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Why keeping tabs on your productivity does not help

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Productivity guilt can drum up the anxiety to maximise each minute of each day, pushing workers into burnout and into giving up

 tabs on your productivity
tabs on your productivity

Two years ago, when New Delhi-based Paridhi Poddar, 29, now head product designer at lifestyle accessories brand DailyObjects, was in the midst of launching a collection, she found herself stuck in a cycle of guilt and frustration. She would hunker down at her desk every day to begin following the long list of the to-dos she had to check off.

At the end of each day, tired but consumed by guilt that she’d not gotten enough done, she would end up taking work home, and staying up with it till late, not getting enough rest. She’d be back at work the next morning, doing the same thing all over again. Soon, as she’d started catching glimpses of colleagues taking breaks, she wondered if hers was a sustainable way to work.

Anubhav Nath, 42, director of Delhi gallery Ojas Art, feels the same way between December and February, when the season of art fairs and fashion shows starts—despite having worked all year. Guilt gnaws at him; he starts wondering about everything that he could not get done the rest of the year.

Whether you blame it on hustle culture, or tying one’s self-worth to one’s work performance, or the evil of comparing one’s progress with someone else’s, the pursuit of being productive and the burden of guilt when it feels inadequate seems to have become a fixture of today’s workplace.

This can happen to anyone, irrespective of their designation or position: “Productivity guilt is when an individual feels guilty for not being able to fulfil expectations of being productive or being able to complete ‘meaningful’ tasks that would help them improve certain aspects of their life,” says Divija Bhasin, founder and head psychologist at The Friendly Couch, a mental health organisation in Delhi. “The root cause depends on the individual’s history, and people have different reasons for having this guilt.”

The guilt can drum up the anxiety to maximise each minute of each day, pushing the individual to the extent of them wanting to give up. This can hit people who’ve moved into entrepreneurship or creatives who have risen to managerial positions, especially hard.

For Pritika Singh, 29, founder of Mohh Furniture, the experience of being an entrepreneur has meant that her best-laid plans have often gone awry. “When I was working a job, my KRAs (key responsibility areas) were clearly defined, and tasks were assigned to me. So productivity then was different from what I deal with as an entrepreneur,” she says. “Now, there are so many situations that arise out of the blue—calls, impromptu meetings, firefighting—so my schedule can go absolutely haywire and at the end of the day, I end up feeling like I didn’t accomplish what I set out to,” she says. A few days like this, and she ends up feeling dissatisfied or like she’s not working hard enough.

Poddar, too, feels this way on days when her responsibilities, such as coordinating with vendors and other managerial functions, do not leave her time for her own design research.

What’s more, Poddar says that in the early stages of product development, some processes like fabric selection, are time-consuming and iterative. This means the results are not visible immediately, and would lead to her questioning the efficacy of her efforts. Singh agrees: “The process of creating, creative-direction, or even design feedback are such ongoing things with no metrics that can help you say ‘I did x and y and z things today’,” she notes.

TO-DO LIST

To this end, Poddar has learned to lean in and celebrate small wins. Meanwhile, Manisha Prakash, 35, the entrepreneur behind the yoga centre LifeYoga, says that goal setting by breaking down time into year, quarter, month, week, and day—and differentiating work and personal goals—has served her well. Having often slipped into regret and indulging in self-blame if her days didn’t go as planned, Prakash would only follow it up with overwork and then, burnout.

When she realised this, she’d also just had a baby. “Especially as someone who’s used to working all the time, staying home, healing and breastfeeding can suddenly feel like you’re doing nothing all day, even though it’s a lot,” she notes. For her, this was the tipping point that pushed things into perspective.

“It doesn’t matter whether I do my goal-setting in an organized way (on paper or digitally), or in an unorganised way (making a mental note or a quick scribble onto a post-it) while washing the dishes or taking a walk,” says Prakash. The idea is that taking a more zoomed-out view of things, while also having a closer metric can help in two ways: it can help alleviate misplaced guilt and reveal that things are not as bad as they seem; or it can help alleviate anxiety by providing a set of facts based on which one can reorient themselves and plan next steps.

Singh, too, believes in the power of taking stock and being nimble. On the commute back home, she often goes over the things she’d set out to do versus the things she did do, and if there has been a mismatch, she quickly comes up “with a new plan and timeline for the next day,” she says, adding that playing catch-up while guilt-ridden is “just exponentially worse”.

In some cases, it helps to have someone else help calm the guilt. “When a part of you is convinced that you’re just never living up to your responsibilities, that part is also not very good at logic and reasoning its own way out,” says Anukriti P., 24, a programme assistant at a non-profit. “It only wants to cling to the idea that you’re not smart, and never going to do something meaningful.” She recognised the need for a lesser workload, but felt too guilty to ask for it from an already small team. Getting therapy made her realise that her productivity guilt stems from “a very cliched realisation of how deeply I don’t trust myself,” she notes, now equipped to recognise and stop any unhealthy thought spirals. She acknowledges accomplishments, even if “small”.

This is in line with what productivity expert Ali Abdaal says in his new book Feel Good Productivity, “my mistake wasn’t in what I thought about productivity. It was in how I thought about it.”

Despite best efforts however, sometimes productivity guilt tends to creep right back in. Poddar, for instance, confesses that she still can’t help overthinking when taking even just three days off from work. Even as she shares her planning hacks, Prakash offers a disclaimer: “you’ve just caught me on a good day”.

Singh acknowledges this all-pervasive reality. “90%, if not all of us, will keep going through productivity guilt,” she says before adding with a laugh: “But listen, if you’re going to spiral, you might as well do it when you’re off the clock.”

TIPS TO FIGHT THE GUILT

Take a break

Small walks or the act of making a tea or coffee can be a good start. The time away can help with clarity when you’re back to the grind.

Prioritise

There is always going to be more than enough—consider the Eisenhower matrix to determine where your tasks stand on the Urgent-Important scale, and knock them out of the way.

Celebrate

Allow yourself some joy. A celebration involves any appreciation and acknowledgement of the effort and time that you’ve put in .

Reframe

Guilt, much like stress, can be beneficial to a certain degree, and help in conscientiousness. More than that, and you may have to rethink and reframe the point of the feeling itself.

Get a hobby

Guilt will make it seem impossible to even think of doing anything else. But that’s what you can try after assessing the pressures of the week—have something else to look forward to, which will let you feel contentment from a different avenue of life.

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