We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to continually feel productive. Efficiency, being busy, 10xing your output, hustling: these are all signals of accomplishment. However, it's not sustainable to constantly be grinding. We aren't machines and can't be “on” every single day. When you have one of those days where you’re feeling guilty about not being productive, it’s easy to enter a downward spiral. Getting back on track becomes even more challenging. Here are some ways to free yourself from the guilt and catch back up without sacrificing your health or happiness.
The first step in avoiding feeling this productivity guilt is to forgive yourself. Recognize that today is one of those days where you just aren't going to be super focused - and that's ok. Don't waste time getting down on yourself - that isn't going to help. This is especially important these days. Amid the pandemic, working from home (perhaps for the first time), having the stress of being away from loved ones - this is a unique moment in time. We can all give ourselves a break right now. Perhaps we can even give ourselves some kudos for managing to be productive at all with so much going on. But, even in non-pandemic times, make sure to cut yourself some slack. Being too hard on yourself just continues an unproductive spiral.
One of the ways we might realize today isn't going to a productive day is finding ourselves on social media. Maybe there you see someone tweeting about their success, which reminds you that you should be working. Social media is a FOMO (fear of missing out) engine. Take it with a grain of salt. Just like people posting their fun vacations on Instagram, people posting their success or hustle on Twitter or LinkedIn aren't giving you the whole story. They struggle with unproductive days, too - just like people's vacations aren't as glamorous as their posts might suggest. Similarly, ignore proponents of hustle porn, who talk about their 100 hour weeks. They are probably lying anyway (people overestimate the numbers of hours they work by 5-10%).
"This is one of the most toxic, dangerous things in tech right now," Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, says. "This idea that unless you are suffering, grinding working every hour of every day, you're not working hard enough."
Embrace taking breaks. We've talked a lot about Pomodoro and Timeboxing techniques, which argue that you should be taking many breaks throughout the day to keep yourself focused. Breaks aren’t just crucial throughout your day. You should also consider taking whole days or even a week off. Taking time off might be the most productive thing you can do. Take a mental health day, step away from your computer, stop trying to force productivity when it’s just not going to happen. You might surprise yourself when you take a day away. Maybe you go for a walk or mindlessly watch Netflix. And while doing that, some intractable problem you had at work resolves itself in your head. Science shows this. Project Time Off found that people who take more than 11 days of vacation each year were 30% more likely to receive a raise.
While writing this article, I hit a block. Ironically, I tried forcing myself to keep going. But I kept navigating over to Twitter or mindlessly cycling through my task list to find something to do. Finally, rather than spend time feeling bad, I decided to take an hour and get some exercise in. As soon as I sat back down at my desk, I got my focus back, and it became much easier to write.
Rethinking how you define productivity can help. You might have heard of Parkinson's Law, which states that work expands to fill the available time. There is, of course, always more you can be doing. But is that the absolute best use of your time? Instead of judging productivity by quantity, or the number of items checked off your to-do list, focus on quality. Am I working on something significant right now? Or am I working on this simply to fill the time in the day?
Our friend Daniel from Viral We Grow wrote an excellent guest blog on this concept that we highly recommend reading. Mindful productivity is all about being present, being aware of your emotions and feelings, staying focused on one thing at a time, and finding your workflow. This helps with creativity and overall enables you to feel better about your work.
Here are the key takeaways of ways to avoid feeling guilty about not being productive: