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Hey Colleague: How do I stop feeling guilty about not being productive?

Do you feel guilty when you're not being productive — even during your off-hours? Here are simple ways to avoid productivity guilt and burnout.
Working late
Type A personalities often excel at performing essential tasks but may have problems coming out of their comfort zones or talking about their true emotions.

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Hey, Colleague:

I feel guilty when I’m not working and I feel like I’m on my way to burnout. I know I don’t need to be working all the time but I can’t get rid of this guilt! What can I do about this?


Being over-productive is actually a form of “high functioning” anxiety because humans are hardwired to seek acceptance from those around us. It could stem from fear of failure and disappointing others or underlying nervous energy.

Often regarded as an ‘overachiever’ or ‘type A,' people with these characteristics often excel at performing essential tasks but may have problems coming out of their comfort zone or talking about their true emotions.

In fact, I had high functioning anxiety myself. I had always thought I was just naturally high energy, organized and productive. I came to terms with this in my early 20s when I got into fitness because I saw many people injure themselves. I learn by observing others and telling myself I don't want to make the same mistake. Being an entrepreneur and an athlete, the problem was that I got caught up in the adrenaline of the hustle in my 20s, continued to push my limits and didn’t do anything about it until it was too late.

There is nothing wrong with having high functioning anxiety and you are perfect the way you are — however, the danger is burnout. When you are “on” all the time, your sympathetic nervous system (“fight-or-flight) is always activated which will weaken your immune system. Your body needs to switch to its parasympathetic state (“rest or digest”) to heal, repair and build resilience.

My burnout happened in my early 30s. If you don’t do anything now and experience burnout in your 40s to 50s, there is an increased possibility of long-term mental and physical health consequences such as cognitive issues and chronic conditions. But don’t worry — our bodies are resilient and malleable intelligent designs of evolution. With a few behaviour hacks and lifestyle changes, you can heal from an over-productive disorder at any stage in your life.

Here are some ways you can overcome productivity guilt:

Set Boundaries

When setting boundaries with your coworkers, do so early on and intermittently throughout your project cycle to ensure everyone is on the same page. For example, how many hours are you expected to work per day?

Boundaries help protect our relationships and energy with others but don’t forget — setting boundaries for yourself is an essential form of self-care because we are often too hard on ourselves. Establishing limits and guidelines create structure. Examples could be:

  • Maintaining a regular wake up and bedtime
  • Going to the gym three times per week.
  • No electronics at the dinner table.
  • Shutting down the laptop at 9 p.m.
  • No emails on weekends.

Set a Timer

Willpower and focus will drain so understanding oscillating biological patterns hardwired into our DNA and minds will prevent you from burning out. For longer tasks, I use a method involving the ultradian cycle, which hypothesizes that our alertness (focus) lasts approximately 90 minutes before our body begins to crave a break (that should be at least 20-minutes long) to recharge. Time block as many of your tasks as you can and there is nothing more important than taking breaks.

Take care of your well-being

Don’t undermine the basic necessities of well-being: sleep, exercise, whole and nutritious foods, getting as much sunlight and spending as much time outdoors as possible. We live in concrete jungles but we forget we are all creatures of Mother Earth. Remember to schedule time to take care of your basic necessities. Without your health, you have nothing.

Look Within

Your mind is like an iceberg and most of it operates subconsciously, influenced by our upbringing and environment. No matter how much you tell yourself you love what you do and how being “high functional is great” and yet, you are experiencing burnout symptoms trying to chase shiny things, security, and stability (all very good reasons), it’s time to look within.

You won’t regret it

Is your urge to overwork stemming from a need to impress your parents? Is it the feeling of never being enough? Where did all these thought processes come from?

Are you operating from a scarcity mindset?

There is NOTHING wrong with you but I highly recommend you work with a qualified therapist because uncovering subconscious reasons for any of your behaviours can be life-changing. It will give you profound insight, guide you to improve your quality of life and give you peace of mind. Everyone around you will also benefit from these changes. Remember, your brain operates on experience and you don’t know what you don’t know. You owe it to yourself and everyone around you will also benefit. 

Finding Balance

Being able to maintain balance in life is like winning a gold medal because it means you are restoring meaning in other aspects of life you may be neglecting. It’s difficult because it is much easier for our dopamine-driven minds to overindulge or quit but to be able to live on that fine edge between chaos and peace is the ultimate goal of a fulfilling life.

In the book, Wired to Create by Scott Barry Kaufman, we learn that intuition is more powerful than intellect and insight (intuition) occurs only when your mind is at rest– or when it is present. You can find balance by committing time to be present, meditating and practicing mindfulness. Your mind is doing its most critical work when you aren’t ruminating about the past or worried about the future so it can properly sort, store, and make correlations from everything you’ve experienced. Mindfulness requires consistent practice. 

When you stop valuing your life based on your productivity, you will naturally make time for important things in your life, and you will also relieve your body from the inflammation that comes with chronic stress.

Kate Pn writes about mastering a healthy work-life balance by focusing on productivity hacking. Write to her at [email protected].