Feeling guilty about not getting enough done seems to be a fixture of today’s work environment.
When The Hustle ran a survey asking entrepreneurs about their mental health, 63% reported feelings of burnout, and 59% experienced anxiety.
As feelings of guilt and anxiety build, it becomes more challenging to be effective at work. And that can create a cycle of negativity and reduced productivity.
The good news?
There are several tools founders can use to change their mindset around productivity guilt and improve their work quality to set the tone for a healthy and productive company culture.
And it all starts with understanding the roots of productivity guilt and how it affects your performance.
What is productivity guilt?
Productivity guilt refers to the feelings of shame or disappointment associated with the belief that you haven’t achieved enough or worked hard enough.
It can turn into a type of toxic productivity where you fill every minute of your time with work activity at the expense of your physical and mental health.
Productivity guilt psychology explained
Productivity guilt is often the result of unrealistic expectations for yourself or your company. These expectations may come from other people, from you, or from comparison.
In a culture that glorifies the idea of “hustle” and equates happiness with success and achievement, it’s hard to get rid of the nagging feeling that you’re not doing enough.
Unfortunately, these feelings of shame and guilt can add stress that hinders your body’s natural ability to relax. Chronic stress can result in lower productivity and symptoms such as the inability to concentrate, sleep problems, physical pain, anxiety, and depression.
Therefore, productivity guilt can turn into a self-reinforcing cycle where the negative feelings reduce your ability to concentrate and be effective at work.
But learning to overcome productivity guilt can improve your well-being and ultimately make you more productive.
Eight tips for overcoming productivity guilt
Here are eight strategies entrepreneurs can use to shift their mindset and free themselves from the grip of productivity guilt.
1. Identify the source of your guilt
Productivity guilt can come from internal or external sources. Understanding where your guilt stems from can help you determine where to take action and reset expectations.
Internal guilt refers to feelings of shame that result from telling yourself that you’re not working hard enough or achieving milestones fast enough. If your guilt sources are internal, work on your self-dialogue and find more opportunities to be compassionate instead of critical.
External guilt often happens due to pressure from others — such as co-founders or investors — making you feel as if you’re not doing enough. Leadership and management can also be a source of external guilt.
When you’re being guilted by others, try to work with them to realign on goals, reset expectations, and find a communication style that works for both parties.
2. Stop comparing yourself with others
While it can be helpful to benchmark your company’s performance to your rivals’ performances, there’s a point where comparison becomes more hurtful than helpful.
According to Better Help, comparing yourself to others can lead to envy, decreased self-worth, and an obsessive focus on your shortcomings and imperfections instead of strengths.
Instead, try comparing your current performance to your past performance. That creates a mindset built on self-motivation, and encourages you to strive for doing a little better than you did before.
Focusing on personal growth and achievement can lead to more consistent results and healthier self-confidence.
3. Learn the difference between busy and productive
Ask yourself, “Am I trying to look busy, or am I actually being productive?”
Busyness means you’re always doing something. Productivity, on the other hand, means you’re producing something.
Focus on goals and deliverables instead of tasks when building your to-do lists. At the end of the day, you want to have something to show other than just a high amount of work.
Consistently creating deliverables will help you make trackable progress toward your goals.
4. Take care of your health
In the world of startups, there’s this glamorous idea of unicorn companies built on the back of sleepless nights and founders fueled by instant noodles.
But the reality is that it’s difficult to be productive if you’re not feeling your best. That’s why it’s vital to prioritize your physical and mental health.
Tomasz Niezgoda, co-founder at SEO optimization company Surfer, advises founders to “get enough sleep, eat healthy food, and exercise regularly.”
Safeguarding your health sets a better foundation for productive company culture as you scale. When leadership consistently sacrifices health for the appearance of productivity, employees will feel pressured to do the same.
Protecting your well-being sets a positive example and permits your employees to take care of themselves too.
5. Find a prioritization system that works for you
Often, you don’t have enough time to complete everything on your to-do list. Use prioritization and time management tools to focus on the most important tasks.
Here are a few systems you can try:
- Eisenhower Matrix: Prioritizes tasks into four categories based on urgency and importance to help you figure out what to work on and what to delegate.
- Pomodoro Technique: Uses timed work intervals mixed with short breaks to help you focus on one task and limit perfectionism.
- Warren Buffett’s Two-List Strategy: Creates a to-do and to-avoid list for easier prioritization and avoids the temptation to work on distracting tasks.
- Eat the Frog: Helps those who struggle with procrastination by getting unpleasant tasks out of the way first.
Experiment with a few to find out which tactics work for you. You can also help your employees be more effective by sharing these frameworks and encouraging managers to discuss them with their teams.
6. Set realistic expectations
Unrealistic expectations are the root of many feelings of guilt and shame. Set yourself up for success by making sure your goals continue to stretch you but stay within the realm of possibility.
Ben Harper, CEO of B2B sales and intelligence company Clarity Stack, tells founders to “plan to do three things in a day, and don’t beat yourself up if you only get two out of three done.”
Holding yourself to impossible standards is a fast way to feel defeated and lose motivation. Instead, realize that as a founder, you wear a lot of hats, and some days you won’t get to everything.
7. Break large goals into smaller pieces
Realistic goals can still stretch you too thin. Sometimes, you can find yourself standing at the foot of several mountainous goals and feel lost or intimidated.
Your biggest goals will take time to achieve, and if you’re only tracking toward the end result, it’s easy to feel like you haven’t gotten anything done. Instead, break your large tasks into bite-sized pieces to create small wins and build a sense of momentum.
Steve Krull, CEO and co-founder of digital marketing agency Be Found Online, sets three specific, measurable goals each year. He then recommends “breaking them down into monthly, weekly, and daily tasks and milestones.” That way, he can maintain a sense of achievement and productivity without losing sight of the bigger picture.
8. Practice not being productive
Establishing a healthier work-life balance empowers you to recharge and come back more alert. But if your free time is filled with thoughts of productivity guilt, you won’t be able to relax fully.
Think of your ability to relax as a learned skill or a muscle that needs to be trained. Incorporating intentional practice can help you become more comfortable with taking time off.
Find a hobby you do solely because you enjoy it. Yes, that means no productive hobbies or activities related to your work. This is your time to really disconnect.
If you want to create a workspace where people relax and recharge, make non-work hobbies part of the dialogue. Share your hobbies and learn about your team’s life outside of work.
Celebrate achievements in hobbies even when they aren’t related to work.
Ultimately, you want to create a place where taking time for self-care and exploring interests for fun is the norm — not the exception.