We’ve all been there. Being unproductive and feeling guilty about it.
Why feel guilty? The common top 3 reasons:
We know that we’re supposed to be doing something else but we’re not. A few examples would be sleep, exercising, meditating, studying.
Our rational mind has taken a backseat and we’re out of control. We fall into the rabbit hole and spend hours binge watching videos, playing games, scrolling on social feed, or too much time rolling around.
We constantly compare ourselves with others who seemed to have achieved more , who get more stuff done in their lives. This makes us feel less of ourselves.
There’s a bad reputation around being unproductive because of its false association with laziness.
But being unproductive can mean that we:
are not actively trying to achieve something.
Can let loose and relax when we need to.
Procrastinate on the right things in life.
The wise one who hurries when hurrying is needed, and who slows down when slowness is needed, is happy because his priorities are right.
So, how can we stop feeling guilty about being unproductive?
1. Be unproductive on purpose
This sounds counter intuitive. Let me explain. Recall the time when your schedule is empty and you hit your friends up and spend the day watching movies, chatting, and playing games? Well, we weren’t productive per se. And we surely don’t feel guilty for having a good relaxing time together. Why? That’s because we set the intention and purpose of the gathering to chill.
But when we are doing these recreational activities when we didn’t ‘plan’ for it, the feeling of guilt can spring up easily. I’ve personally overcome this by blocking a time on my calendar to do absolutely nothing or anything. This has been tremendously helpful in helping me to be at ease with myself, to go with the flow, to be less uptight about life. As the famous saying goes “We’re human-being, not human-doing”!
2. Manage the expectations you set for yourself.
Humans aren’t robots. If even robots need rest, so do we. The constant need to pack our schedules with tasks after tasks in the name of productivity can lead to burn out. It’s ok to give ourselves space to let loose.
I have a friend whom I considered to be highly successful and productive. I’m always impressed by how he could be a best-selling author, speaker, philanthropist, doing so many things and yet find the time to meditate for 2 hours a day! I asked him what he does before his evening meditation. And his reply took me by surprise:
“Usually, wasting my time consuming entertainment in 1 of 3 ways:
vegetating in front of social media
playing video games”
Even the most productive person has their ‘unproductive’ moments! And that’s okay.
We can learn to set realistic expectations for ourselves so that we don’t get disappointed when we fall short.
3. Forgive and try again
The journey to make valuable use of our time can be a bumpy one. Many failed attempts to be productive can demoralise us or drag us deeper into guilt.
As Sharon Selzberg often says “The moment you realise you’ve been distracted is the magic moment. It’s a chance to be really different, to try a new response.” This is such an empowering statement that shifted my perspective of how I treat my failed attempts. Rather than see them as reasons to justify how I’ll never be able to make it, I can take them as learning moments. I now look at the bumps with curiosity, have fun experimenting new ways to build good habits, and enjoy the process of rediscovering myself.
When we look back, we would also notice how far we have come. So, remind yourself of what you have tried your best to do. Go at your own pace, celebrate your own successes, and keep moving forward. Slowly but surely.
Lastly, feeling guilty might be a good thing!
The piece of good news is, feeling guilty is a sign that we know there’s room for improvement.
We just have to turn that guilt into a positive and constructive energy – rather than wallowing in self-pity, we can learn about the reasons why we are unproductive in order to resolve them. Keep trying!
I transform into the worst liar whenever I fall into the rabbit hole of YouTube.
If you are like me, a 30-minute video break at night usually stretches to 3-4 hours. That’s enough time to make a round trip between Singapore to Bangkok! Despite your logical mind telling you to stop, the last video usually ends when you fell asleep or when you realised it’s 3 hours before sunrise. You wake up looking like Jia Jia or Kai Kai, and feeling like one too. You notice the quality of your work is compromised cause of the late night sleep. Regretting, you promise yourself to not do it again.
A brand-new day! You are determined to change your life for good, start watching videos on how to be productive… and you see the recommended videos on the sidebar… well, we know how this story ends. “Just one last one” turn into a pack of lies we tell ourselves.
The binge-watching cycle repeats itself, and we wake up feeling guilty and hating ourselves even more.
Like our smartphone, our smart brain runs low on ‘battery’ after a long day of usage. After a long and exhausting day, the control centre of our brain (a.k.a. the prefrontal cortex) is worn out by decision fatigue. This is the part that makes wise executive decisions for us and keeps impulses that don’t serve us at bay. But because this poor CEO (of our brain) is burnt out, the monkey mind takes over and all hell breaks loose.
