6 Ways to Remain Productive Without Productivity Guilt

Last Updated:Sunday, May 28, 2023
  • Nick Williams

Life is a difficult balancing act—and you aren’t part of Cirque du Soleil, so keeping that perfect equilibrium is going to be impossible. Not everyone is looking to be a bizarrely flexible acrobat after all.  

However, we are all constantly trying to capture that idealized, perfect life we envision for ourselves. And that life requires productive days, weeks, and months. But sometimes, no matter how perfect our lives might seem, there’s always that nagging feeling that we could be doing something more. It’s like the old adage says—the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. That feeling has a name, productivity guilt.

So, what exactly is productivity guilt?  

Productivity guilt is the constant desire for forward momentum without any of the benefits of completing tasks—it’s that overwhelming, anxious feeling of always wanting to accomplish more, or to see better results. Even if you are consistently accomplishing your goals and finishing chores, productivity guilt is that quiet voice in the back of your mind asking, “what’s next?”

Productivity guilt is especially harmful because it does not distinguish between the active and the lazy, refusing to give you credit for all of your hard work. You might be on the tail end of a 4-day Sopranos marathon, or you may have just closed a huge deal at work, gone grocery shopping, cleaned your house, responded to 35 e-mails and walked your dog—either way, our brain is a greedy little jerk that keeps seeking out the high that comes from productivity.

Productivity guilt is hard to identify and even harder to work past, but there are a couple of psychological theorists that have made attempts to get to the bottom of it.

The Zeigarnik Effect—not the new M. Night Shyamalan Movie

Productivity guilt isn’t just a result of our modern times. In the 1920s, a Russian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik, accidentally stumbled upon a phenomenon which can be used to illuminate that guilt we feel to keep producing and accomplishing.

Zeigarnik conceived of her theory one night when she went out for dinner with friends and noticed that their server was taking every order by memory. She thought for sure that the server would forget some things, but to her surprise, everybody got exactly what they ordered.  

Zeigarnik and her friends left the restaurant when she realized that she had left her scarf behind. When she went back to ask the waiter, he didn’t remember her at all. Zeigarnik, super confused, wondered how could someone with such a seemingly good memory not even remember her?   

The waiter explained himself by stating that he remembered people only until their orders were sent out and then immediately let them slip from his short-term memory.

The Zeigarnik Effect essentially reveals that our brain’s cognitive resources are occupied by unfinished tasks, keeping them at the forefront.

By constantly outlining all of the menial tasks we need to complete, we don’t give ourselves space to breathe in the productivity we’ve already completed. There’s an endless mentality of, “alright, what’s next?”

The Zeigarnik Effect proves the basic premise of productivity guilt has been around for a long time. By devising a plan to execute each task thoughtfully we can help release mental resources. Now comes the important part —how the heck do we deal with productivity guilt and free up some of that valuable brain space?

Dealing with Productivity Guilt

Productivity guilt can cast an ominous shadow over our lives—and yet, there needs to be a line drawn in the sand because productivity in of itself is not a bad thing at all. If you can find a way to isolate the experience of productivity from the associated guilt, you’re golden!

Here are some suggestions that you can try implementing to get where you wanna be.

1. Imperfection introspection

The first step toward addressing productivity guilt is to acknowledge that it’s impossible to be perfect.

The mental and physical energy we exert trying to achieve that dream of a perfect existence can produce dangerous results, like constantly subjecting ourselves to anxiety, and subsequently, productivity guilt.

Guess what? Constantly beating yourself up sucks! It makes life un-fun and unrewarding.

Soothing the symptoms of productivity guilt does not start with finding a way to perform around it. Ignoring or forgetting about the guilt associated with accomplishing productivity goals can put us into a perpetual cycle of spending days trying to accomplish as many things as possible, without taking in any of the benefits.

The combination of modern work culture and interconnected social lives means that we are constantly building and grooming our personas and fussing over how others perceive us.

Plus, an increasingly online world is making the term “unplug” near-extinct, meaning it takes more effort to spend quality time enjoying peace of mind or the successes that we do achieve.

Embrace your imperfect self, and you will start feeling and internalizing the satisfaction that comes along with completing a task, big or small.

Remember that completing 7/10 things on your to-do list is still pretty dang good—and those other 3 items can almost definitely wait until tomorrow. After all, there’s likely a good reason that they weren’t prioritized for today in the first place!

2. Give yourself a pat on the back. You deserve it!  

One of the key principles of the Zeigarnik effect is the idea that once we complete a task, we forget about it. Basically, we become tiny, hamster-sized people running endlessly on a hamster wheel because rather than feeling accomplished when we finish something, we move immediately onto the next incomplete task.

Next time you’re running through a busy day, practice a little self-love and spend a bit of time basking in the sweet, sweet glory of feeling accomplished before tackling that next project.

We need to strive for an internal peace where we can be satisfied and proud of the things we DO manage to achieve, even if those successes are not 100% perfect or ideal.

By embracing this peace, ultimately, we can become more confident in ourselves and balance all of the elements of life with more ease.

Embracing relaxation and peace will, ultimately, allow us to achieve some of the things we want, and need, to accomplish. But that shouldn’t be the point! The point should be to enjoy the journey, and then appreciate the results once you get there.  

Immersing yourself in the journey, loving yourself and the process will allow you to extract more value from productivity while discarding all that nervous “always-wanting-what-I-can’t-have” energy.

