How to free yourself from productivity guilt

In our fast-paced, work, work, work driven world, where hustle culture still reigns supreme, every minute, we’re told, counts.

And if we’re not filling each of our minutes, in each of our 24 hours in a day, the right way, we’re failing.

We worry about the time we’ve wasted, take on all manner of time management techniques, and beat ourselves up for not accomplishing all the things on our endless to-do lists.

All this is productivity guilt – and it’s wrecking our mental health.

‘There are many guises to productivity guilt,’ explains Madeleine Dore, author of I Didn’t Do The Thing Today. ‘It’s that feeling that you’re not doing enough, that you’re doing too much, that you’re wasting time or falling behind.’

Madeleine is on a mission to free us from productivity guilt – but the first step is acknowledging this damaging phenomenon… and understanding why it’s happening.

What is productivity guilt?

‘Just as there are many forms, there are also many reasons why we experience productivity guilt,’ she explains.

‘When our days don’t go to plan — because of bosses, because of kids, because of a sunny afternoon, because of life — we can encounter what I call the productivity-guilt spiral.

‘This is where we worry about all that we aren’t doing instead of being open, flexible and present with the thing we are doing (or when we try to do everything we wind up doing nothing due to feeling overwhelmed!).

‘We may experience productivity guilt because we try and fail and try again to live up to the pressures and demands placed on our days — and it’s just too much.

‘When we inevitably don’t meet society’s expectations — or our own — we can feel a sense of guilt, shame and anxiety.

‘We might then seek out the latest productivity hack to bring us closer to our ideal of being productive, successful, or efficient, and when we slip up once again, the productivity-guilt spiral sets in.’

Sounds rubbish, right?

The tricky thing is, it’s all too easy to blame ourselves for this feeling.

Sure, other people might be needlessly experiencing productivity guilt, we tell ourselves, but I’m genuinely not doing enough, I really am lazy, and if I don’t do more, I’m a failure.

We need to recognise that it’s not our fault we’re struggling to keep up. We’re being set up to fail by societal systems that encourage chasing down goals that are always just out of reach.

‘When we conflate productivity with our self-worth, we can never do enough,’ Madeleine says. ‘If we don’t get everything done, we judge ourselves or feel like we don’t measure up.

‘But we’re being set up to fail a little here because we can’t do everything — especially not all at once.

‘Instead of recognising we’re in a system full of false promises that sets us up to fail, we place the blame wholly on ourselves and rinse and repeat the search for the thing to fix.

‘We compare ourselves to other people, and think if only we could be as productive as they are, we too could keep up. But we aren’t getting the whole picture.

‘It’s futile to think we can make the same recipe when we don’t have the same ingredients as somebody else.’

How productivity guilt damages our mental health

All the blame, shame, and guilt – as you might have guessed – isn’t good for us.

Madeleine says: ‘This “doing obsession” may leave us feeling overwhelmed, burnt out, dissatisfied, inadequate and alone.

‘When we don’t meet the high standard of productivity we set for ourselves, we feel bad — overlooking the fact that the benchmark was out of reach to begin with.’

So, how can we start to tackle this? How can we let go of productivity guilt and its ruinous impact?

How to tackle productivity guilt

Name the feeling

Just recognising that productivity guilt is a thing can make a major difference.

Next time you’re about to spiral into self-hate for not doing ‘enough’, mentally label that as productivity guilt, rather than a thought pattern that’s based in reason and reality.

Delve deeper

Madeleine recommends: ‘Get curious about where the feeling comes from — is it our expectations, perfectionism, internalised capitalism, or stories about laziness from when we were growing up?

‘We can also ask if we are overlooking the inevitable distractions, emergencies, and variances in our energy, attention, health.’

Acknowledge that productivity guilt doesn’t actually make you any more productive

Spoiler: you can’t get much done when you’re having a meltdown about how little you’ve got done.

‘The only real way to waste time is to worry about wasting it — the guilt, shame and anxiety doesn’t often move the to-do list along any further,’ Madeleine notes.

Recognise that productivity ebbs and flows

Sometimes you’ll be on fire, ticking off tasks like a machine. Other days, even the smallest task feels like a slog.

That’s okay! Don’t panic. Remind yourself that it’s okay to have off days or moments and that you might be back on your A-game tomorrow.

Be kinder to yourself

Rather than declaring yourself a terrible, lazy, useless lump of human flesh, perhaps you could be a little more understanding of why your productivity has dipped.

Are there obstacles in your day? Are you giving yourself too much to do? Do you have other responsibilities that perhaps other people you’re comparing yourself to don’t? Are you just plain exhausted?

Consider these things. Rather than jumping to the worst conclusions, try to give yourself the benefit of the doubt. It’ll be tricky at first, but try to make this kinder self-talk a habit.

Change the way you define success

‘Ultimately, we can take productivity off its pedestal and broaden the measure of a successful day — maybe the time spent with friends or family, or even pottering in the garden can imbue the day with meaning,’ Madeleine says.

‘This may help us celebrate the variances of the day and our selves, and perhaps have more space for the things that matter most.’

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