleen! I'm glad you shared what you saw in other writers--that validates this piece for me. I was having some imposter syndrome, wondering how many writers truly struggled with their productivity becoming toxic. See- imposter syndrome--meaning I still have lots to learn, lol! And TIA for the tweet!

  5. Congratulations on your book. I hope you stopped to celebrate! I don't write every day. There are some days when sitting to write would be just another thing I have to do in the endless list of things that need done. Instead, at the beginning of the month I set aside blocks of writing time that run from two to five consecutive days. Hubby knows during these times he won't see me until dinner time. And I always post the goals I hope to achieve during these writing stints.

    1. That's a great strategy, Jacquolyn (especially the part about your husband respecting your time. Hmmm...). And I've celebrated every milestone in this journey, with many more to come. I should buy stock in Prosecco!

  6. Karen, when I read your list of 6 signs of toxic productivity I found myself thinking -- with reference to numbers 1-4, "Well, sure, yeah." Not that I needed to watch out for those but that I did them all and liked it.
    Ugh. I know exactly what you mean. I suspect that those of us of a certain age were brought up that way.
    All kidding aside, thank you for articulating the issues.
    I'd expand this comment but I feel the need to get back to the final edits on my WIP.

    1. Agreed, James, that some of the warning signs are how many of us operate in other areas of our life, too. If it works for us, great! The hard part is realizing when it's not working. Thanks for your comment. (Although you probably won't see this since you're back at work. lol)

  7. Thank you, Karen, for your post. I have read many times in craft writing books that you should write everyday. I don't. I have to mix it up and do research one day, write a couple days, then read books on the craft. I always take the time to read Writers in the Storm.

    1. Thank you for always taking the time to read WITS, Mary! I've read and heard the "write daily" advice often, too. I'm glad I finally took the time to do some research and find how differently many writers structure their work. Welcome to my club. 😉

  8. Great post, Karen!
    I did several of the things on your toxic productivity list, which I believe contributed to teacher burnout.

    As for writing everyday, I feel that should include the day-to-day stuff, email, social media posts, shopping lists, and vacation planning, not strictly writing and editing chapters.
    Balance in all things is vital.

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