Just one video to wrap the day? Good Luck! If you have ever carried a plastic bag during your hike up the Bukit Timah hill, you would know what I mean. “Oh look another goodie!” This is how the monkey mind swings from video to video, grabbing onto anything that gratifies it instantly. It tricks us to think that the next shiny object is going to make us feel good. After countless times chasing after monkeys (yes, I think there is more than one residing in my brain), I have learnt that I cannot leave my sluggish evening-brain to its own devices.
The following help me to outsmart the mischievous mind, which you can try too:
(a) Stay clear of monkey food during monkey hours.
If I can’t trust my tired brain to stop, let me not begin. Planning ahead, creating signposts and boundaries are helpful. I know my willpower is usually depleted by 9pm. So that is the time to avoid the social media mouse trap. To do so, I put my phone and computer away. If this is not possible, consider purchasing rescue time to lock specific apps after a certain timing and track your time. Beyond that, hitting the unsubscribe and delete button for Netflix is the best decision I’ve made in 2019.
(b) Meditate to gain back executive control.
If I do have to get work done by surfing the net during monkey hours, meditation helps to refill the energy (a.k.a. blood flow) to the prefrontal cortex. This helps to tame the monkey mind so I can get work done. I recommend this 30-day course available Insight Timer: Unlock your wise and mindful brain.
2. You wait to be motivated rather than create it
On good days, we can feel the fire in our bellies, ready to conquer the day and get things done. On bad days, especially rainy ones, we just want to laze around. We may wait to feel motivated to be productive. But how often do we wake up feeling great and not feel tempted to hit the snooze button? In the book, the motivation myth, Jeff Haden highlighted that motivation is not the spark behind our actions. Rather, motivation is the result of our actions. This wasn’t a new concept to the Buddha. He even gave a full discourse about the grounds of laziness and the arousal of energy. It seems that a lazy person would always be finding excuses to avoid doing what is beneficial to himself. The other person with the same circumstances would carry a different mindset. He makes effort to attain what is yet attained to arouse energy.
(a) Just do it.
Nike is right. Regardless of our moods and the weather, if we have set a task for ourselves to complete, just do it. I find that the very act of starting something creates the momentum for me to continue — a beneficial momentum that is the opposite of the monkey business mentioned above.
(b) Create conditions to feel good.
When we feel good, we feel much ready to meet a goal. And when we meet our goals, we feel good. And boom! An infinity loop. The opposite is true. So, create an entertainment-free routine that makes you feel good. This can include meditation, exercise, reflecting on what to be grateful for, having a nice meal, listening to joyful music; activities that naturally boost the dopamine levels of our brain.
3. You set goals instead of systems
Goals are something that motivate us to get our butts moving aren’t they? Not entirely. The problem with goals is that they are temporary. If we don’t change our faulty habits, once goals are achieved, with the lack of new ones, our life will revert back to a sluggish one. For example, once I finish writing this article, what do I do? Without a ’system’ in place to build my habits, I might fall into the late-night-video-binging predicament again.
Also, if setting goals is all it takes for us to achieve it, we would have been productive isn’t it? In the book, Atomic habits, James Clear put forth a contrarian approach— “We think we need to change our results, but the results are not the problem. What we really need to change are the systems that cause those results.” Both winners and losers have the same goal. What leads them to different outcomes is the system they implement and the actions they take.
Here’s what I do:
(a) Change tactic and have fun
Einstein is commonly attributed for the wise quote “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Experiment with a different input, monitor the results, refine, and optimise. Failing over and over can be frustrating. Adopting the sense of curiosity in the process has made this self-improvement journey very enjoyable.
(b) Analyse every habit
A single habit such as sitting on the sofa after a shower can trigger the next habit of surfing the web. Listing down the habits gave me visibility of the full chain of events (cause and effect) in order to break it. I highly recommend you to read the book Atomic habits, block off a weekend to complete the in-book exercises.
Above all, staying truthful to oneself to follow all the beneficial actions might not be easy, especially when the mental energy is drained. Hence, to top it up, setting an accountability system has been very effective for me. Since last December, I have been committing to meditating at least 45 minutes a day or else I have to pay by doing 50 push ups for each day I don’t. So far, I have only paid a handful of penalties. And since then, I’ve been meditating daily and more than before! So, if starting seems like an uphill climb, find a buddy to keep you going.
Being productive and effective is a lifelong journey. Of course, the list of reasons in this article isn’t exhaustive. Everyone is different and may you find what works for you.
Fun quiz: How many animals can you spot in this write up?