It can be easy to feel like you are falling behind. On top of a steady job or school life, most Americans are also expected to set aside time to work on hobbies, exercise, eat three healthy meals a day, sleep eight hours a night, and practice general self-care and self-improvement. When we do not meet our goals for our work, school, or personal life, we may feel ashamed, overwhelmed, or guilty—sometimes called “productivity guilt” (Kwok, 2019). While this is a very normal feeling, productivity guilt can damage your mental health, making you feel anxious, overworked, and irritated; it can even lead to decreases in motivation and eventual burnout (Kwok, 2019). In order to prevent feelings of guilt and anxiety, it is therefore important to reconsider the ways in which we understand productivity and examine ways in which we can optimize time spent working.
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In many developed countries like the United States, there is a strong cultural influence of productivity (Leshed & Sengers, 2011). Leading a life that is busy and productive is seen as desirable, and those who have excess free time may be viewed as lazy. Sometimes, people even brag about how busy they are, and having no time for a break or vacation has even become a status symbol in some parts of the West (Keinan et al., 2019). In fact, productivity is so valuable to us that we tie it closely to self-worth (Tartakovsky, 2015; Kwok, 2019), meaning that if we fail to achieve our productivity goals we may ourselves feel like a failure. As a result, when we inevitably miss a couple tasks we may end up feeling guilty or as if we have “fallen behind.”
At its core, productivity guilt originates from a mindset. This mindset tells you that nothing short of perfection is acceptable, that you have to constantly be busy to be successful, and that you are not worthy of free time until you have completed everything on your to-do list. One of the strongest means of lessening productivity guilt, then, is changing your mindset (Kwok, 2019). This strategy is an example of cognitive reappraisal, a process in which you change your perspective of a stressful or emotional situation to make it less stressful. Cognitive reappraisal is an incredibly powerful tool, and individuals who approach emotional situations by reinterpreting it and using reappraisal tend to have stronger relationships, more positive mood, better responses to stress, and greater psychological well-being (Gross & John, 2003; Feinberg et al., 2020). In the workplace, cognitive reappraisal can increase job satisfaction, boost performance, and decrease burnout (Feinberg et al., 2020). You can use cognitive reappraisal to flip your mindset on productivity by reminding yourself of a few things:
It is natural to be dissatisfied with the amount of work you were able to complete in a day. It is important, however, not to let these feelings damage your self-worth. Understand that you need a break and missing a deadline does not necessarily make you lazy or a failure (Tartakovsky, 2015).
Oftentimes, getting things done involves compromise—you must forget one thing to focus on another. You will inevitably have to give up on some things, and so it is important to learn how to optimize your time. One of the ways of doing this which can help with your productivity and reduce feelings of guilt is through time management methods like the Eisenhower Matrix (Kwok, 2019).
To use the Eisenhower Matrix, first write down four categories—(1) urgent and important; (2) urgent and unimportant; (3) not urgent and important; and (4) not urgent and unimportant. Then, sort all of the things on your to-do list into these categories. You can even visualize this process by plotting them on a graph with importance and urgency on the Y and X axis, respectively. After you have made a list, focus on getting the important and urgent tasks completed, and forget about the rest for the moment. You may want to schedule some time to complete tasks that are not important but urgent or important but not urgent, but those that are neither important nor urgent are probably not worth your time.
Another way you can manage your expectations for what you need to do each day is through mapping out your time and tracking your daily progress (Knight, 2020). Take notice of how many things you end up accomplishing at the end of each day. If you notice you are consistently able to do a couple less tasks than are on your to-do list, it could be a sign that you should streamline your list. Make sure all of your goals for a given amount of time are realistically achievable, even if it means giving up on some tasks. You can also spend a few days recording each activity you do in a day (e.g., “ate lunch 12:30-1:00, worked 1:00-1:45, exercised 1:45-2:30,” etc.). This can give you a better sense of where your time is going and how you might be able to optimize your time for both working and resting.
These time management tools should help to give you a greater perspective on the time that you are spending and ways in which you could be more productive. However, do not forget the tools of cognitive reappraisal: being busy is not everything, and taking breaks and resting is central to your physical and psychological well-being.
Especially with a cultural emphasis on busyness, productivity guilt is a ubiquitous problem. The expectation that we work overtime and fill our days with endless chores, errands, and to-do lists can leave many feeling unaccomplished and dissatisfied; this can in turn contribute to feelings of anxiety and guilt that can negatively impact self-worth. In order to combat these feelings, cognitive reappraisal and time management are valuable tools that can put one’s accomplishments into perspective and balance leisure time with working time, lessening productivity guilt while maximizing productivity.
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Feinberg, M., Ford, B. Q., & Flynn, F. J. (2020). Rethinking reappraisal: The double-edged sword of regulating negative emotions in the workplace. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 161, 1-19. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0749597818305193
Gross, J. J., & John, O. P. (2003). Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(2), 348-362. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12916575/
Keinan, A., Bellezza, S., & Paharia, N. (2019). The symbolic value of time. Current Opinion in Psychology, 26, 58-61. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352250X18300514
Knight, R. (2020). Stop feeling guilty about your to-do list. hbr.org. https://hbr.org/2020/03/stop-feeling-guilty-about-your-to-do-list
Kwok, C. (2019). Why you feel guilty about being unproductive (and how to fix it). Medium.com. https://medium.com/@chatwithcherrie/why-you-feel-guilty-about-being-unproductive-and-how-to-fix-it-d9abede72cf3
Leshed, G., & Sengers, P. (May 7, 2011). “I lie to myself that I have freedom in my own schedule”: Productivity tools and experiences of busyness. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 905–914. https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/1978942.1979077
Tartakovsky, M. (2015). Reducing your guilt about not being productive. PsychCentral.com. https://psychcentral.com/blog/reducing-your-guilt-about-not-being-productive#1