It’s hard to feel like you’ve done enough when you’re running on the hamster wheel of productivity.
As I write this sentence, there’s a to-do list the length of a fresh roll of toilet paper running through the back of my mind: read a chapter of your book tonight, finish writing that angry email to the yoghurt company, book that appointment, write in your journal, cook a healthy dinner, do 20 minutes of yoga, call grandma, text your friend and check in on her terrible job, make plans for the weekend, clean out the fridge, unclog your bathroom sink… and that’s just scratching at the surface, the list goes on and on.
There’s no way I’m going to tick all these things off tonight, I’ll be lucky to even make a dent. And who would expect me to? I’ll have been at work all day and, deep down, I know the world will keep on turning if my sink remains clogged for one more day. But that won’t stop me from feeling bad about not doing it.
I’m a victim of productivity guilt. Maybe you are too. So, how can we get over it?
The difference between guilt and shame
Productivity guilt is a difficult beast to manage. It feeds on the idea that nothing you do will ever be enough. You could have the most productive day of your life and still hear that little voice in your head saying: “Keep going, there’s still more to be done!”
In order to overcome productivity guilt, it’s important to know if these feelings you’re experiencing are self-inflicted or influenced by external forces. That is, are you feeling guilt or shame?
“People experience guilt and its close cousin shame when they have done something wrong,” writes professor Art Markman for the Harvard Business Review. “Guilt is focused internally on the behavior someone has committed, while shame tends to involve feeling like you are a bad person, particularly in the context of bad behaviors that have become public knowledge.”
If you’re feeling a sense of guilt for not working smart, hard or quick enough, the remedy likely lies within you; you just need to learn to reframe your thinking. However, if it’s shame you’re feeling – say, you’re unsuccessfully trying to match a co-workers output or feeling bad for not following in their footsteps and exercising during your lunch break – then that can be much harder to manage.
Studies show that procrastination levels can increase in an effort to avoid shame. So not only is shame itself a damaging emotion, just the idea of potential shame can also impact a company’s productivity levels.
Some might argue the same could be said for guilt. Think about what happens to your body when you feel guilty: your heart rate increases, your thoughts start to wander, an overwhelming emotion rushes over you, taking your mind hostage. This isn’t conducive to a productive working environment, and if more than one of your employees are feeling this way, it becomes a bigger business issue.
There are some instances, however, where certain types of guilt mightn’t be such a bad thing. Markman believes some guilt can be motivational.
For example, if you told your colleague you’d read over their report before close of business. You haven’t done it, you feel guilty about that, so you main motivator for actually doing it isn’t a desire to help said colleague, but the guilt of disappointing them. After running your eye over the report, you notice a major mistake and your colleague is able to correct it before sending it off to the big boss. You saved their bacon. So, in that scenario perhaps the guilt you felt wasn’t a bad thing?
However, the issue with guilt is that it rarely springs up in isolated cases, so it’s hard to use it strategically. If we’re prone to feeling guilty around work-related matters, it’s likely we’re bringing that guilt home with us too.
The Zeigarnik effect
Productivity guilt is just one side effect of living and working in an “always on” culture, which has many negative effects on our personal wellbeing. Pair this with exposure to others’ perceived success on social media, and videos and campaigns designed to scare us into ‘making the most of every second’, and it makes sense that many of us feel like we’re never getting ahead.
It’s also likely that our tendency to dwell on certain tasks more than others is hardwired into our brains. The Zeigarnik effect, coined in the early 1900s, is the psychological term given to the act of remembering unfinished tasks more than those that have been completed.
The woman behind this theory is Russian psychiatrist and psychologist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik. She tested it on children and adults by giving them tasks to complete – puzzles, simple arithmetic problems, assembling flat-packs – and allowing them to finish half of the tasks but interrupting them during the other half.
An hour later, she tested their memory of both tasks. In the adult experiment, participants were able to recall unfinished tasks 90 per cent better than those they completed.
While this effect could be thought of as a way to motivate people to return to unfinished projects, it also explains why productivity guilt can become overwhelming. We are biologically inclined to fixate on uncompleted tasks, meaning any sense of fulfilment around completing a job may be fleeting.
Overcoming the guilt
Productivity guilt could be likened to smoking: we know it’s bad for us, but we just don’t know how to stop.
But there is hope. Markman says practicing self-compassion can be effective. It seems obvious, but often the best advice is.
“Imagine that you are giving advice to someone else who is in the situation that you are in — to a friend who is behind on several projects, say. Chances are that you’d be willing to tell other people to give themselves a break. You should be willing to give yourself the same advice,” he says.
Another way to take back control of your productivity is to get strategic about your to-do list. Let’s return to mine for a second. I know that not everything needs to be done right away, but there are certain things that need to take preference, like feeding myself. If I don’t take the time to organise my list, I might not end up doing anything and then, well, I’ll be hungry.
There’s also another way to think about ordering your list: what gives you the most emotional satisfaction? Will I feel better if I write my angry yoghurt email and clean out my fridge? Or if I call my grandma and do 20 minutes of yoga?
Again, it’s simple advice but it’s important that we remind ourselves to do these little things. And when you choose more emotionally fulfilling tasks, you’re more likely to slow down, step back and break out of that guilt cycle.
Another great tip is to keep a list of everything you’ve done, even the small things like answering an email or reading a chapter of your book. The simple act of putting a line through one of your tasks can be extremely satisfying and allows you a small moment to soak in the micro- satisfaction of a job well done. Also, if the productivity guilt monster comes knocking at the end of the day, you’ve got something tangible to look back on to remind yourself just how hard, fast and smart you’ve worked.
I’ll leave you on a final word from Markman.
“You want to use guilt as a motivational tool when you are in a position to get work done. When you’re not, develop strategies to leave it behind… recognize that failing to get some work completed does not make you a bad person. It just makes you a person.”
It’s important that workplaces promote a balanced culture of wellbeing. AHRI’s Ignition Training course Mindfulness – mental health at work will help leaders to identify symptoms of ill mental health and promote positive practices at work.