Embracing Productivity Grace: Overcoming Shame for a Positive Work Mindset

As you settle into your work routine each morning, you might feel some inherent optimism. “Today will be different,” you tell yourself. “This is the day that I get all the things on my list done, and then some. I’m gonna be a machine!”

You get the right playlist queued up. You set yourself up with a cup of coffee—and maybe that aspirational gesture of placing a mid-day snack within arm’s reach. (”I’m not gonna stand up from this desk for four hours at least—can’t have my momentum interrupted with a snack run!”) The noise cancelling headphones are on. Today’s the day you make strides. Today’s the day you win.

And then, what always happens, happens. Your inbox starts blowing up. Someone—or a great many someones—stops by your desk or taps you on the shoulder with questions. You, for some reason, thought it would be a good idea to schedule your day aggressively tight—so much so that by 10am, after just a few shoulder taps, you’re behind. Notifications from every app on the planet: Slack, email, text messages, and maybe even a ringing phone and a voicemail—they all compete for your attention. They all flash those little candy apple red notification badges.

Before you know it, it’s 4:00pm, then 5:15, then 6:00. Quitting time for everyone else. But you feel like you can’t leave. It feels like you didn’t complete a single task. A profound sense of shame begins to seep in—a nagging feeling that you could have done more, and what you managed to accomplish was barely scratching the surface of “good enough.” You find yourself contemplating missed opportunities and sowing doubts in your own ability and capacity to do good work quickly.

You know you’re bright and capable. And you try every day. But it happens almost every day regardless.

So what is going on? Let’s take a look at the awful phenomenon of “productivity shame.”

Ashamed of the good stuff

Productivity shame, a psychological phenomenon, is a multifaceted experience that significantly impacts one’s work-life equilibrium. The phenomenon is made up of two distinct elements, each contributing to a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction and self-critique.

Firstly, productivity shame manifests as an incessant feeling that, regardless of the hours invested in work or the number of tasks checked off the to-do list, one has not accomplished enough. That perpetual pursuit of excellence that we all pride ourselves on becomes a double-edged sword: even when solid progress is made on our goals, a sense of inadequacy still lingers, overshadowing any good feelings we may have.

The second facet of productivity shame is rooted in the notion that certain activities are completely “unproductive,” and those bring with them a strong feeling of guilt. Engaging in leisure, such as a hobby, watching a movie, or simply taking a moment to relax, is met with an internal conflict. There’s this persistent belief that one should always be engaged in something more obviously productive, leading to a profound sense of shame whenever you try to relax.

These two dimensions of productivity shame give rise to seriously detrimental mentalities. The inability to genuinely celebrate one’s accomplishments and the relentless pressure to remain tethered to work without allowing oneself a reprieve lay the groundwork for stress, overwork, and, inevitably, the perilous terrain of burnout.

Regrettably, our prevailing workplace culture often perpetuates and amplifies productivity shame. The prevailing narrative emphasizes that unwavering passion and an insatiable drive to work longer hours are the sole pathways to success. However, it prompts us to question whether this prevailing ethos is truly conducive to holistic well-being and sustainable professional growth.

It might feel like it’s helping, but it’s not

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The detrimental impact of productivity shame extends beyond eroding our ambition and robbing us of the much-needed joy of downtime. It also stands as a profoundly ineffective motivator during the course of our workday.

We live in a world where the belief somehow persists that shame is positive; that it might actually help us maintain order and discipline. Not only is that idea fundamentally flawed, it’s perilously hazardous. The question arises: Does subjecting ourselves to shame over perceived lapses in productivity contribute to achieving more, fostering happiness, and transforming us into more productive individuals?

The resounding answer is no.

Productivity shame, rather than serving as a catalyst for increased output, establishes a counterproductive cycle of failure. The initial sense of shame, triggered by a perceived lack of productivity, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to a reduction in actual productivity, thus perpetuating a vicious loop of shame. In severe cases, this cycle can become paralyzing, impeding any meaningful progress.

