Productivity shame: Why you never feel like you’ve done “enough” (and what to do about it)

You sit down at your desk in the morning, crack your knuckles, and prepare yourself to be seriously productive. You crank up your favorite Spotify playlist, fire up your laptop, and grab a cup of coffee, ready to kick some serious butt and take everyone’s name. 

But then… things don’t go as planned.

You get interrupted by coworkers. Your inbox explodes. Slack notifications, text messages, and voicemails pour in throughout the day. You hit collaboration overload and by 5:30, you’ve made a bit of progress on your goals, but nothing like you’d hoped.

The result is a deep sense of shame—feeling that you could always do more and that what you’ve accomplished just isn’t enough. You replay the day in your head, thinking of all the things you could have done and how you’re never going to hit your goals or live up to your expectations. 

In other words, you’re caught in a spiral of productivity shame. 

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What is productivity shame?

Productivity shame problems

There are two elements to productivity shame. 

First, productivity shame is the feeling that you’ve never done enough. No matter how many hours you work or how many tasks you cross off your to-do list, you always feel a sense of shame around your work. And even when you do make some progress on your goals, it never feels like it’s enough.

Second, productivity shame is the feeling that you aren’t allowed to do things that are “unproductive”. You feel a sense of guilt when you spend time on hobbies, watch a movie, or simply sit back and relax. 

You have this feeling that you could always be doing something more productive and feel a sense of shame when you try to relax. Almost like you’re doing something forbidden or inappropriate. 

Both of these are seriously harmful mentalities. When you can’t celebrate your accomplishments and can’t disconnect from work, you’re leaving yourself open to stress, overwork, and eventually, burnout

Unfortunately, our workplace culture promotes productivity shame. We’re made to believe that being passionate and driven to work more is the only way to get ahead. But is it?

Why shame isn’t the motivator we think it is

Besides crushing your motivation and taking away the joy of downtime, productivity shame is also a terrible way to find motivation during the workday

As Brene Brown writes in Daring Greatly: 

“We live in a world where most people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line. Not only is this wrong, but it’s dangerous.”

Think about your own experience. Does feeling shame over your lack of productivity help you achieve more? Does it make you happier, more joyful, and a more productive person? Does productivity shame motivate you to get more done? 

No.

Instead, productivity shame creates a cycle of failure. You feel ashamed of not being productive enough, which causes you to be less productive, which causes more shame. If the cycle gets bad enough, it can be paralyzing. 

Again, to quote Brene Brown: 

“Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.” 

Rather than inspire us to be better, shame destroys our self-confidence and, in turn, our productivity. So what can we do about it? 

The 3 main causes of productivity shame (And how to overcome them)

Productivity shame solution

There are numerous causes of productivity shame, some more obvious than others. If we’re going to overcome it, it’s absolutely essential that we get to the root causes. 

Cause #1: You link your self-worth to your achievements

Perhaps the greatest underlying cause of productivity shame is linking your self-worth to your achievements. In other words, the more you get done, the better you feel about yourself. Your self-esteem and your productivity rise and fall together. 

Unfortunately, your days rarely go as planned. You’re almost guaranteed to face distractions, interruptions, and unforeseen requests that get in the way of hitting your goals

However, if you link your productivity to your self-worth, you will feel a sense of shame every single day. You’ll never feel as though you’ve done enough.

Cause #2: You’re setting unrealistic goals for yourself

The second common (and related) cause of productivity shame is setting unrealistic goals for yourself. Yes, goals can be fantastic sources of motivation. But only if they’re set properly. 

When your goals are too big, it’s easy to become discouraged when you don’t see yourself making real progress on them. And the more discouraged you get over your lack of progress, the more ashamed you become.  

One of the great downsides of goals is that they tend to fix your attention on the end result rather than the process of achieving your goal. In other words, you don’t feel like a success until you’ve completed your goal.

Even worse, if you’re ambitious and have set numerous big goals for yourself, this sense of failure compounds. With every goal you haven’t completed, you feel at least some shame until you actually achieve it. And once you achieve your goal, you set another one for yourself, which starts the cycle all over again. 

Cause #3: You’re stuck in the false belief that everyone’s doing more than you are

Productivity shame doesn’t just come from within. We’re constantly surrounded by examples of people who seemingly always get more done than us. 

Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” And nowhere is this truer than in the arena of productivity. When you compare your life to the lives of others, you feel a deep sense of shame over their apparent productivity and your lack of it. 

Overcoming productivity shame

Productivity shame solutions

In order to stay motivated and focused on meaningful work, we can’t let productivity shame take over. So how do we overcome this vicious cycle? 

By following a few simple steps, you can reframe how you look at your daily progress and start to feel better about your daily productivity. 

Step #1: Disconnect your self-worth from “productivity”

The most important step in overcoming productivity shame is to disconnect your sense of self-worth from your productivity. We’re talking about the most classic definition of productivity here: output.

