You are not alone if you are feeling the weight of productivity guilt. Not only do we live in a world that celebrates being constantly busy and overscheduled, but even in times of collective trauma (which I think Covid certainly is), we feel like we should be doing something useful with the extra time we might have had. I’m very susceptible to this kind of guilt. Ditto for Andy. It’s a shitty feeling, so I started searching for better ways to deal with it. If you are also feeling crushed by productivity guilt, these tips might help you, too.
Define Your Priorities
I tend to see an unscheduled weekend day or a slow weekday as a challenge. I start writing a mega list of everything I need to do, want to do, should do, might do, could do, etc. And then I need to take a breath because there is no way that I’m going to put in a new garden, bake five new recipes, write the next great American novel, and finish off a brilliant screenplay in one afternoon. I know that realistically. And yet, when I have those possibilities careening around my brain, I will feel guilty about my lack of productivity when I don’t achieve them. Heck, I even have a blog called Those Someday Goals where I outline my goals for the year.
Tip: I started more clearly defining my day’s priorities either the night before or first thing in the morning. And because the world is still reeling, I needed to give myself a break and allow myself to be flexible. Schedules were going to change. Freelance jobs were going to disappear. One recipe is a start. One paragraph of a novel is a lot. One sentence of a screenplay is a terrific step.
Be careful with Should
Should is such a dangerous word. It’s so dangerous that I wrote an entire essay about it in “My Letter to Fear.” Should is always external pressure. It’s not something like “I need to take my medication” or “I need to pick up the kids.” Should can squeeze the life out of you and stop you from feeling good about any forward progress you make. In fact, should can make you feel lousy about an otherwise terrific day because you compare what you did do and feel with how you think you “should” have felt or the things you “should” have done.
Tip: I’m trying to ditch should. Instead of robbing myself of satisfaction, I’m going to feel grateful for whatever I did that day.
Sometimes Nothing Can Be a Good Thing
Everyone has deadlines, and they can be very motivating. But there are times when creativity just can’t be forced. As long as you aren’t constantly making promises you don’t keep, it’s okay to take a step back. We know that relaxation can offer health benefits. But we tend to forget that it can also inspire creativity. Just think about how many times you have a great idea when cocooned in a hot shower.
Tip: Andy finds inspiration in taking long walks. He works out problems, considers new angles, comes up with new stories, etc. And the exercise elevates his mood while supporting his health. For me, a hot bath or shower allows me to let go of tension that might otherwise block the flow of ideas. It can also just be nice to do nothing. Giving myself some time just to sit and breathe is a pretty terrific gift.
Celebrate the Small Pleasures
Productivity guilt can make a person feel despondent that they focused on something pleasurable rather than something that someone else would see as productive. The one thing we have all seen in the last two years is that life is short, so give yourself a break.
Tip: I made a choice to start reading every afternoon. Sometimes that reading period is two hours. Sometimes that reading period is 15 minutes. It’s all good. I’m going to celebrate the fact that I can still be engrossed in a different world. I often feel recharged, and my anxiety levels fall – at least, a little bit.