How To Stop Feeling Guilty About Not Being Productive

It’s the year 2000.

Your time machine has landed you, for some odd reason, on the floor of my living room.

I’m intently focused on my computer screen, trying to choose between three equally bad photos of myself.

Politely neglecting to tell me that I’m wasting my time because MySpace won’t exist in a few short years anyway, you feel compelled to ask two very specific questions:

First, “what the f*$#@ did you do to your hair?”

(To answer your question, the guy on the front of the DIY kit I bought had FROSTED TIPS, not half of his head dyed orange. That was an embarrassing few months.)

How I thought I'd look vs. How I actually looked.

How I thought I’d look vs. How I actually looked.

Second, “what did you do all day?”

“What a weird question,” I say, oddly ignoring the fact that a stranger just spontaneously appeared in my house.

And then I’d think.

And think…

And think…

And I’d get frustrated, because I know I’d done stuff, but I’d struggle to tell you, aside from one or two big things, what I’d actually accomplished that day.

What did YOU get done yesterday?

My reaction to that question actually would’ve stayed the same for many years beyond 2000, but:

  1. I needed to share my shame about my ridiculous hair failures of the early 21st century, and
  2. Maybe if Nick Lachey sees that someone used a photo of him on the internet, he’ll be comforted, if only for a day, by the fact that we haven’t all forgotten about him.

Anyway, ask yourself the same question: what did you get done yesterday?

How about the day before?

Sure, you did [big task] and [big task], but surely you accomplished more in all of those hours, right?

Oddly unsatisfying to think about, isn’t it?

You’re more productive than you think

At the start of each day, you probably have a to-do list with quite a few tasks on it.

At the end of each day — especially if you’re using a digital to-do list — that list is probably empty, or close to it.

All that’s left on it is the work you have LEFT to do. The things that remain unfinished from today, or the things that you’ll need to do tomorrow.

It’s as if you’re on a road trip, but the road you’ve already traveled no longer exists, and you’ve made ZERO progress.

Pretty disheartening, huh?

You did things. You got stuff done. But most of it leaves your memory the moment you erase it from your to-do list.

You’ve actually accomplished more than you think.

Why that’s important

That constant feeling of “I haven’t gotten much done” produces a LOT of guilty thoughts.

  • “I wish I could get more done”
  • “I really should be more productive”
  • “If only I could do more”

And yes, working on becoming more productive is a good thing.

But guilt is a massively unproductive emotion.

For most of us, guilt is the opposite of motivating.

Just like people who feel guilty about eating a donut and proceed to throw their diet out the window, many of us feel guilty about our lack of productivity and use that as an excuse to waste hours of time (“well, I’m already unproductive, I guess today is just going to be one of those days…”).

By eliminating that guilt, we can eliminate our biggest excuse for procrastination and unproductiveness.

How to stop feeling guilty about how much you’re getting done

The solution here is very simple, but very powerful.

All you need to do is keep track of what you’ve accomplished.

Every single task, from the smallest to the biggest.

Do This Now:

Don’t just remove “done” things from your to-do list and forget about them.

There are two ways to accomplish this:

  1. Keep a “done” list. When you finish something, move it from your to-do list to your done list.
  2. If you keep a paper to-do list, or if whatever app you use to track tasks allows it, cross items off of the list instead of deleting them, and don’t throw out the page.

At the end of each day, review your done list (or marked-up to-do list) and be proud of what you’ve accomplished.

That sense of pride will motivate you to be even more productive the following day.

You’ll be shocked at how much you actually accomplish.

Want (free) email updates on productivity, work/life balance and happiness?

  • Tom Redd

    I keep each project in a folder called Projects. When they are done their project subfolder name gets an x in front of the name and thus it means done. This helps in the future when I might have future projects that are similar.
    I have also moved off the get motivated push and into the Get Disciplined mode. Have set times to do things and work for 30-60 mins and get up or walk around. Keep a project chart on paper (XLS) and in front of you so you see the projects that need attention.
    TRedd