3. Clarity is key

Rather than obsessing over every individual task, try to spend some time actually dissecting a task and creating a strategy. Instead of being like, “dang, I should really go get a library card and start reading, I’ve been putting it off for 3 months,” create a clear and concrete plan about how and when you can accomplish the task.

By following these two simple ideas—self-love and clairvoyance—we can avoid being trapped by the anxiety of incompletion.  

Ultimately, having tasks that we need to accomplish is not actually what stresses us out. We get stressed out because those tasks have not been fully defined, and are therefore scary.  

Fear of the unknown, right? Horror movies have been using this idea forever—oftentimes, the monster that you never or rarely see is a lot scarier than the dumb looking CGI monstrosity that shows up in the first five minutes.

But if you treat your tasks like dumb-looking CGI monsters, they’ll become a whole lot less anxiety-inducing, and you won’t have to worry about a sudden jump scare that makes you spill your extra large Dr. Pepper all over the crotch of your pants so that it looks like you peed yourself on that big first date.

Not every task is created equal. Try to isolate and make plans for things that are really important so that you can slowly chip away at them. If another task can be completed right away and in a few minutes, just take care of it!  One less thing to obsessively ponder over on the car ride home from the office!

Mowing the lawn should definitely not carry the same emotional weight as calling your grandma. And yet, if they are bullet point number 3 and 4 on your list, then they both end up just being chores to force yourself through.  

Give your grandma a little more love than that! Think about all of those 20$ bills she sent you every year for your birthday!   

4. Using organizational tools

Think of self-help and organizational tools as though they’re a fine whiskey. Used responsibly, in moderation, a nice glass of whiskey can help you unwind after a long day. Used irresponsibly, whiskey can help you make very bad decisions and wake up every morning in a cold sweat with a throbbing headache and an anxiety attack.  

Organizational tools are a massive, growing industry for a reason—millions of people deal with stress/productivity guilt and need to use any available tools to help them manage their overflowing work and personal schedules. Organizational tools can help you isolate positive and negative patterns in the way you work and think, and can help establish structure in your life.

It’s all a matter of finding the ones that will work best for you. For example, there’s no denying that having a nice new pair of Nikes will help you work out safely and efficiently at the gym—but they’re not going to help you if they're a size 14 and you have size 9 feet.  

Like shoes, organization and self-development methods are absolutely not one-size-fits-all concepts.

Productivity tools and to-do lists are valuable if they are used effectively to enable your success—but when they start getting in the way of your happiness, it might be time to consider flushing them down the toilet.

We have gravitated towards thinkers that can teach us how to be happy, and how to succeed. Oftentimes, this advice comes in the form of tangible tools that we can use to facilitate improvement in our lives.  

But here’s the problem. An overabundance of self-development tools can, at times, do more harm than good, as they can create unrealistic expectations in our lives.

On top of that, productivity and happiness are really subjective—what worked for that tech guru/life coach whose podcast you listen to religiously will not necessarily work for you. These broad, sweeping positivity manuals ignore the context of individual lives and situations.

Remember—productivity and peace of mind needs to stem from inside of you. No amount of self-help books or productivity tools are going to act like a miracle cure for productivity guilt.  

However, if you can find a system that works well for you, run with it. If the to-do list app you downloaded helps you get through your work week feeling fulfilled, confident, and productive, then roll with it!

5. Embrace the creative process

Our lives have become so over-inundated by menial tasks and busy-work that most people don’t have time for creativity.  And yet, creativity is a fundamental process for erasing productivity guilt, because it has the potential to be more fulfilling than those everyday chores.

By attempting to re-invigorate our creative spirit, we can push aside productivity guilt and replace it with something much more wonderful. If anything, working on creative projects is a great idea because it will allow you to take your mind off everyday stressors, while still getting that endorphin rush that comes with being productive.

Additionally, working on creative projects flexes a part of your brain that might not get very much exercise. Taking a step back from your daily routine can allow you to see things from a different perspective—and sometimes all you need is a new set of eyes to help reduce stress associated with productivity.

By giving more weight to creative endeavors, we can also help to put the scope of our tasks into a more focused perspective.  

Minimize the burden of responsibility

An important thing to remember is that you should not be attempting to rid yourself of productivity guilt with the sole endgame of being more productive. You should be attempting to rid yourself of productivity guilt so that you can feel happy and fulfilled about the vast amount of things that you truly do accomplish every day.

Sometimes, productivity can be seen as a carrot which is being dangled in front of us by all of the demanding obligations and high ambitions of our lives. We have managed to internalize an obligation of productivity, and without thoughtful productivity practice, we run the risk of becoming anxious, miserable people.

That’s not to say that we should avoid productivity. After all, we are contributing members to a society that requires a certain level of engagement. We don’t have the option of giving everything up and deciding to be lazy because we can’t handle the pressures of expectation. Rather, we need to reduce some of the emphasis we place on the idea of productivity and give ourselves some props.  

After all, we are tasked with more responsibility than ever before. Between managing our work, home, and digital lives, our burden has only become heavier—an obligation as simple as responding to that text or that email right away.

We take for granted how much we actually do accomplish on a daily basis, and that is the main contributor to productivity guilt. If we start giving ourselves more credit for our successes, productivity guilt will quickly dissipate into the rearview of human experience.