Have you ever felt like you’re not doing enough? You appear to be doing everything you’re supposed to do, but your performance and output fall short.

Do you worry that if you can’t exceed expectations, your colleagues will view you as a lazy failure who will never succeed in your career? While you should be celebrating recent victories and accomplishments, you may be constantly looking for the next task. In the end, you don’t want to look bad in the eyes of your employer, clients, or peers by doing nothing.

We all experience that occasionally. And, there’s even a name for it. It’s called productivity guilt.

This is basically a feeling of guilt about not meeting your expectations, resulting in you increasing the amount of work you do to meet these nonexistent (and frankly unrealistic) expectations of hyper-productivity and to avoid seeming to be doing nothing.

We must accept, however, that we are only human and know when enough is enough in order to succeed in the modern workplace. Not only is this crucial to our long-term career success, but a healthy work-life balance cannot exist with productivity guilt constantly looming over our shoulders.

So, instead of beating yourself up, cut yourself some slack. I know. That’s easier said than done. But, here are some ways to avoid feeling guilty about not being productive.

How to Avoid Feeling Guilty About Not Being Productive

1. Change your mindset.

Productivity guilt is largely a mindset issue. It tells you not to settle for less than perfection. That you need to be constantly busy in order to be successful. And to not enjoy free time until you have completed everything on your to-do list.

So, by changing your mindset, you can lessen productivity guilt.

As an example of cognitive reappraisal, this strategy involves changing your perspective of an emotionally or psychologically stressful situation. Using cognitive reappraisal is extremely powerful. Reinterpreting emotional situations is also a method of coping with emotional situations. Additionally, people who reappraise have stronger relationships, more positive moods, better responses to stress, and greater psychological well-being.

In the workplace, cognitive reappraisal can boost performance, reduce burnout, and increase job satisfaction.

Using cognitive reappraisal, you can flip your mindset on productivity by reminding yourself of the following:

  • Recognize the importance of rest. Seeing rest as beneficial may be difficult. If you take some time to relax, you will feel better and be more productive when you return to work. It can even be helpful to schedule specific times for rest and relaxation, which will motivate you to continue working as you anticipate your break.
  • Rather than focusing on perfection, focus on the process. It is impossible to accomplish everything in a day, week, or year; there will always be things you cannot accomplish. Place more emphasis on learning and growing during the process rather than trying to accomplish everything you want. Because we expect to accomplish more than we are able to, unrealistic expectations often lead to productivity guilt. When you accept that you cannot complete a project, you will experience less anxiety and regret afterward.
  • Consider all you’ve accomplished. Perhaps you haven’t had time to answer emails or write papers as you would have liked. Maybe you helped a family member with a project, picked up a friend whose car broke down, or did some chores around the house. Rather than stressing over the few things you didn’t accomplish, focus on the many things you did.

There is no shame in being dissatisfied with the amount of work you accomplish in a day. Do not, however, allow these feelings to diminish your self-esteem. Missing a deadline doesn’t mean you’re lazy or a failure; you just need a break.

2. Don’t fall into the comparison trap.

Our daily lives are filled with comparisons, whether it’s on Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok, or even LinkedIn. Social media, however, fuels FOMO (fear of missing out). So, don’t take it too seriously.

In the same way, people post their vacation photos on Instagram, and people post their success stories on Twitter or LinkedIn but don’t give you the full picture. Likewise, they struggle with unproductive days, just as vacations aren’t always as glamorous as the pictures show. Similarly, do not listen to hustle porn advocates who talk about working 100 hours a week. They are probably lying anyway. In fact, people overestimate their working hours by 5-10%.

“This is one of the most toxic, dangerous things in tech right now,” says Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit. “This idea that unless you are suffering, grinding, working every hour of every day, you’re not working hard enough.”

3. Outline your expectations for the day.

What is your bare minimum requirement for making it through the day? What absolutely needs to be done? Is there something nice that we won’t get around to doing, realistically?

“So often we don’t outline what needs to get done,” says psychotherapist Jennifer Teplin, LCSW. “We’re left with a vague to-do list that keeps getting things added to it. Therefore, we can end our day with more left to do than when we started, and as a result, the guilt arrives.”

4. Tame it by naming it.

According to author and psychologist Peter Levine, accurately naming your emotional experience can help turn on the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that is capable of logical reasoning. In place of that, “turn down” the volume of your amygdala, which is the brain’s “panic button.”

What you’re experiencing can be accurately named as follows:

  • Time anxiety. In terms of time anxiety, there are three types. In the first place, we have existential time anxiety, which is the feeling that life is short. You can also suffer from future time anxiety, which is a concern about how current actions will affect the future. If you feel that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day, you may experience daily time anxiety. When you experience time anxiety, your body’s fight-or-flight system malfunctions even though you are not at risk. By merely labeling this feeling as anxiety-nothing more or less-you’ll be able to stop yourself from going down a rabbit hole of self-awareness questions like, “But what does it say about me that I’m getting anxious?”
  • Emotional reasoning. Our emotions are viewed as evidence that something exists in reality according to this cognitive distortion. In other words, emotional reasoning is the process of saying, “The guilt I’m feeling must mean there’s something to feel guilty about.” From there, your brain will think of all of the reasons why this feeling is “legitimate.” You can see how this can be problematic. The feelings we experience are temporary, not permanent. Furthermore, they tend to be picky. Have you ever felt a certain way before eating a snack and realizing that you were just really hungry? A wide range of factors can affect our emotional state, including how much sleep we get, what we eat, how much exercise we get, and the weather. Basically, they don’t always make good narrators.
  • Disproportionate guilt. Keeping in mind that what you’re feeling is disproportionate guilt based on the many social messages you’ve heard can help normalize your feelings.