If you judge yourself solely on the number of boxes you can tick off in a day, you’re either going to always feel productivity shame or end up only working on the wrong things (low-value, easy-to-do tasks). 

The reality is, there’s always more you could do. And there will always be things that get in the way of doing them. Distractions, interruptions, fatigue, meetings—there are a thousand things that keep you from working on what matters most to you. 

If you want to be free from productivity shame, you need to understand what your personal definition is of “enough.” This isn’t easy, but the first step is to disconnect your personal identity from your to-do list.

Then, take a second to understand your baseline. In other words, what does a good day look like to you? Using a tool like RescueTime, you can quickly see trends in your productivity, total work time, and even the tools you use each day.

The monthly dashboard in RescueTime shows you in-depth trends about how you work and what a good day looks like.

Having a baseline like this will help you see the progress you make every day, rather than feel like you’ve never done enough.

Step #2: Set effective, yet realistic goals for yourself

The second step in overcoming productivity shame is to set realistic goals for yourself. 

If your goals aren’t realistic and achievable, you’ll operate under a perpetual cloud of shame. On the flip side, if you set realistic goals, you’ll be able to make real progress on them, which will reinforce your sense of productivity and achievement. 

What does this mean in practice? Goal-setting is an art form, but at a basic level there are three elements to every effective goal:

  • What you want to achieve: Is this reasonable? You should be stretching yourself, but not so far that you’ll never feel like you’re finished. 
  • How you’re going to get there: What are the individual steps you’re going to take to hit your goal? Again, these need to be actionable and reasonable. 
  • Why you want it: You must have a big, compelling reason why you want to achieve your goal. If you don’t have a compelling why behind your goal, you won’t have the necessary motivation to achieve it. 

Step #3: Appreciate progress more than achievement

When it comes to productivity, consistent progress is more important than achieving your goals.

"When it comes to productivity, consistent progress is more important than achieving your goals." Click To Tweet

This doesn’t have to be massive amounts of progress every day. Rather, small, incremental progress repeated day after day will add up to big achievements over the long run. 

When it comes to tracking your progress, you can follow a number of methods. 

If you want a simple, low-tech option, try tracking your metrics on a calendar. Pick one or two metrics that really matter and every day you hit those metrics, mark it on the calendar. 

Alternatively, you can RescueTime can automatically track progress on specific goals. RescueTime automatically tracks the time you spend on specific apps, websites, and projects, and allows you to set daily goals for each. You can even get notified when you hit them and track your streaks to stay motivated. 

Writing goal
RescueTime Alerts let you know when you’ve hit your goals for the day.

When it comes to making progress, you want to use the tools at your disposal as well. RescueTime’s FocusTime feature will block distracting websites (Facebook, notifications, email, etc.) so you can focus exclusively on making some progress on one of your goals. 

Stop the shame cycle

In our society, we treat productivity like a badge of honor. The more productive we are, the better we feel about ourselves. The problem is that the more productive we are, the higher the expectations, and the more work we get dumped on us. 

You’ll never be 100% productive. And without recognizing that, you’ll always succumb to productivity shame. 

To fight back from this harmful mentality, disconnect your worth from your achievements, set realistic goals for yourself, and appreciate the process more than the final results. If you do, you’ll find yourself being surprisingly more productive.

Stephen Altrogge is a freelance writer who specializes in writing about productivity and marketing. He lives in Ashland Ohio, drinks too much coffee, and loves creating long-form content. 

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3 comments

  1. Hi Stephen,

    This is a really well-written post!

    I feel that Cause #3 (you’re stuck in the false belief that everyone’s doing more than you are), is one that resonates with a lot of people these days.

    It’s easy to fall into that way of thinking sometimes, but my way to counteract it, is to consider Jordan B. Peterson’s rule #4 from his book, “12 Rules For Life” and that is: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.

    Thanks for posting!

  2. i can realy see myself in the “conecting self worth to productivity” and “You’re stuck in the false belief that everyone’s doing more than you are” part i always think ah im so easily overwelmed when most of what overwelms me is me telling myself work harder and im always admiering how poeple can just work 8 hours a day doing “work” while im often in need of a break becouse im overwhelmed and i want to minimize those breaks but im always extremely easily distracted when i dont take those breaks ans still overwhelmed

    1. Hey Jacob! Glad to hear the post resonated with you. I’ve definitely been in the same position as you of feeling like you’re never doing enough (and everyone’s doing more!) A couple things I’ve found to work well for me is to 1) Keep a list of daily accomplishments. Even taking a few minutes at the end of the day to reflect on what you got done and plan for tomorrow can help you recognize the hard work you’re putting in. 2) Keep work sessions short and take frequent breaks. I used to try to work for long hours at a time but now have returned to the simple Pomodoro method (25-30 minutes of work followed by a quick break). I find the Pomodoros are short enough that I can convince myself to “just work” instead of procrastinating or getting distracted. Hope that helps!

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