Shame is a most powerful and overwhelming emotion, rooted in the fear of not being good enough. It literally corrodes our emotional and mental states. Rather than acting as a constructive force propelling us toward improvement, shame systematically dismantles our self-confidence, subsequently impairing our overall productivity.

Given the detrimental effects of productivity shame, another question naturally arises: What steps can we take to mitigate its impact and foster a healthier, more constructive work environment?

Why this happens to us in the first place


Exploring the web of productivity shame reveals three primary causes, each wielding a significant influence on our daily lives. Understanding and addressing these causes is imperative for breaking free from the shackles of productivity shame and fostering a healthier mindset towards our accomplishments.

Cause #1: Tethering Self-Worth to Achievements

Arguably the most profound underpinning of productivity shame lies in the intricate connection between self-worth and achievements. This link implies that the more tasks one accomplishes, the higher their self-esteem soars. However, the inherent flaw in this association becomes evident as the unpredictability of daily life unfolds. Distractions, interruptions, and unforeseen requests are nearly inevitable, derailing meticulously crafted plans and obstructing the smooth pursuit of set goals.

When self-worth is tied to productivity, the consequence is a daily struggle with an unrelenting sense of shame. The perpetual feeling of falling short, irrespective of genuine efforts made, becomes a recurring theme, casting a shadow over any sense of accomplishment.

Cause #2: Unrealistic Goal Setting

A closely related contributing factor to the tapestry of productivity shame is the habit of setting unrealistic goals. While goals serve as potent motivators when appropriately calibrated, the pitfall emerges when ambitions outpace realism. Setting monumental goals, while inspiring in theory, can lead to a discouraging landscape when tangible progress remains elusive.

Goals, particularly when excessively ambitious, have a tendency to divert attention solely to the end result, sidelining the significance of the process. The cycle of discouragement intensifies as the lack of visible progress amplifies feelings of shame. Moreover, the ambitious pursuit of numerous grandiose goals perpetuates a cycle of achievement and subsequent goal-setting, creating a continuous loop of accomplishment and shame.

Cause #3: The Comparative Trap

Productivity shame, intriguingly, is not a solitary creation; it thrives in the comparative landscape of our surroundings. Constant exposure to examples of seemingly boundless productivity in others cultivates a false belief that everyone is surpassing our own efforts. In the wise words of Theodore Roosevelt, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” and this sentiment resonates profoundly in the realm of productivity.

Engaging in the perilous act of measuring one’s achievements against the apparent productivity of others instigates a deep-seated shame. The perceived inadequacy of our efforts becomes magnified, overshadowed by the seemingly superior accomplishments of those in our periphery.

In essence, these three causes form the intricate tapestry of productivity shame, a complex interplay of self-worth, goal-setting, and comparative analysis. Liberating oneself from this entanglement requires a nuanced understanding of these factors and a strategic approach to redefine our relationship with productivity.

Getting it out of your system

Effectively overcoming productivity shame is a crucial endeavor for maintaining motivation and focus on meaningful work. Navigating this intricate terrain requires a deliberate approach, and by embracing a series of practical steps, you can transform your perspective on daily progress and cultivate a more positive relationship with productivity.

Step #1: Decoupling Self-Worth from “Productivity”

At the core of overcoming productivity shame lies the pivotal step of disconnecting your sense of self-worth from conventional productivity metrics—specifically, the classic definition centered around output. If self-judgment hinges solely on the number of tasks checked off in a day, it sets the stage for a perpetual cycle of productivity shame or, conversely, a misguided focus on low-value, easily accomplished tasks.

The reality is that the landscape of productivity is rife with potential impediments—distractions, interruptions, fatigue, and myriad external factors that inevitably divert attention from the most crucial tasks. To liberate oneself from the clutches of productivity shame, it becomes imperative to establish a personalized definition of “enough.” This involves a challenging yet essential process of disentangling personal identity from the ever-evolving to-do list.

Moreover, understanding your baseline, facilitated by tools like RescueTime, provides valuable insights into productivity trends, total work time, and daily tool usage. Armed with this baseline, you can shift your focus from an endless pursuit of more to appreciating the progress made each day, fostering a healthier perspective on productivity.

