Guilt and Productivity

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Rachel’s recent blog on practical steps toward consistent productivity set my mind whirling about how I could be more productive. Then, later that day, I found myself engaged in a number of conversations with people who confessed the substantial guilt they felt over not being productive enough. That set my mind to thinking more deeply about productivity.

Does guilt make us more productive or less productive?

I have a dear friend who is a master procrastinator. Self-discipline seldom moves him to action, but guilt–either self-applied or applied by others–causes him to stop goofing off and produce. Others are immobilized by guilt, unable to move forward because the guilt is too weighty…Now that I think about it, even Mr. Procrastinator is weighed down by guilt. I’m sure he thinks about what he hasn’t done all the time, and that can’t feel good.

I’m immobilized by guilt. And it’s not just guilt over a task, it’s also guilt over taking time off from work when my to-do list isn’t complete. My mother, a time management maestro, taught me many good techniques to be productive. But she set the guideline that I couldn’t play until I completed my “work,” whether that was housework or homework. Unfortunately, my sweet mother never foresaw that I would have a career in which my work is never done.

Pretty much everyone involved in publishing has an infinite task list, writers included. You can  edit your manuscript one more time; read another book on the writing craft; read other books in your genre; spend more time marketing; or  try something new in social media.

In an effort to shake off this burden of guilt, I’ve come up with some ideas I want to try. Maybe some of them will help you as well.

  1. Create a guilt hour. I read about this idea here. If I spend one hour per week choosing from my task list the item I feel most guilty about and then concentrate that hour on attacking that task, I’m bound to feel less guilty. Since I work with four other agents, I can report to them in our weekly staff meeting what my guilty task will be and then set out to accomplish it as soon as the staff meeting ends. If I schedule it and if I ask others to hold me accountable, I’m more likely to succeed.
  2. Don’t start the day with email. Emails kill me, just kill me. I have lots of work waiting for me in my emails everyday, and I spend most of everyday doing only email. It’s very hard to move past it to other tasks. But, at the end of the day, the untended to tasks are staring at me, asking how I could have ignored them. If I devote the first two, freshest hours of my day–okay, one hour is probably all I can force myself to commit to–to tasks dripping in guilt, my email will still be waiting for me, right? And when I turn to the email, I’ll feel good about having moved an important job closer to completion.
  3. Don’t make guilt piles. These could be physical stacks of books you really want to read but never get to. Or stacks of DVDs you want to watch. Or stacks of work. Choose two items from the stack and put the rest out of sight. You’ll feel better immediately.
  4. Use the Rule of Three. Aim for three successes per day. For me, that would mean, start my day not opening my email–success #1. If I can concentrate on a task for one hour first thing in the morning, that’s success #2. I need only one more success to be able to say I had a good day–and it’s not even noon yet!
  5. Break tasks into smaller pieces. If painting your office is on your guilt list, change the list. Write down, “Select paint color.” Then “Find paint equipment.” Then “Schedule day to prep office.”
  6. Stop berating yourself. One individual, who confessed to me she had failed to accomplish a job she had committed to months ago, offered to jump off a bridge. Talk about feeling guilt! My response:  “Huh?” While I was aware she hadn’t completed the assignment, I didn’t see it as worth suffering anguish over. Come on, people, if you’re working as smart as you know how, ease up on the self-accusations, okay?

What do you feel guilty about? Share with us what plan you want to institute to move past guilt and on to productivity–or to feeling better about yourself.


Does guilt make you more productive at work? Click to tweet.

Six steps to end guilt over work productivity. Click to tweet.

45 Responses

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  1. Angela Mills says:

    Guilt can definitely immobilize me, as can being overwhelmed with a number of tasks to do. I love the “guilt hour” concept! Just attack it!

  2. Great post….filled with awesome links and practical help.

  3. I pile up the stuff I’ll get to later, then cover the pile with something else. Guilt? What’s that? Out of sight, out of mind, until …
    The day eventually comes when I sift through the pile and guilt turns to terror. Terror always makes it to the top of my queue.
    This approach does work, but I do not recommend it. 🙁

  4. Ah, Guilt, one of my soapboxes. I tell my psychotherapy clients there are two kinds of guilt: rational and irrational. I feel guilty over what I actually did, not over what I didn’t do. And there are a couple big guilts that crop up now and then. But I try not to let guilt thinking drag me down; it’s depressing. One of these days I’ll learn from my mistakes.

    Getting to the guilt pile? My motto is: You can’t pour from an empty pitcher.

  5. Great post, Janet. I relate to what you said about your mother. I also was raised within a culture that said, “No fun until it’s all done.” I would forego eating and sometimes sleeping because I needed to finish whatever I was working on (even if the deadline was a week away. Also, there was ALWAYS something (or three) that needed done. Whenever I played, I felt guilty. Thank God I have moved away from that (most of the time)and usually get things accomplished before the deadline.

