Overcome productivity guilt: How to feel good about how you spend your time

Too many smart and caring people experience “productivity guilt.” Whether you are the CEO of your home or of a company, whether you are caring for children or aging adults, whether you’re employed or volunteering, women who contribute so much of their time and energy to society feel guilty they are not doing more.

I’m going to share where it comes from, why it’s harmful, and what to do about it.

Where productivity guilt comes from

There are two sources of productivity guilt. Well, actually it is one but the second one exacerbates it.

First, guilt occurs when you think you’ve done something wrong. Talented and compassionate women tend to believe they are not doing enough. And, while it might be easy to blame women for having such beliefs, I believe they are misguided by society.

Consider the expectations society has on women and girls. There are societal pressures to …

  • Achieve — from good grades to great careers
  • Be attractive — from well-dressed to sexy
  • Curate beautiful dwellings — from homes to dorm rooms
  • Care for loved ones — from children to elders
  • Endure — from not whining to not being loud

There are so many ways in which we can feel like we’re coming up short.

So, when we’re not being productive, we feel we’re not fulfilling our potential. No room for “slacking off,” we feel guilty about taking breaks or indulging in “guilty pleasures.”

Second, productivity guilt stems from FOMO (fear of missing out). When we compare ourselves to our peers, just like teenagers, we can worry that we’re not experiencing all the good stuff everyone is. And, this feeds into that feeling that we’re not doing enough.

Why productivity guilt is harmful

The main problem of productivity guilt is, of course, that it doesn’t feel good. It actually prevents us from appreciating our accomplishments and cherishing what we have. It’s hard to “smell the roses” when you’re blindly grasping at the rose bush getting cut by its thorns.

Productivity guilty also causes us to be less productive. When we believe we’re not doing enough, the automatic response is to try to do too much at once. This is problematic both in small moments and in longer time frames.

Trying to do too much at any given moment is multitasking. And, this is neither effective nor efficient because the brain is incapable of doing two things well at the same time. You may think you’re multitasking, but your brain is actually rapidly switching from one task to another. This lack of focus and concentration wastes mental energy because you end up doing neither task well. Moreover, in the end, you will spend more time doing each task. And this is how multitasking is a catalyst for not only more mistakes but more stress.

Similarly, in the longer term, not having a clear direction can cause you to spread yourself too thin across too many projects or objectives. Instead of doing what’s essential, or less but better.

What to do instead

What does help to alleviate productivity guilt is surrendering to the notion that daily living involves making a series of choices. You have to choose one activity and forgo another, or make trade-offs. You cannot have it all.

The key to making choices successfully is to take three steps:

  1. Be mindful of your choices, and choose with intention. Don’t let someone else choose for you. Don’t think you can do everything. Know that you have to give something up.
  2. Enjoy the option you choose as much as possible. Celebrate anything you accomplish, big or small, as a result of your choice. The celebrations don’t have to be big, it can be as simple as writing it down, a flex of your muscle, or even saying the words, “Done for the day!” or “Nice job, Stacy” (Remember, using your own name helps!)
  3. Let go of the option you don’t choose. Try to forget about it, or schedule it for another time.

[These steps, by the way, are similar to the advice given in The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz.]

It can, of course, be very difficult to choose between two options that are vital to you, such as spending time with one child instead of another or attending an important client versus your child’s performance at school. You may even occasionally feel forced to choose an option you don’t want to. And even when the choice is obvious, you may still feel guilty.

Still, taking the three steps above can alleviate or mitigate the guilt. They help you realize that you are not perfect and remind you that you cannot do it all. Most importantly, you can start appreciating the small wins you make each day.

In other words, the steps allow you to be human and celebrate your humanity.

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This is a revised and updated version of an older article first published in February 2016.