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Guilt and Productivity

Updated: Jun 29


Most children, at some point, get accused of “wasting time.” On the face of it, this is a fair enough admonishment. Time is, after all, a finite resource. There’s only so many hours in a day and only so many days in a life. As adults, this seemingly sensible charge continues to be laid against us, but the allegations of time-waste no longer come primarily from any external authority. They don’t have to. We’ve internalized the time police, and they can hassle us when no one else is around to do so. For many of us, this is an oppressive element of our internal experience. We find it difficult to get a moment’s peace because we’re always asking, “Shouldn’t I be doing something right now?” If we are to develop some amount of freedom from the constant mandate to be doing something productive, we’ll have to interrogate the role it plays in our lives and the foundations on which it stands.


The Love of Getting Things Done Versus The Fear of Being Lazy

For many, being productive isn’t a problem. Some people simply love to be in motion and ticking things off a to-do list, and that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with having productivity and efficiency as personal values per se. The problem arises when our motivation to get things done derives from feelings of guilt rather than from the intrinsic satisfaction of accomplishing a task. When our productivity is oriented toward positive feelings like pride and accomplishment, we feel good both during and after the productive act.


On the other hand, when guilt is our motivator we feel good neither in action nor in rest. In this mode, everything we do feels like a slog and a burden. That is to say, we feel distressed when we’re doing something, and when we aren’t, we feel we ought to be. This state of affairs is one of near constant tension. We are either desperate to be rid of the task or chewing ourselves out for avoiding the task. Relief is unachievable because our rest is restless.



But Things Have to Get Done, Right?

Of course, we don’t just do things because they feel good. We do things because, for one reason or another, we have to. Much like guilt-fueled productivity, engaging in necessary tasks can be unpleasant. However, when something needs to be done, it gets done without the rigamarole of self-castigation. The obligation may cause us tension, but the tension is relieved by its fulfillment.


Why Do We Feel Guilty?

As stated earlier, our time is not limitless. We only have so many hours on Earth. When we are idle, it can feel like we’re squandering a precious resource, and for many of us, this amounts to an immoral act. If we wish to free ourselves from a guilt-oriented relationship to productivity and time expenditure, it may be helpful to give some context to the unique moral weight we give to effort, exertion, and time “waste.” While it is beyond the scope of this article to examine the complex economic, cultural, and political foundations of the American attitude toward work and leisure, there are a few relatively uncontroversial points we can bear in mind. Perhaps most importantly, we should recognize that it has not always been this way.

Our collective allergy to inactivity is particular to our cultural and historical context. Observations of traditional hunter-gatherer societies (the type that included the entirety of our species for over 90% of the duration of our existence) support the idea that rest and leisure are a natural and long lived part of our waking lives. Traditional societies tend to engage in less labor and more leisure and rest than do agricultural and industrial societies.


In the economic system in which we currently find ourselves, the majority of people provide for themselves by selling their labor. For most people, labor is sold in units of time rather than in the form of discrete tasks. If we are unproductive during the time we’ve agreed to spending working, we may be disciplined or fired. As such, we are incentivized to avoid these harsh consequences by self-monitoring and judging the relative productivity of our hour. While pragmatic in its initial purpose, this self-judgment takes on a moral character as our ability to engage in things we view as fundamentally good (i.e., providing for ourselves and others) is dependent on our ability to maintain employment.


We can see the association between one’s perceived moral goodness and one’s ability to provide for oneself when we recall the harsh way people who have trouble obtaining housing are sometimes described in our culture. Some have pointed to the role of the religious concept of predestination (in which God’s favored beings were predetermined for salvation and could be identified by their material prosperity in life) among early Anglo-American settlers as contributing to the cultural association between poverty and immorality. In any event, it stands that if we associate productive output with the fulfillment of our material needs, and we associate the fulfillment of our material needs with morality, we will associate unproductiveness with moral failing, and consequently, feel guilt. However, recognizing the factors that contribute to our feeling of guilt around unproductiveness allows us to be more deliberate in our choice as to whether or not to buy into the narrative that doing less means being bad.*


*This isn’t to suggest that those who obtain less are actually less productive. However, that is a belief pervasive in our culture, and even if we consciously disavow it, we may be accepting ideas that rest upon it.


Okay, So Just Do Things When I Want to or Have to?

It would seem that if we chose to abandon guilt as a motivator for action, the only actions we’d take would be those that we wish to or are compelled to. Things aren’t quite that simple though. Our feelings are often conflicted. There are things that we want to do, but also don’t want to do. Mostly what falls into this category are things that make us feel good but that require significant energy or effort (e.g., exercise, creative hobbies, meditation, etc.). We may feel guilty when we don’t engage in these behaviors, and why not? These are things we experience as intrinsically good, in that they make us feel good. Doesn’t not doing good things make us bad? No, it just makes us organisms that are inherently interested in conserving energy and don’t wish to expend it unless properly motivated. Unfortunately, all this guilt we feel for not doing what’s best for us doesn’t adequately motivate us to do so. As such, we can at the very least say that guilt is not productive, in that it doesn’t get us off the couch (or off of Instagram) and engaging in our lives. This is because guilt is an aversive feeling. Guilt feels bad, and when something feels bad, we want to get away from it. The problem is, “away from it” isn’t a specific direction, so when we feel guilty about not going for that jog that always makes us feel so much better, we’re not necessarily propelled toward going jogging, because there might be another, easier activity that sufficiently neutralizes guilt without eating up so much energy. In fact, the very thing we’re doing instead of going for the jog (i.e., scrolling Instagram on the couch) does a pretty good job of dulling the guilt. Of course it doesn’t make us feel good, but it makes us feel less bad.



If we are to move towards activities that are simultaneously rewarding and challenging, we’ll need to rely more on the carrot than the stick. In other words, deliberate focus on what we want to build in our lives through these activities will be more effective than beating ourselves up for not engaging in them. If we recall playing tag as children, we may remember the difference between running from It and being It. When the player designated as It was on our heels, we’d run wildly in any direction to get away. However, when we were tagged and became It our movement became deliberate and directed; we were in pursuit, and that gave us a steadiness that contrasted with the panicked, directionless dash for safety we had previously engaged in as a non-It player. Likewise, when we focus on the valued ends that effortful activity will help us achieve, we’re more likely to engage in said activity. When we’re in pursuit of something meaningful, simply neutralizing tension will not suffice, and as such, we’ll be less tempted to engage in the type of idleness that is neither restful nor rewarding. Things will get done because it is important to us that we do them. When we live like this, rest and leisure no longer feel like vices. Rather, they become vital activities that recharge us and facilitate our engagement in other rewarding behaviors.



Thomas Shooman is a mental health counselor practicing at Resolution Psychotherapy who provides teletherapy to clients across New York State. Thomas’ clients include individuals dealing with anxiety, grief, and obsessive thinking. He enjoys helping people navigate uncomfortable circumstances and find solutions that are in line with their personal style. To inquire about therapy with Thomas, send him an email at thomas@resolutionpsychotherapy.com.




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