    To get things accomplished without driving myself crazy, I have learned to write a laddered To-Do list: Things I Want to Do Today, Things I Should Do Today, and Things I Absolutely MUST Do Today. As long as I get my MUST Do tasks accomplished, usually I feel I’ve been productive. Despite this, I often feel guilty about relaxing (which feels like being unproductive) even when my To-Do list is accomplished. For example, I’ve had bronchitis for the past month, but I kept working (at work and at home). Yesterday, I took the day off, played music, read, and generally chilled. Every hour or so, I had to remind myself that it was okay to do this despite the fact that there were all sorts of productive things I could be doing. I am trying to learn that taking care of myself IS productive, that enjoying the time and the life God has given me IS productive. Procrastination is a habit that needs broken. However, driving yourself so hard that you don’t have time to “be still and know that [He] is God is equally necessary to reign in. Balance is the key.


  6. Jan Thompson says:

    Great post! I’m with you on #2: “Don’t start the day with email. Emails kill me, just kill me.”

    All year long this is what I have been reminding myself: “Do not check your email before you reach your daily word count quota. Write first. Talk later.”

    Easier said than done. LOL.

  7. Part of what makes me live beneath a cloud of guilt is that I habitually create impossible goals for myself, and I am never satisfied. If I got 1,000 words written … well, I should have written 2,000. If I clean one room, well … there are 3 more that are if terrible shape. If I handle one piece of mail or file five things, there are piles still waiting. I see what didn’t get finished and feel guilty about it, instead of recognizing what I did achieve as worthwhile. It’s a very difficult vicious cycle to break out of. I think it comes from being raised to strive for excellence. But at some point it can get twisted into seeing nothing as quite excellent … yet. Your post provided great for thought and action points. THANK YOU.

    • I have that same struggle, Stephanie. It makes life seem quite impossible at times. Will I ever accomplish anything? In some ways, that perfectionism is good because it helps us keep on keepin’ on, but it can also be destructive to all productivity if we slump into a depressed I-can’t-do-anything-so-why-try attitude. I’m learning to count my blessings and focus on the good.

  8. Elissa says:

    This is a great topic.

    Guilt can definitely go from motivator to immobilizer almost instantly. It’s not possible to finish every item on my “to do” list in a single day. One of the greatest gifts I’ve given myself was learning how to let go. I focus on my accomplishments each day, and let go the feeling of guilt over the things not yet done.

    As you pointed out, Janet, breaking tasks into smaller pieces helps maintain momentum and gives one little victories to celebrate. Why else do writers talk about words per day? If we focused only on completing the whole project, we’d soon all be seeking bridges from which to jump.

    I recently read a statement (could it have been on this blog somewhere?) that rang absolutely true to me: God gave us all a reset button. It’s called “tomorrow”.

  9. Annie says:

    I can relate to this. I always feel guilty when I take time off, since I was also raised to ‘finish my work before play’. Great post Janet!

  10. Janet, this is great. I am enjoying this site so much … wish I had found it sooner. And I’m loving the fellow writer friendships and encouragement.

    Guilt … I grew up with a dad that was a perfectionist. I’m afraid I inherited a tad bit of that. I can’t quite put my finger on the moment, but somewhere along the way, I learned to go easier on myself and let myself off many hooks! I think my girls helped me with this. But where I used to say, “If I had only done this earlier …” today I say, “This is God’s perfect timing.”

    We definitely need to offer ourselves grace.

  11. Didn’t revise as many pages as I would’ve liked this week, but I might have to adjust what I thought I was capable of.

    When I start to feel overwhelmed or guilty about my writing goals, it helps me to look back. I’m so thankful the Lord nudged me up the mountain to my first conference at Mount Hermon in 2012. I’ve improved as I’ve listened, learned, asked questions, received rejections and challenging critiques, and experienced the joy of writing a story that will not let me go. He’s got me where he wants me. Enjoying the journey, even though the itinerary is apt to change on a regular basis.

    • Hi, Jenni! 🙂 It’s a continual adjustment, isn’t it? I love the way you said the itinerary is apt to change on a regular basis. When that happens, we can’t let ourselves wallow in guilt but adjust our goals and expectations and push forward. Great reminder!

  12. Terrific, helpful post, Janet. Thanks! And I didn’t feel guilty reading it.

  13. I’m lucky, I guess. The only thing I get to feeling guilty about these days is not being kind enough.

    To be blunt – when you bury the bits you can find of people you should have been able to keep alive, it changes your perspective for a long time.

  14. Jeanne T says:

    I loved this post, Janet. And the action points are wonderful. I feel guilty that I’m not as far along in my revisions as I would like to be. I’ve got to-do piles around my house awaiting my attention, and things I need to do for my kids that are weighing me down.

