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Being Okay with Doing Nothing: Why Being Productive Isn’t Always Possible

I read a book recently all about something called productivity guilt. You know, that looming feeling that reminds you of how “you could have done more” at the end of the day?

Yeah, that.

Now, I’ve struggled with productivity guilt for some time now, I just had no idea there was a term for it. I always felt like no matter how much I did in one day, it was never enough.

Constant comparison was something that tagged along for the ride as well. Thoughts of how others are doing more, so I should be too. Looking back on it now, it was an extremely toxic and harmful way to go through life.

But when you’re in the middle of it, it feels rational. You always hear the expression, “we all have the same 24 hours in the day, it just matters how you use it.” That saying haunted me - it served as a reminder that others were doing more, being more, and achieving more.

I think we get stuck in this cycle—the cycle of feeling like we should be doing more and more every day. I eventually reached a point where it felt impossible to do more than I did that day. I packed my schedule with plans and events and tasks and to-do’s just to give myself the feeling that I was, in fact, doing enough.

We all reach a point where we burn out. We took on too much, and now we have to pay the price for that. Physical and emotional exhaustion hits harder when you still feel like you’re not doing enough.

It was at that point when I realized I needed to start being okay with doing nothing. I needed to fully accept that being productive every day (all day), isn’t possible.

The hardest part of this is breaking the belief that we always need to be doing something or else we’re lazy. We live in a hustle and bustle society that sometimes praises burnout - because you’re not working hard enough if you aren’t.

If you’re someone who struggles with productivity guilt, I know the feeling. So, I spent the last few months testing different ways to help myself feel okay with doing nothing. I want to share them with you in the hopes that they’re able to help you out as well.

1. Recognize progress & celebrate it.

One of the biggest reasons, for me at least, that I felt unsuccessful was because I failed to recognize my success.

Step one to being okay with doing nothing is to praise yourself for your wins. Write them down when they happen and revisit them often.

Doing this helped me in a number of ways: 1) it helped me realize that I was being productive with my time even if I felt like I wasn’t, 2) it helped build confidence in myself since I was actively highlighting things I did well, 3) and it served as a constant reminder that my progress looks different than everyone else’s.

So, the next time you experience a win, even if it’s small, give yourself a high five for it. Write it down so you don’t forget about it.

2. Set realistic goals.

Another problem I faced was failing to achieve super lofty goals. I would set myself up to fail by shooting for the stars before I was ready.

This step takes a bit of self-awareness since it’s easy to set goals based on who we want to be and not who we are.

For example, I set a goal to walk at least a mile before work every day. There were a few problems with this goal that ultimately led to my quick and disappointing failure.

The first problem was that I sometimes start work early in the morning, and I don’t always want to get up and walk in the cold before my 8AM meetings.

The second problem was that I said I would do it every day. The moment I missed a walk, I felt discouraged.

Instead of setting lofty goals that you might not hit, set realistic ones that still challenge you. How does this relate back to productivity guilt you ask?

A big reason why we feel like we aren’t doing enough is because we set goals that require mass amounts of work and energy.

When we set goals more in line with where we’re currently at in life, we set ourselves up for success without overextension.

Instead of saying I’ll go for a walk every morning before work, I now have a goal to go on at least four walks per week at any time of the day. See how that makes it easier to achieve while still allowing me to work hard at a goal? That’s what you’re aiming for.

3. Start meditating.

Out of all the tips and tricks I tried for productivity guilt, nothing helped me as much as meditation. I like to think of it as exposure therapy for doing “nothing.”

If you’re someone who struggles sitting down to meditate for long periods, I would really encourage you to try out active meditation. I’m sure someone else thought of this before me, but it’s something that I found extremely helpful.

I wasn’t initially able to sit down with myself and meditate - I had to build up to that. So, I started by going for a walk with no distractions. No music, no podcasts. Just me on a walk with myself.

I call it active meditation since it gave me a super similar feeling to what I now experience with a more"traditional" form of meditation. I felt calm and inspired at the end of the walk, and I felt okay with the fact that I didn’t do anything on that walk - except for walk.

Eventually, I was able to translate that to the sit-down meditation you might be more familiar with.

So, if you’re out there right now feeling like you aren’t doing enough, then I would encourage you to try at least one of the above tips.

The moment you’re able to be okay with doing nothing is the moment you’ll set yourself free from the constant pursuit of doing something.

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