Productivity Guilt and How to Stop It

Getting off the never-ending hamster wheel of being ‘productive’

Tom Littler
Feb 7, 2021

I don’t know about you, but recently I’ve felt my life has just turned into one big, never-ending to-do list.

Perhaps it’s because we don’t have the social obligations that would usually break up our weeks, perhaps it’s because, as we’re working from home more, there’s never really a distinction between ‘off’ and ‘on’. Whatever the reason is — I don’t like it. Life is surely about more than just checking off boxes.

I call this hamster wheel of checking off tasks, and never truly switching off as ‘productivity guilt’. Common symptoms of this condition include evaluating your worth purely on how much work you’ve done and a feeling of guilt and dissatisfaction whenever you are supposed to be chilling out.

Over the last couple of months I’ve experimented with a couple of techniques to ease this productivity guilt, so hopefully, you can try them out yourself, and get busy living!

Step 1 — Create a clear list every morning of a small number of significant things you’d love to do today

I think one of the problems with productivity guilt, is not setting boundaries on what a good days work actually looks like.

I was getting into the habit of creating a to-do list in the morning and then just adding to it as the day went on. This may seem like an efficient way to work but trust me, the long-term consequences can be pretty destructive.

By continually adding tasks to your to-do list, you are sending your mind a signal that it can’t switch off unless these tasks are done today. What started as a manageable amount of work can soon mutate into a seemingly never-ending amount of work. If this becomes a habit, you will soon find yourself overreaching every day, and there’s only one way that ends — burnout.

Every morning, my new routine is simple. I’ll start by setting a clear finish time. Then I will write down on sticky notes, a manageable number of tasks I want to finish that day. These sticky notes then go up on a wall and I get to work.

Every morning, my new routine is simple. I’ll start by setting a clear finish time. Then I will write down on sticky notes, a manageable number of tasks I want to finish that day. These sticky notes then go up on a wall and I get to work.

Step 2 — Dealing with urgent tasks coming in.

If you do the sort of work where you can sit down, turn off slack, and not have to worry about Kev from marketing asking for a breakdown of the latest campaign, then I envy you, but for most of us, the reality of the working day is there’s going to be urgent tasks that come in, that we need to action quickly.

The way I used to work was incredibly inefficient, if something urgent came in (especially if it was from someone higher up) I’d drop whatever I was doing and complete the task. Needless to say, this would mean I’d often be working late into the night to get the other stuff on my to-do list done.

My new routine is much more manageable. Rather than mindlessly adding to my to-do list as tasks come in, I ensure I never increase my workload from what I’ve set that morning. I do this in two ways

  1. The default action for a task that comes in today, is to write it down, but not think about it until tomorrow. Then when tomorrow comes round, simply prioritise that task along with everything else you have to do.
  2. If a task is urgent enough to be done today, it means something else must be taken out of my to-do list. As I’ve already agreed with myself what a good day of work looks like, adding more to this is not an option. Try taking out the lowest priority item, and replacing it with this new task.

Step 3— Switch off and reflect

One of the issues with productivity guilt is never feeling like you’ve done ‘enough’ – you can always work for one more hour, you can always do a bit more work, and even when you do switch off there’s this nagging feeling in the back of your head you could have done more.

That’s why I implemented a quick switching off ritual, which I find helps to signal to my brain, it’s time to shut down, and recharge.

My routine is simple, all I do is take a minute to review the tasks I’ve done that day, and try and give myself a little pat on the back for the value that they’ve added. As I personally use sticky notes to manage my tasks, there’s something really satisfying about one note being a piece of work. It’s a quantifiable way for me to see the fruits of my labour that day.

After I’ve taken my minute of mindfulness, I dispose of the sticky notes in the recycling bin, and hide away the other tasks on my to-do list, for me this means putting my list of other tasks to be done in a draw, not be addressed till tomorrow. I’ve found this small ritual massively helps dissipate that nagging feeling at the end of the day that I could have done more.

How about you? Do you struggle with ‘productivity guilt’? Do you have any tips to lead a life that’s a bit more balanced in the current climate? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments…

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