    One specific thing I’ve felt guilty about is my project/writing room. It’s a pit. I’m going to begin some work on cleaning it out. Sometimes, I don’t have an hour to give to one task, but I set a timer for 15 minutes and I work like crazy during that time. I always feel good about how much I accomplish. Then, I give myself permission to let it go until tomorrow, when I can do it all again. I do this with a couple of my big tasks.

    I also find telling someone my plan and asking them to hold me accountable helps. I do this with writing as well, which I’m finding helpful.

    I love your action points, Janet. There’s no excuse to stay in a place of feeling guilty with good tips for moving beyond it. Thank you for that.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jeanne, setting a timer is a great way to discipline ourselves to work on the things that weigh us down but that we never seem to get to.

      That accountability thing has me worried. When I wrote this blog, I kept envisioning everyone in the office holding me accountable to my plan. Gulp. Probably my next blog post will be on handling failure…

      • Jeanne T says:

        LOL, accountability can be a beautiful thing. Especially when it’s done with grace. 🙂 I’ll be looking forward to that next post. I’ve definitely dealt with failure, both falling short of my expectations and not delivering on timelines I’d promised….but that’s for another day, as you said. 🙂

  15. I’m late here, Janet, but I refuse to feel guilty about it! I love how you break down your successes into pieces that you can actually accomplish. I definitely need that, instead of, you know, something like “hit the New York Times bestseller list this week.” That might be a bit difficult since I don’t have a book published…yet. 🙂 Thank you for such do-able suggestions.

  16. Thanks, Janet, for a great post! I struggle with a never ending to-do list and feeling like I don’t get enough accomplished. I also recently decided to not open email until I get 1000 words in. Doing NaNo has helped with that. After NaNo, I may downsize to Jim Bell’s Nifty 350, but it’s been a great tool to get me writing instead of meaning to write every day.

    We redid my office this fall and moving back in in baby steps, because “Move Into Office” was too daunting. I filled the book shelves one day, moved the electronics another day. This week, I’m sorting through my scrapbooking supplies and photos. Then my files. Breaking it into smaller steps has made it much less stressful and I’ll still make my Thanksgiving deadline.


  17. I’ve had more success on the guilt subject since I started using a calendar rather than a to-do list. On Google calendar, I block in (or out, depending on your perspective) the days of non-negotiables–speaking events, work-related travel, doctor appts, magazine articles due, book deadlines. I also figure out how many chapters I need to get done per week to comfortably reach my book deadline and lay out a reasonable plan of attack. Then when a task comes up–a guest blog post, writing the dedication page and discussion questions, etc.–I can see what days already have a major task eating up a lot of the time. Rather than fretting about the dedication page or feeling guilty that I didn’t get to it right away, plugging it into a less clogged up (or clobbed up, as my grandkids say) slot makes me mentally relieved. My mind isn’t going to “lose” the assignment. It has its day. Just not today. When that day arrives, the task becomes the priority.

    Another tip that’s helped me conquer some of the guilt that comes so naturally to me is that I now put my grocery list in my phone notes section. I’d kick myself at the grocery store when my list was on the counter at home. That doesn’t happen anymore. And I took a picture of my grandkids’ Christmas lists with my phone. Always with me.

    I’m reminded too of the Scripture verse that talks about a “sorrow that leads to repentance.” If guilt motivates us to action, then it serves God’s purposes. If it motivates us to despair, it hamstrings our abilities to get even simple things done.

    Last thought. For now. I’ve been convicted, especially this last year, that I wasn’t allowing enough “thinking” time. I worked, worked, worked…but part of the work is thinking. It’s utterly amazing how much faster the work gets done when I allow myself time to think about the task, or the story, first.

    • Hi Cynthia! I currently keep track of upcoming blog posts in my paper calender, both for my own blog and blogs to which I contribute. But I love your idea of writing down word count/chapter goals in the calender as well. In sight it must be right. 🙂

    • Janet Grant says:

      Cynthia, thanks for a plethora of helps, both practical and spiritual. I need to use my phone more to help assemble my life. I’m an inveterate list-maker, but if I had my lists with me at all times, life would be so much easier. I especially appreciated the two ways we experience guilt–the productive and the unproductive. Thank you!

  18. Marketing really loads on guilt for me. I want my efforts to please my publisher, and there’s always more I could be doing. I’ve started accomplishing one thing every day to ease my guilt. As a bonus, I’m getting more done.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Janalyn, we haven’t talked much about the burden of guilt when it comes to marketing, but talk about a job that’s never done! Your idea of moving forward with one marketing step per day is a nice way to make an immense task doable.

  19. Anne Love says:

    I tend to take a little by little approach most days. Ten minutes exercise, 10min blog reading, 15 min social networking, fold a load of laundry, hop in shower, listen to worship on commute, ready some scripture at work while I eat my oatmeal and open my task basket and prep my day, pray on the way home, eat, edit/write, throw in a load of laundry–then squish everything else in between–little by little the mountain moves.

    Then about once or twice a week, I tackle the big picture, whether it’s errands, house keeping, writing, God-time, or date night.