Coping with Productivity Guilt

Do you ever get that niggling thought of “I should be doing something”, but you’re trying to relax? Or that tightness in your chest followed by the belief that you don’t deserve to be having fun? So, you punish yourself by not going out. That is what’s known as productivity guilt — and it’s exhausting stuff.

Being productive describes a person’s ability to undertake tasks and capability of doing a lot at once. Most of us consider being productive as using our time well or effectively, in doing so, we feel accomplished. It feels like it’s been a good day when you’ve ticked more off the list, than not.

As a society, we’re pretty hard on ourselves when we’ve been a bit lazy. It can stir up a lot of symptoms like feeling overwhelmed with work, low feelings of self-worth, poor sleeping patterns, inability to wind-down. Essentially this is known as burnout.

We see this mentality in our 9–5 jobs, the idea of “work hard, play hard”. Then when the weekend comes, you deserve to rest up. Unfortunately, some people find it difficult to switch-off, including on the weekends when they’re entitled to a break. There is this notion that one cannot afford to waste time, and we should do as much as we can.

Sometimes this theory doesn’t compute well, because it’s actually impossible to be working at 100mph consistently. What eventually happens is that you do too much and risk burnout. Or because you don’t know where to start, you procrastinate, and therefore tasks build-up, so you feel even more overwhelmed — there’s no happy medium.

Similarly, did you notice how when lockdown initially broke out, there was a can-do culture?

“You can finally learn a language!”
“I’ve finally started my diet plan and lost 10lbs!”
“I wrote a book!”

It was viewed as the perfect opportunity to start a new hobby or finish a project — because you have more time. For the people who were just trying to make it through lockdown in one piece, this sparked a sensation of feeling less worthy. There is a fear of being branded as unproductive. And no doubt you may have felt disappointed in yourself for still not mastering French… (Don’t worry, they were probably lying.)

Time in itself is a funny concept. We’re so obsessed with not wasting time, but ironically being busy just for the sake of it is mindless. Imagine the number of times you missed out on brunch or a family meal because you were worried it would affect your productivity. Is it really worth it?

This anxiety then puts us into overdrive — preventing us from being mentally present and enjoying life. Instead, it’s better to learn how to prioritise your plans. So that you experience minimal guilt with the maximum reward. That sounds dreamy!

5 Ways to Cope with Productivity Guilt

  1. Plan your day realistically

Note down what you need to do each day, but try not to overload yourself. There’s nothing worse than not being able to tick at least one box off the list. We know that some tasks carry various inputs of effort, so set realistic deadlines that ensure you don’t rush to the finish line. Prioritise what needs to be done first and what can wait. Remember to include a cut-off point where you will stop working for the day.

2. Take regular breaks

Set an allotted time to give yourself permission to switch-off. Do something you enjoy, ideally that doesn’t trigger thoughts about work and what you have to do. It feels good to dedicate some time to self-care and treating yourself with kindness. This is super important to regulate your motivation levels, as well as prioritising your own needs!

3. Avoid multi-tasking

Believe it or not, your brain can only focus on one thing at any given time. The most effective way to work is by allocating 20–50 minute slots to different tasks. Otherwise, you risk making mistakes and impacting the quality of work.

4. Hardest-first technique

Sometimes we avoid doing the activity that takes the longest because we’re worried it will impede how we approach the rest of the day. However, research shows that diving into the tricky stuff first creates momentum for the day, reduces feelings of stress and the dread of knowing what’s looming…

5. Don’t compare yourself

It can be difficult to accept our own achievements or unique routines when we see other successful people. Follow your own timeline and find a system that works for you, not Steve Jobs. Ambition looks different on everyone. In a world where we’re surrounded by success stories, it’s important to value your own too.

A final note is to really go easy on yourself. You’re not a robot that can function 24/7, so this is your reminder that it’s okay to slow down. In fact, you’ll have more energy when you give yourself permission to relax, rather than push yourself to do something half-heartedly and wear yourself out.

Written by Naida Allen
Naida is a Criminology and Psychology graduate who is passionate about promoting positive mental health and wellbeing. She is a creative writer/blogger and runs an online platform with a close friend called ‘Confidently Anxious’ — which aims to help others struggling with their mental health by sharing personal stories and coping tips. She currently volunteers as a Peer Mentor for young persons.