Why Do I Feel So Guilty? Productivity Guilt and Why it Happens

I used to be so good at just sitting around and actively doing nothing. It was relaxing and made it so my childhood was filled with long periods of time filled by me laying around and ignoring any parental demands that I actually go out and accomplish anything. Now, as a (debatable) adult, I seem to have lost this skill of enjoying my free time. Instead, I feel the need to fill my hours with something meaningful, as if I am wasting time otherwise. Being busier and having more responsibilities should, in theory, make me appreciate my time off more. But instead, if I do relax, it is almost always accompanied by a constant and gnawing feeling of guilty. Guilty of what? I honestly have no idea. 

I tend to preach the importance of mental health to my friends and family, highlighting why too much work can be a bad thing, and if we don't get enough breaks, our brains can feel like it's withering. However, I find myself struggling to follow my own advice. Specifically, this consistent need to be doing something rather than allowing for any "me time." "Productivity guilt" is defined as negative feelings brought on by thinking we aren't doing enough. This can be caused by a combination of external and internal factors and seems to be largely a result of the society that we live in.

  1. 1. Social Media

    One of the main reasons for this “productivity guilt” is comparison. Although people have always compared themselves to others, it has become particularly relevant due to constant communication and social media. I find Instagram to be one of the largest proponents of this. Scrolling through my feed, it’s hard not to wince at the travel pics, perfect bodies and posts filled with accomplishment after accomplishment. This isn’t healthy in any respect, but it definitely contributes to feeling as though we never do enough. Being constantly barraged by the successes and excitements of other people can make it hard to feel like anything you do accomplishes will measure up. It is as though no matter what, you aren’t doing enough. 

  2. 2. Busy Doesn't Always Equal Productive

    Silver macbook by planner and flowers

    Society has also glorified the idea of “keeping busy” as the only means of being productive. However, these two things don’t always equate to each other. For example, say you spend the entire day as a student running between classes and desperately trying to finish assignments up before their deadlines. Coming home and immediately starting further study or work without allowing for any relaxation can make it difficult to continue concentrating. It may actually be damaging to productivity levels to push yourself beyond what your brain/body wants. Regardless of the fact that more studying would technically keep you busy, it wouldn’t guarantee productivity or getting much done. Taking a much-needed break might provide your brain with the relaxation time it needs to reboot and get back to a point where it can function well once again. However, to get to this point, you have to take time off to yourself, and doing so normally makes me feel as though I’m wasting time. This is the case even though I know I may only be taking this break for the sake of quality future work. Not being “busy” makes me feel guilty, as though I don’t deserve to simply sit and occasionally zone out. 

  3. 3. Capitalism

    When I mentioned writing this article to my roommate (who also suffers from extreme productivity guilt), her joking answer was simply "capitalism." As much as we may have laughed about this, there is also a grain of truth. Our current society runs off of individualism and the idea that we should always be pushing for some huge future goal that we have to "make it." This is admirable, and technically there's nothing wrong with it. However, this can also get pushed out of proportion by making it seem as though anything outside of attaining this goal (whether it be school work, a career or something else) is unacceptable or lazy. We may feel as though other people are rushing past us, and we must push ourselves beyond limits if we don't want to be left behind.  

  4. 4. Reward System

    From the very beginning, we are praised for working hard and punished for any laziness. As children, those who accomplished little tasks were immediately rewarded with extra recess or toys, while those who didn't try as hard were told they were "lazy and problematic." I do think that certain levels of work deserve a reward, especially for children. But these practices may start us associating our self worth with productivity, making anything else seem unacceptable. Even though my parents are no longer standing over me assuring I actually do something with my day besides eating candy and watching TV, this feeling of HAVING to accomplish things has continued to my adult life. 

  5. 5. Associating Self Worth with Productivity

    I’ve talked to my roommates about getting work done, specifically involving online classes. We all collectively seem to feel as though a certain amount of our self worth is (at least partially) reliant on our productivity. If we have a to-do list and don’t manage to get to every last thing done, even if we have a good reason, it can cause some level of self-loathing. This isn’t particularly healthy, and I’ve definitely been hypocritical in telling my friends they shouldn’t stress and that it’s ok to “take a break” even if I don’t take my own advice. These feelings have also been made worse with classes going online. We no longer get the immediate validation of in-person interaction or having our assignments graded and returned. Instead, we rely on virtual recorded lectures and painstakingly boring multiple choice.

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It’s been a personal goal of mine this semester to try and reverse whatever damage this capitalistic society has done to me that villainizes something as simple as a nap. So far, I can’t say it’s been going super well. However, through discussing with others and typing in “how to not feel guilty for lying around” into Google, I’ve come up with a few helpful strategies. First of all, I suggest making a to-do list. However, the focus is on realizing that if you aren’t able to finish absolutely every last thing, it isn’t the end of the world. Make sure to have priorities and ignore the other points if you can’t find the time. Acknowledge yourself as being worthy of relaxation and that taking a break is a necessary part of the work process. Adding onto this, I’ve also found that forcing myself to take breaks is really important. This is especially the case when I feel like I have too much work to do so. The more breaks I take, the more open and comfortable I am with taking this time to self that I so desperately need. Although it is by no means easy, I feel like disconnecting our self worth and productivity levels is vital to being healthy and happy, whether you are a student or in another stage of life.