By validating and naming our feelings, we can also externalize them, allowing us to view them from a distance and from an analytical standpoint instead of being completely influenced by them.

5. Understand the difference between being busy and being productive.

“Are you being busy or productive?” asks Choncé Maddox in a previous Calendar article. “Determining the difference between being busy and productive is key if you ever want to be able to come up for air and still know that you’re reaching your goals.”

“I hate the word busy because it’s so overused,” she adds. The majority of us have a full schedule and many things going on at the same time. The fact that ‘busy’ is worn as a badge of honor doesn’t sit well with me. “When I used to glorify my busy life, I realized that I only did so because it seemed nearly impossible to escape.”

Being constantly busy becomes a horrible experience after some time. “This is why I prioritize focusing on being productive over being busy,” says Choncé. “The word ‘productive’ just sounds better, and it is. Being productive means you’re focusing on getting results and making progress, not just spending day after day putting out fires and barely staying afloat.”

Generally speaking, here’s the difference between being busy and productive:

  • People who are busy are always adding to their to-do lists. The mistake they make is to believe that adding more to their plate will make them more productive. Productive people, on the other hand, “understand that it’s more about quality than quantity.
  • Busy people jump at every assignment or opportunity. Not only does this lead to burnout, but it also prevents you from tackling your priorities. Productive people are more selective.
  • In order to accomplish more in a shorter period of time, busy people often multitask. The brain was not designed to handle multiple tasks at once, so multitasking rarely works. Instead, focus on one task at a time.
  • If you’re constantly juggling assignments and saying yes to everything, it can be hard not to give in to distractions. Having a plan is what separates being busy from being productive. If you want to become more productive, you must realize that distractions exist and will arise frequently. Establish some ways to prevent and avoid distractions early on.
  • The person who prides himself or herself on being busy may believe that working constantly will lead to success and success. Hard work and its importance are understood by productive people. However, they realize that working smarter is more beneficial than working harder.

6. Focus on the process rather than the outcome.

It’s easy to lose sight of everything in between when we focus on what we think will be “the big change” that will make everything better.

It’s easy to tell yourself, “I’ll rest when I’m dead,” or “I won’t stop being productive until I make $250k a year.”

By doing this, we miss out on the opportunity and benefits of being in the present. The moment in front of us is lost when we are preoccupied with what ‘should’ be done.

Instead of spending six hours in your office, go for a stroll to your favorite coffee shop and work for an hour or two while still enjoying the day. It might even be possible for you to spread out the rest of your work throughout the week.

Take a moment to “appreciate the present moment.” Let yourself enjoy the journey you are on and the lessons you have learned along the way. Once it’s gone, there’s no way to get it back.

Of course, resting can be difficult if you are constantly thinking about the past or future. However, make an attempt to stay present at all times.

For example, if you focus on work while you’re working, you will be more relaxed when you’re relaxing. Mindfulness meditation is also an option you may want to consider.

7. You don’t always have to sit at your desk to be productive.

There is no way to overstate how important it is to take breaks. That’s why we’ve discussed Pomodoro and Timeboxing so much. It is argued in these strategies that you should take many breaks throughout the day to stay focused and energized.

The importance of taking breaks throughout your day doesn’t stop there. It would also be a good idea to take a week off or even a whole day off. You might be most productive if you take some time off.

If productivity isn’t happening, take a mental health day, step away from the computer, and stop trying to force it. When you take a day off, you may be surprised by what you discover. Watching Netflix or taking a walk might be your way to unwind. During that time, you resolve some intractable issues at work. In fact, a study by Project Time Off found that people who took more than 11 days of vacation each year received 30% more raises.

8. Redefine productivity.

You can improve productivity by rethinking how you define it. There is a law known as Parkinson’s Law that states that work expands to fill the available time. You can always do more, of course. Is that the most efficient use of your time, though?

Focus on quality instead of quantity when judging productivity. Is my current work significant? Like, is this current bringing me closer to achieving a goal. Or is this just something I do to fill my day?

9. It’s OK to be lazy.

“Laziness tends to get a bad rap,” states Deanna Ritchie in a previous Calendar piece. “And, to be real — that’s a fair assessment. I mean it’s difficult to get things done when you’re just vegging out on the couch all day.”

However, laziness isn’t as bad as it seems — and if the word “lazy” is a swear word to you, call it something else. Self-care, protecting your asset, unwinding, debriefing, relaxing. Suppose you’ve had an exhausting day so far — and there’s no sign of an end in sight. What’s the worst that could happen if you do nothing for 15 minutes? And, the same goes for unplugging and relaxing on a Saturday after a long week.

It’s impossible to be “on” all of the time. We all need time to relax, kick back, and be lazy from time to time. If this still feels wrong to you, here are seven perks of laziness.

  • You’ll prevent burnout from happening.
  • When you’re lazy, you’re more rested. In turn, this improves your physical and mental health.
  • Laziness can give you more efficiency and effectiveness, just like finding shorter and less intense workouts.
  • As our attention rests, our thoughts wander to fascinating places. In turn, this improves our focus and planning.
  • When you let your mind wander, you have the opportunity to reflect. As a consequence, this makes you more emotionally intelligent.
  • Encourages you to actively procrastinate. Not only does this spark creativity and improve decision-making, but it also makes you question what’s important to you.
  • You won’t waste your time and energy on monotonous work, unnecessary meetings, busy work, or hopeless endeavors.

Image Credit: Polina Zimmerman; Pexels; Thank you!