Step #2: Crafting Realistic and Effective Goals

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The second step in the journey to overcome productivity shame revolves around setting goals that are not only effective but also realistic. Unrealistic goals cast a perpetual shadow of shame, whereas realistic ones pave the way for tangible progress, fostering a genuine sense of accomplishment.

Goal-setting, akin to an art form, entails three fundamental elements:

  1. What you want to achieve: Striking a balance between ambition and achievability is crucial. Goals should stretch you but remain within the realm of attainability.
  2. How you’re going to get there: The individual steps constituting the journey toward your goal must be actionable and reasonable, forming a roadmap for success.
  3. Why you want it: The motivation behind your goal must be compelling and significant. A clear and powerful “why” becomes the driving force behind sustained effort and achievement.

Step #3: Embracing Progress Over Achievement

In the realm of productivity, recognizing that consistent progress holds greater importance than achieving lofty goals is pivotal. This paradigm shift emphasizes that it’s not about massive strides every day but rather the accumulation of small, incremental progress that leads to significant achievements over time.

Tracking progress can take various forms, from the simplicity of marking metrics on a calendar or in a daily planner to utilizing software tools like RescueTime. The latter not only automates progress tracking but also empowers you to set daily goals and track your progress for ongoing motivation.

Leveraging tools like RescueTime’s Focus Sessions further enhances progress by blocking distracting websites, allowing undivided attention on specific goals. The integration of such tools becomes instrumental in optimizing productivity and steering clear of the pitfalls of perpetual shame.

In essence, the journey to overcome productivity shame involves a holistic approach that transcends conventional metrics, focusing on self-awareness, realistic goal-setting, and a steadfast commitment to progress over perfection.

Stop the cycle


Putting an end to the perpetual cycle of shame associated with productivity requires a paradigm shift in how we perceive and prioritize our work. Our society’s tendency to elevate productivity to the status of a coveted badge of honor clearly contributes to this. While heightened productivity may initially evoke a sense of accomplishment, it inevitably leads to elevated expectations and an increased workload, creating a relentless cycle that can be detrimental to our well-being.

It’s crucial to acknowledge that achieving 100% productivity is an unrealistic standard. Failing to recognize this sets the stage for an enduring struggle with productivity shame. Breaking free from this destructive mentality entails a multifaceted approach that involves disconnecting one’s worth from mere achievements, establishing realistic goals, and cultivating a profound appreciation for the process rather than fixating on the final results.

The societal conditioning that ties self-worth to productivity is a pervasive challenge that necessitates intentional efforts to disentangle personal value from the constant demands of a hyperproductive culture. By consciously reframing the narrative around achievements, individuals can liberate themselves from the shackles of productivity shame, fostering a healthier relationship with their work.

Setting realistic goals emerges as a pivotal strategy in this endeavor. Rather than succumbing to the allure of unattainable objectives, we encourage you to establish goals that are both challenging and achievable. This shift in goal-setting not only alleviates the burden of perpetual expectations but also allows for a more balanced and sustainable approach to work.

Furthermore, emphasizing the journey rather than being preoccupied with the end result serves as a cornerstone in the battle against productivity shame. Cultivating an appreciation for incremental progress, regardless of the final outcomes, contributes to a mindset shift where the value of consistent effort is celebrated. This shift in perspective can lead to surprising boosts in productivity, as the focus shifts from an unattainable standard to a more holistic and achievable approach.

Dismantling the shame cycle associated with productivity requires a conscious effort to redefine our relationship with work. By disconnecting self-worth from achievements, setting realistic goals, and appreciating the ongoing process, we can break free from the grip of productivity shame. This approach not only fosters a healthier work mindset but also paves the way for more sustainable and meaningful productivity.

Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.

One comment

  1. I had not heard the term “productivity shame” before, and appreciate the articulation here. It mingles with some other thoughts around the “perils of growth mindsets” – that being in the mindset of “I can improve” can trick you into thinking “I must improve or I’m not good enough”.

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