Have you ever had one of those days where you find yourself slammed with so many things to do that you do, um, none of them? Or you make your way down an extensive to-do list only to find you’ve gotten nothing important accomplished? When you’re socialized in a society that glorifies being busy, even in lockdown, it can hit you like a freight train: productivity guilt (or, you know, lack of productivity guilt).
“Productivity guilt is a feeling that comes over individuals at the end of their day, or after the most active part of their day,” says psychotherapist Jennifer Teplin, LCSW. “Often when working from home, there’s an assumption that we will have so much more time to do the things we’ve been putting off—but it’s not the case. Currently, people seem to be doing more work, [and are] expected to do more work since employers know that individuals are sitting at home.”
The first step in reducing your productivity guilt is getting real with yourself and your day. Though it feels like we have less distractions with a diminished social life and lessened commutes, things like Zoom calls that drag on for days can leave us with a heavier load. And even if your productivity guilt isn’t work-specific, let’s remember something major: there is an ongoing freaking pandemic. Nobody’s working with a clear mind right now. Doing the basics is difficult.
Take a breath, give yourself a break, and let’s start fresh. If you’re looking to lessen your productivity guilt or even avoid it in the first place, Teplin has a few tips that can help.
How to manage productivity guilt
1. Outline your expectations for the day
Like, what are your bare minimum requirements for getting through this day? What actually needs to be done, and what’s a nice thought that we’re realistically probably not going to get around to doing?
“So often we don’t outline what needs to get done,” Teplin says. “We’re left with a vague to-do list that keeps getting things added to it. Therefore, we can end our day with more left to-do than when we started, and as a result, the guilt arrives.”
2. Keep track of what you achieve within a given day
This is actually why when I make my own to-do list, I break things up into about 40 little parts. It’s because even when I only get half of those things done, that’s 20 individual accomplishments! Silver star! A for effort!
“A common human error is looking at what went wrong rather than [what went] right,” says Teplin. “Similarly, when it comes to productivity, we often forget all that we achieved. [We should] look at what remains as a type of motivation for the next day.”
3. Get clear on when things must be done
When you get really delineating about what must be done on a given day and what needs to be done, you have less to feel guilty for. Like, duh, it’ll always make your life easier if you get things done ahead of time. But if you need to finish a project by Thursday and it’s only Monday, give yourself a firm Thursday deadline, and then a pass.
“My favorite way to get clear is to have a ‘by when’ on anything I am requesting from someone, or that I need to complete,” says Teplin. “If you have something on your to-do list but it must be done in five days, the productivity guilt will reduce since you know you have a few days left.”
4. Look out for the repercussions
Okay, sometimes if you drop the ball hard enough, there could be enormous consequences. Like, if you say that you’re going to feed your dog at 4 p.m. and you don’t feed your dog for four days, yeah, there’s going to be some huge repercussions (and probably a dead dog). Otherwise, get real with yourself over whether this is a matter of life and death.
“Most of the time if we were not productive for one day there aren’t huge repercussions, but so often productivity guilt can make us feel like the world is ending,” says Teplin. “Get real about what the outcome of lack of productivity is, and this will also help reduce the guilt.”