There are tons of articles about how to be more productive — how to get things done, how to work smarter (not harder), how to cross every task off your list. Productivity is certainly a topic I’m interested in and have explored many times on Psych Central.
But sometimes what ends up flourishing alongside our desire for productivity is guilt. Many of us feel very guilty when we don’t fill every minute of the day with something “productive.” Working on work. Paying a bill. Washing the dishes. Doing laundry. Reading an educational book. Running an errand.
One reason we feel like this is because “we link our behavior, our performance, our productivity, with our self-worth,” said Julie de Azevedo Hanks, Ph.D, LCSW, founder and executive director of Wasatch Family Therapy, a private practice in Utah. So when we’re being less productive, we feel like we’re doing something wrong, she said.
We also mistakenly believe that there’s “actually a point where we get everything done that we want to, or should, or expect.” (More on that below.) And we start to associate relaxing with being lazy, bad or worthless, she said.
If you’re feeling guilty about not being productive, these six tips might help:
1. Move beyond comparing and competing.
Hanks cited the work of meta-historian Riane Eisler. According to Eisler, our culture is organized by a hierarchical ranking of its members. In this dominator model, our ranking is always being threatened, Hanks said. That’s because “if someone is doing more or doing better, you lose your rank or position in the hierarchy.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Hanks explained, is the “partnership model, whose fundamental organization is around linking and connecting.”
The key is to recognize that there’s another way for us to exist. “We don’t have to rank, compare, compete.” Hanks likes to visualize everyone on the same level playing field and focus on the similarities among us. “[W]e’ve all experienced pain, need connection with others, need to work, need to rest.”
But what if you work in a highly competitive environment or market?
According to Hanks, “operating out of fear of being ‘less than,’ not being the ‘top dog,’ or not getting the promotion will likely make it less likely that you’ll get the promotion. [That’s] because you’ll be anxiously concerned with ranking and comparisons instead of doing a good job.”
2. Recognize process over endpoint.
Reframe your life “as a process of growth, not of being ‘done,’” said Hanks, also author of The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women. That is, focus on growing and moving toward your goals, she said. “You can celebrate your growth instead of feeling guilty for things left undone or incomplete.”
3. Remind yourself that “wasting time” also is productive.
Here’s a powerful paradox: We are often most productive when we feel it least, when we’re taking a break or relaxing or doing absolutely nothing.
As Peter Bregman writes in Four Seconds: All the Time You Need to Stop Counter-Productive Habits and Get the Results You Want:
My best ideas come to me when I am unproductive. When I’m running or showering or sitting, or doing nothing, or waiting for someone. When I am lying in bed as my mind wanders before falling asleep. These “wasted” moments, moments not filled with anything in particular, are vital. They are the moments in which we, often unconsciously, organize our minds, make sense of our lives, and connect the dots. They’re the moments in which we talk to ourselves. And listen.
Bregman encourages readers to resist the urge to fill every empty moment with something — “especially if you need to be extra productive or creative for a task.”
4. Confront your guilt.
“We can reduce our guilt by taking it on directly,” said Elizabeth Sullivan, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Francisco. For instance, make a date with yourself to sit at a café, drink a cup of tea, and people-watch for 30 minutes, she said. Do this without any distractions, such as your phone or even a book.
“This little experiment sounds simple but for many of us it is excruciating.” Similar to Bregman’s assertion, Sullivan noted that if you build up your rest muscle, you’ll be more creative, energetic and present with your loved ones.
But if you’re constantly focused on staying busy, “it is difficult in this frazzled state to open up to inspiration, creativity or renewal.”
5. Challenge the idea that not being productive makes you worthless.
For instance, Hanks knew that she wasn’t going to make the submission deadline for a chapter of her new book. She had several ways of interpreting this:
“I could make the fact that I am missing the deadline mean that I am a loser, a failure, and don’t deserve to have another book published anyway. Or I could make it mean that I am human, that I needed a break, and that I haven’t wanted to or had the energy to work on the book. My worth is untouched.”
6. Reevaluate your expectations.
Are your expectations actually attainable or more like unattainable ideals? According to Hanks, “You may fear that if you shift your beliefs to allow for less than ideal productivity that you’ll become a ‘slacker’ or ‘lazy’ or ‘less productive.’” However, she’s found that when her expectations are more realistic, she has more energy to be productive.
How do you know if your expectations are realistic?
Pay attention to your mind, body and spirit. For instance, you’ll feel a sense of peace (in your mind and heart), Hanks said. You’ll naturally breathe easier, think more clearly and recognize and label your emotions, she said.
Again, productivity requires respite. According to Sullivan, “we must alternate between times of action and times of reflection and rest. It’s just the way organisms work.” But if you’re having a tough time resting your brain and body, try meditation, yoga or psychotherapy, Sullivan said.
Man relaxing photo available from Shutterstock