Stop Feeling Guilty About Being Unproductive

"Slow down, you crazy child. You can afford to lose a day or two." - Billy Joel

August 31, 2015
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Like most people, I like being “productive.” Accomplishing work projects, receiving an award or recognition, and even completing something mundane like washing a few loads of my family’s laundry brings me a feeling of inner satisfaction. But I wonder if our Western society places too much emphasis on being productive. When we get to the point where we beat ourselves up if we don’t cross every item off our to-do list, it might be time to reassess and re-evaluate things. Here are some ways to reduce guilt when you’re not as productive as you would have liked:

First off, not getting it all done doesn’t mean that you’re lazy! In fact, it could be the opposite: are the expectations you have for yourself perhaps unrealistic? I know what it’s like to be ambitious, but remember that you are a human being with human limitations, and that’s okay! Set your goals high, but not so high that you’re essentially preparing yourself to fail. Go for good enough, and take pride in what you do accomplish. I suggest you even think about ditching your to-do list completely (especially if it’s causing you anxiety)!

If you find yourself feeling guilty about being “unproductive,” reconsider what that even means. Running yourself ragged will make you tired and burnt out, which will actually hurt your efficiency and productivity in the long run. On the other hand, unscheduled time can rejuvenate your body and spirit. I encourage you to view your downtime not as a waste of the day but instead as necessary to your mental and emotional health. I’ve also found that relaxation and rest can help foster creativity; it’s during those quiet, peaceful times that you may find new mindful or spiritual insight. As a songwriter, I often get my best ideas not when I’m crazy busy, but when I slow down and breathe. Consider taking a yoga class or doing some other meditative practice to help calm your mind and put aside the cares and stresses for a bit.

An additional strategy to beat the “guilt of unproductivity” is to value not just the achievement of a task or goal, but also the process of how you got there. For example, having children help you cook a meal will almost certainly take longer than if you had done so on your own, but the learning experience they have and the opportunity to strengthen your relationship with them will (hopefully!) be worth the extra time. Even if you don’t finish something you set out to do, there is still great potential to learn and grow from process of working toward your goals.

And finally, it took me years, decades even to recognize that my behavior or performance is not linked to my self-worth. Though it can be difficult, try to stop viewing an unfinished task as a sign that you are not “good enough” or worthy of love. You are so much more than your to-do list. When you fall short, practice self-compassion and let yourself off the hook a little. While your performance varies from day-to-day, your worth remains untouched.

After all is said and done, if you still are disappointed in yourself for not accomplishing as much as you want, remember that tomorrow is a new day with new possibilities. You can use your mistakes and failures to course correct for the future.

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