Productivity shame: do you feel left behind?

Productivity shame: do you feel left behind?

In a world obsessed with efficiency, do you fear you are falling behind? Are you struggling to get everything on your to-do list done? You might be surprised to hear that you are not alone. This sinking feeling that you are the only one struggling to cope is surprisingly common. It even has a name: productivity shame.


It’s 6am on a Monday morning. Your mind is racing with all you have to do as you slink out of bed. This week is going to be different. This week you will get on top of your to-do list. This week you won’t feel like you are running to stand still. That’s how it starts but, before you know it, it’s Friday again. You haven’t got ahead. Far from it. You are going to have to spend the weekend playing catch-up. In a world dominated by talk of productivity, efficiency and output, you feel deflated. You are suffering from productivity shame. Remote working has compounded this feeling for many, with almost one-third of UK employees surveyed for a recent Microsoft report saying that they feel they have to be twice as productive when working from home.

“It makes us feel that we need to work just a bit more to get on top of it, that we need to have an ‘extra productive’ day tomorrow. That sets us up to fail. It sets us up to feel inadequate.” - Hayley Watts

What is productivity shame?

It may have taken Michelangelo four years to complete work on the Sistine Chapel in Rome back in the 1500s, but not many employers would be happy with that work rate today. You are expected to work harder, better and faster aided by increasingly efficient apps and software. The result is that you can end up setting unrealistic goals or expectations and then beating yourself up when you don’t achieve them. You never feel like you have done enough.

Hayley Watts, a “productivity ninja” and coach at Think Productive in Surrey, sees this all the time. “It’s a constant source of frustration for people at all levels across different industries and sectors,” she said. “We aren’t taught at school how to deal with loads of work, lots of ideas to action and things in our heads that we know we need to do. So we don’t know how we should deal with this stuff. Our expectations of ourselves are nearly always too high, and that’s what leads to this sense of ‘productivity shame’.”

You start to think that you are not good enough. “It makes us feel that we need to work just a bit more to get on top of it, that we need to have an ‘extra productive’ day tomorrow. That sets us up to fail. It sets us up to feel inadequate,” she said.

“If your job is in a car factory, your shift will finish, someone else will take over and the car will be made,” she said. “But most work is no longer like this . . . There is always more you could do.” - Hayley Watts

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Why do you feel this way?

The changing face of work is partly to blame, says Watts, who is also co-author of How to Fix Meetings. In 2018, 21% of workers in the UK were in professional jobs, the highest percentage out of all types of occupation. Unlike physical work, it cannot be completed in a shift. “If your job is in a car factory, your shift will finish, someone else will take over and the car will be made,” she said. “But most work is no longer like this . . . There is always more you could do.” Finishing all of your work is the wrong goal, she says. Instead, you should work out what, of all the things you would want to do, will have the most impact? Do those things first. Just make sure that you allow enough time to complete them.

“Plan time in your diary for YOU first, above all else. This is what I call the Foundation Week, a skeleton of tasks that are focused on your mental, physical or spiritual wellbeing.” - Paul Holbrook

Paul Holbrook, managing director of the Diary Detox in Gloucestershire, helps clients to deal with productivity shame all the time. He agrees that taking a fresh look at your time management can help. “We don’t consider the true time cost of what we are about to take on before accepting it or … acknowledge the true cost of what we are already committed to,” he said. “Sometimes we have a fear of missing out, are trying too hard to please or don’t feel we have a choice.”

Take back control of your day

The answer lies in your diary, says Holbrook. “It’s better to not accept something you’re unsure you can deliver than accept it and fail to deliver,” he said. Your priority should be your own wellbeing. Plan time in your diary for YOU first, above all else. This is what I call the Foundation Week, a skeleton of tasks that are focused on your mental, physical or spiritual wellbeing.”

“Cut out the middleman and use your diary as your to-do list. Taking this approach will ensure that your diary has the best view on how much time you really have available.” - Paul Holbrook

As Parkinson’s Law states, work expands to fill the available time, thus eating up more than it should. This means there is less time to recharge your batteries, your productivity drops and you end up working more in an attempt to catch up. “If you plan your Foundation Week first, you not only find time to live, but you also reduce the amount of time available for work. This has the effect of turning Parkinson’s Law on its head—reducing the time available for work leads to it requiring less time to complete,” he said.

Like Watts, Holbrook is not a fan of long to-do lists. “They are micro-commitments that you need to deliver . . . cut out the middleman and use your diary as your to-do list. Taking this approach will ensure that your diary has the best view on how much time you really have available,” he said.

What you can do right now

Both Watts and Holbrook agree that small behavioural changes are the key to feeling free from shame. Holbrook said: “There’s plenty we can do and they’re all very simple, but it’s not easy, because they require some effort and discipline. The feeling of shame is hard to change so the things we can do are focused on removing the cause of the shame.”

Here are their top tips to make sure you achieve more and feel good about it too:

  1. Prioritise: Create time to be active, chat to people and stay in touch with others first. Then organise your working day. Be clear on what you need to get done as a minimum as part of your job. Watts advises trying to achieve no more than five things in one day and that they should be those with the most impact.

  2. Schedule your time carefully: Don’t just use your diary for meetings with other people, include meetings with yourself to do your job as well. “When you agree to anything––a meeting, a presentation, a task––include in your diary not only the item itself but also everything that comes with it such as time for preparation, creating, rehearsal or review,” said Holbrook. “This will show you the true cost of committing.”

  3. Plan ahead: At the end of the day, decide what three to five things you will do the following day. “If you get them all done you can go back and identify some more stuff,” said Watts.

  4. Know yourself: Identify the times of the day when you concentrate well. “Put the trickier or more complex tasks into those slots,” said Watts. “Save the easy, boring stuff for the times of the day when your energy dips.”

  5. Make it easy to focus: Turn off email notifications and anything else that pings or buzzes at you. “You don’t want to get distracted,” said Watts. “That’s how it can all go so wrong.”

“We are all human. If we are doing our best, then that’s good enough. Focus on celebrating what you have done well.” - Hayley Watts

Your best is good enough

Watts and Holbrook agree that pushing yourself harder does not work, but that taking care of your physical and mental health will help you to be more productive. Watts said: We are all human. If we are doing our best, then that’s good enough. Focus on celebrating what you have done well.” If your day doesn’t go to plan, learn from it. Maybe there is something you can change. “Be kind to yourself,” she said. “You can’t do it all, and you definitely can’t do it all today. You can, however, move several things forward. Find satisfaction in that.”

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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