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How to Let Go of Productivity Guilt

Simon Vreeswijk

Director of Marketing - 12 Dec, 2022

How is your to-do list coming along today? Have you gotten all of your work tasks done? What about personal errands? Did you work out, cook a meal, work on your newest house project? If not, you might be beating yourself up a bit. And if so, you are part of a large category of people that are subject to productivity guilt.

Modern life makes people feel busier than ever before - even though, technically, we are not busier than previous generations. Research shows that the total amount of work is actually the same as in past years, and we tend to get more sleep. The problem is that as a society we place a higher value on being busy, and in our “knowledge economy”, there is always more to be done. Another email to respond to, another article to read, a meeting to follow up on - the amount of information we have access to means we are always “on” and able to crank through more to-dos. Then, because we are able to, we feel like we need to.

The simple fact is that we place a lot of pressure on ourselves to be productive. While productivity is great, feeling guilt about a lack of productivity can hurt us. Here’s what you need to know about letting go of “productivity guilt.”

What is Productivity Guilt?

In simple terms, productivity guilt is the nagging feeling that we should be doing more. We have a tendency to believe that if you’re not doing more - whatever that entails - then you’re doing something wrong. As mentioned above, the near-constant access to information, tools, and communication makes us feel like we need to take advantage of it. Furthermore, we put pressure on ourselves to improve the use of time. It can often feel like reading for pleasure is not enough: we need to read self-help articles. Sitting down to watch TV is a waste of time unless it involves a new documentary or catching up on world events. Even exercise tends to get ramped up: a walk around the block isn’t enough, we need high intensity training intervals!

Furthermore, taking in more advice and suggestions can only make it worse. Reading a book about how not to feel guilty only adds another thing to your list. If you plan to set aside some time for self-care, you’ll be tweaking your schedule to make the time. It’s an endless cycle that leaves people overwhelmed and guilty.

Productivity guilt can manifest in several ways. Everything from feeling bad that you didn’t get enough work done to hesitating to take vacation time is a form of productivity guilt. As an example, Americans in general are less likely to take their allotted PTO time than employees in other countries. Even though we get relatively little vacation time and it’s part of many people’s overall compensation package, many of us feel bad about taking the time. Research has shown that people tend to feel they can’t adequately disconnect from work while gone, and that they will have “negative impacts” - such as an overcrowded inbox - from taking the time off. These feelings are part of productivity guilt, along with that common feeling at the end of the day that you just haven’t checked enough items off an unending to-do list.

How Does Productivity Guilt Harm You?

The feeling of productivity guilt has long-ranging impacts, both physical and emotional.

Productivity guilt can affect mental health in multiple ways. An increased pressure to meet goals can lead to an unpleasant feeling of inadequacy and even worthlessness. This can have serious impacts on your overall confidence and self-esteem. The younger you are when these feelings develop, the harder it is to break the habit. Additionally, productivity guilt goes hand-in-hand with feelings of stress, fatigue, and shame. It’s also been associated with persistent anxiety and depression, and ongoing work stress is correlated with high rates of burnout.

All of these emotional stressors can actually have the opposite effect on productivity. High degrees of productivity guilt can end up making you less productive. That’s because when people are feeling stressed or anxious, they often try to make themselves busy with things to do - many of which don’t really matter. Have you ever procrastinated by completing a task that wasn’t essential, because you didn’t want to get down to the real business at hand? This is a common side effect of productivity guilt. Furthermore, many people who are overly stressed about things don’t sleep well or manage their time well. If you were up half the night running through your mental to-do list, are you going to be at your most effective? Probably not.

Finally, all of these emotional situations can lead to physical problems. It’s been proven many times that too much stress will affect not only your behavior but also your body. People experiencing different types of stress are more likely to complain of headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, stomach upset, and sleep problems.  Physical problems then lead to changes in behavior which can then result in lower productivity overall. For example, emotional issues can lead to headaches. How busy do you feel when you have a headache? Or, an increase in guilt can lead to stomach trouble, which affects appetite and energy levels. The bottom line is that taking care of your health is crucial to being the best version of yourself. A big part of managing your health is limiting productivity guilt and the havoc it can wreak on your body and your emotions.

