Are you anxious that you haven’t ticked off everything on your to-do list today? Are you trying to take a break, but can’t shake off the sense that you should be doing something? Do you feel that somehow you just aren’t working effectively enough generally or doing as much as everyone else? Then you might have productivity guilt, a malaise of busy-ness that many of us now view as a ‘normal’ part of life.
‘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 or that you’re wasting time or falling behind.’ Dore is on a mission to take productivity off its pedestal and help us to embrace the unpredictability of life free from productivity guilt. She says that it all starts with recognising this pervasive modern pattern for what it is.
Feeling bad about not achieving or working hard enough is not a new phenomenon. It has its roots in in the observation by early 20th century psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, who postulated that people remember unfinished tasks better than completed ones. In this way, for everything we tick off on our lists, a negative bias means we lack perspective on just how much we have actually achieved — laying the groundwork for a dissatisfied way of being that is not only sub-optimal but ultimately unsustainable.
In a wider context, today’s spiralling levels of productivity guilt can be seen as a product of a capitalist system that has an ethos of onward motion embedded in it. Filling our time in the ‘right’ way according to its values — i.e., with productivity, output and growth — is enshrined as a positive value in modern business culture and it’s easy to see how this pervasive feeling of ‘should be doing more’ can become a drumbeat to the everyday.
‘I live with a constant low-level anxiety that I am not doing everything I should be,’ says procurement manager, and everywomanNetwork member Janet. ‘I feel like I am running to tick things off my to-do list, but then I am also always adding to it — so it never ends.’
Productivity guilt also means that we’re also not present and in the flow. When we are chasing down nebulous goals that are always just out of reach, we are worrying about what we aren’t doing instead of being open and present to what we are. Security analyst Eve, agrees on the relentless nature of productivity overload — ‘I sometimes wonder what would happen if I stopped trying to maximise every second of my day — but also what I’m trying to ignore or prove by doing it?’
So, what effect does this constant need to ‘get things done’ have on our lives — and, crucially on our mental health? The idea that not ’getting everything done’ equates to failure is a pervasive idea imposed on us by the cult of perfectionism. It reduces motivation, brings anxiety to the fore and can have profound consequences for our long-term wellbeing.
Nowhere has productivity guilt been more visible than during the pandemic lockdowns of 2020 and beyond, where, according to data from NordVPN Teams, workers put in an average of two hours more work a day while homeworking, both to ‘prove’ their work and juggle the psychological shift to home working. In addition, many people reported feelings of guilt if they weren’t at their computers all the time — and a sense of not getting things done, even with the uptick in time spent working. Rates of burnout soared — analysis by Glassdoor showed a 128 per cent increase in burnout cases by the end of May 2021. And post-lockdown, things have not improved: according to new research by Microsoft Surface 42% of people now feel that they’re falling short when it comes to the amount of stuff they get done every day.
The importance of downtime
Ohio State University researchers recently conducted an experiment to find out what happens when people go through life viewing productivity as the ultimate goal and found that those who saw leisure as wasteful were less happy and more depressed, anxious and stressed in general. A key, then, to balancing this tendency is to begin to prioritise your downtime. But with such ingrained value placed on being ‘productive’ in modern society it can be hard to change your psychology around it, acknowledges study co-author, professor of marketing, Rebecca Reczek. However, she does note, ‘If leisure can be framed as having some kind of productive goal, that can help people who think leisure is wasteful get some of the same benefits.’
In both cases though, this kind of reframing puts relaxation and recovery as an essential part of productivity to enable us to continue to perform at our peak. The irony of productivity guilt is that in trying to be productive all the time, we may well end up being less productive in the long run. So how can we embed the importance of this downtime and restore equilibrium to our sense of self and achievement?
It’s important to realise that productivity guilt nearly always comes from inside us, and we have no real proof externally that it is ‘true’. Understanding that it is an echo chamber of our own fears is the first step to dismantling what presents for many people as a default psychological state, unquestioned and unchallenged. Ask for feedback; for many people with productivity guilt, the opposite to what they worry about is usually true. Others in fact may perceive you as a highly productive person who does a lot — colleagues, friends, relatives may well be mystified as to your feelings of ‘slacking’.
Stop comparing yourself to others too. Productivity guilt often appears when you start comparing your own results with those of your colleagues and try to ‘keep up’ or surpass them in some way, leading to what Brené Brown has termed ‘comparative suffering’. Remembering that your capabilities and your journey are unique, and honouring your own effort and growth can help stop you from ‘shadowboxing’ any perceived ‘failure’ by over working and over striving.
In the end, finding your own relationship to what you really want to achieve, at what pace and why is the key to putting productivity for productivity’s sake in its place. Learning to prioritise and develop greater self-awareness is key to helping to eliminate the guilt of not being in perpetual motion — as is redefining relaxation as productive in of itself. Ultimately, time is the most valuable resource you have and how you spend it is under your control. And as Madeleine Dore notes, ‘the only real way to waste time is to worry about wasting it’.
Five ways to tackle productivity guilt
Recognise it…don’t let productivity guilt be an unconscious mode for you, but rather one that you consider based in reason and reality. The next time you find yourself stressing about not doing enough, re-frame that worry and mentally label the feeling as productivity guilt.
Look deeper…at where the feeling comes from. Does it have its roots in other psychological traits such as perfectionism? Are there any narratives of laziness from your childhood or have you internalised expectations of others or of capitalism itself?
Place value on downtime…It’s time to recognise that rest is a productive activity. Athletes know the law of diminishing returns and understand that optimum performance isn’t just about the effort you put in, but about the recovery too. So, schedule time in your diary for rest and play.
Reach for 70%…Trying to be 100% productive all the time invites anxiety, sleep disorders and stress. Reserve 30% of your energy for rest and you’re unlikely to notice any downturn in productivity, especially as those who feel productivity guilt are usually doing more than required anyway.
Be more productive…by ditching the guilt
Shame, worry and anxiety don’t actually make you any more productive in life, so productivity guilt is a zero-sum game. In fretting that you haven’t got enough done or need to be doing something more you focus on feelings that negate true, focused productivity.