Related Post: 10 Toxic Productivity Myths

Letting Go of the Guilt

It’s important to stop the cycle of productivity guilt, for your own personal well-being and that of those around you. Luckily this scenario isn’t out of your control. There are things that you can do to let go of the guilt. Here are a few of the things that experts suggest:

  • Understand that you’ll never be perfect. Literally no person on Earth is perfect all of the time - it’s simply not a possibility. Even with all of the advice, life-hacks, and technology we have available today to help us live our best lives, no person can simultaneously and permanently do things exactly as they hope to. Instead of setting unrealistic goals about productivity, aim to improve every day. Habits can evolve and if you can take forward motion toward doing a bit better every day it’s crucial to let that be good enough.
  • Remember: perfection isn’t ideal. On top of accepting that perfection isn’t attainable, you should keep in mind that it’s not even desirable. One of the best parts of life is moving from where you are now to where you want to be. Even small movements in the right direction will produce benefits. Once you have reached a “final destination”, it’s easier to stop taking action and making incremental progress. Furthermore, if you apply every best practice for being more productive, your time and energy would be nearly spent. There would be very little time left for the mundane parts of your day that are actually important. Most things are better in moderation, including productivity.
  • Choose a few key goals to work on. Narrowing down your focus will help you to apply your best effort. Rather than trying to get all things done, pick a couple key tasks that are important to larger initiatives. Then give yourself permission to ignore or put off other things. For example, you might create a to-do list of three things each day. Make sure they are items that help with bigger goals that you have (or things that absolutely must be done that day). Then, make a secondary list for items that would be nice to complete, but are not essential. For instance, if you have a goal of organizing your kitchen this week, select one task such as cleaning out your pantry. If you don’t get any further than that, that’s ok. Or, if there is a big deadline at work, pick one phase of the project that needs to get done today, and focus your efforts there.
  • Don’t compare. Have you ever heard the phrase “comparison is the thief of joy”? In the era of social media and a near-constant media cycle, it’s way too easy to see what everyone else is up to. Furthermore, social media allows people to share only the highlights of their lives, and none of the downsides. Even though we all know this on some level, it’s easy to fall prey to comparison and come up feeling short. Remember that everyone has flaws - even the people you admire. Your favorite DIY influencer has had problems with their projects and your hero motivational speaker has had career struggles. People’s clothing, work success, vacations, family pictures, workout regimen…nearly everything presented in a digital format is created to show people at their best. Work on improving yourself, not trying to keep up or surpass other people. Don’t create goals based on someone else’s standards. Instead, think of small ways that you can get a bit better every day. The only comparison you should make is to previous versions of yourself.
  • Know the difference between busyness and productivity. Modern society treats busyness as a virtue, but we should be more focused on outcomes. Being busy and being productive are not the same thing, and in many ways have a negative correlation. Meaning, some of the busiest people are the least productive. Simply doing things won’t necessarily help you to reach your longer-term goals or meet key deadlines. Make sure the activities you’re focused on are beneficial to the efforts that matter to you. Otherwise, look for places to cut activity that eats up a lot of your time. Make it a goal to spend time on the things that matter most to you.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It can be really hard to break long-standing habits, especially ones that are deeply rooted in a lack of self-esteem or confidence. It’s important to practice patience and compassion with yourself. If you have problems doing that, and feel that you are too hard on yourself, it might be worth reaching out to a professional. A licensed therapist can help you to sort through your feelings and implement strategies that help you to be more productive in healthy ways - without the guilt.
  • Set boundaries and practice self-care. In any work environment, it’s important to set boundaries in order to respect and protect the relationships of the people involved. Whether you are dealing with a project team at work or the PTO group at your child’s school, you should level-set from the beginning. How many hours are you going to be able to devote to this effort? What are you expecting from everyone else? Is anything - or any time frame - off limits? Along with setting boundaries with others, set them for yourself. For example, you might decide not to check email after 8 pm. Or, you might say Sunday afternoons are for resting and you won’t do any chores after that. Establishing limits and guidelines for yourself and for others creates a structure that you can rely on. Then, promise yourself that you won’t feel guilty for obligations outside of those boundaries. In our examples, that means you won’t stress about emails that you’re missing after 8 o’clock, and you won’t start a new home improvement project at 2 pm on a Sunday. Think of those boundaries as a commitment to yourself, and something that is helpful for your health and well-being.
  • Leverage productivity tools. A really important aspect of productivity is doing more with less. You’ll never have more time in a day. That’s why it’s crucial to make the most of the time you do have (without going overboard and stressing yourself out). Luckily, there are a lot of platforms designed to help you to do just that. Here are some of our favorites:
    • Evernote - This app makes it simple and fast to make notes on the go. This is incredibly powerful for people who need to jot down last-minute ideas, or share information with a larger group.
    • Todoist - A time management app, this platform is loved by individuals and small teams. The tool is super simple to use, even though it can do so much. Users can get a daily or weekly list of what they need to complete, and they can share and delegate tasks to others. You can leverage Todoist with Shift to make the most of your productivity.
    • Asana - This software was designed as an easy way for companies to track the work of employees and to get the best possible results. You can do everything from creating shared to-do lists to setting reminders for deadlines and sending requests to co-workers. It’s a must-have for departments who work on collaborative initiatives with time-sensitive deadlines.
    • RescueTime - This app runs in the background of your system and automatically tracks your activity. It can show you the time you spend on various things, such as visiting a particular website, or in certain apps. Then you can set targets and alerts so that you can develop better working habits.
    • Shift - A desktop app for streamlining and collaborating across accounts and workflows, Shift integrates with other platforms that you use every day to allow you to work in better ways. Shift removes the time-consuming process of logging in and out of various tools and apps, and allows users to connect all of their apps and extensions in one place. This essentially creates a one-stop-shop where you can manage everything on your desktop with focus and intention.

Related Post: Are All Your Apps Actually Killing Your Productivity?

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Use Shift to Improve Productivity

Shift is an innovative platform that can be used for a better, more organized digital  experience. You can use Shift to limit distractions, keep important context in your web tabs and apps, and increase overall efficiency.

One of the best features of Shift is that it eliminates endless logging in and out. For people who manage multiple accounts - for example, for those who use several Gmail accounts - this is a huge time saver and reduces confusion. Furthermore, you can easily access and store tabs and bookmarks in Workspaces. This makes it simple to have important tabs on-hand and organized by workspace, then bookmark them for quick access later on.

Related Post: Productivity Tips + Tricks From You: The Shift Community

Anyone who uses online platforms will find Shift to be a powerful resource. With Shift, you can organize and manage the following:

  • Mail - Connect all of your Gmail, Outlook, and Office 365 accounts and manage everything from one centralized workstation.
  • Apps - WhatsApp, Slack, Messenger—we have everything you need to get it done. Browse our Apps Directory, connect yours, and switch between them easily.
  • Search - Save time and find exactly what you're looking for across any of your Mail, Calendar, and Drive accounts.
  • Chrome extensions - Enjoy access to Boomerang, Grammarly, LastPass, and many of your other favorite Chrome Extensions.
  • Workspaces - Create a Workspace with the exact apps, tabs, and bookmarks you need, then share it with your team to get the job done.
  • Account management - Toggle between your most-used accounts, check notifications and streamline your workflow.

Improving productivity is a nice goal to have. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get more done in a day - and for many people, that motivation is key in helping them to meet their goals. However, when motivation turns into guilt, it can actually have negative consequences. Keep productivity guilt at bay and simply focus on doing better than yesterday.