How to Stop Feeling Guilty About the Things You Don’t Get Done

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One of the universal sources of guilt is when you don’t check off the things you planned to get done. You feel the motivation to exercise, yet end up on the couch with Netflix. You experience a setback when trying to master better eating habits—choosing chocolate ice cream instead. It happens to everyone. Chocolate and Netflix in combination do this weird, hypnotic thing to your brain, and that’s OK!

It’s normal to make strides, only to have to take a few steps backward. You have the desire to cultivate productivity, but your get-up-and-go left without you noticing. Guilt takes up residence in its place. You link your behavior with your performance and your self-worth. You attach those missed tasks to failure, with doing something wrong, and that sense of “being wrong” can become a toxic cycle. Here are some tips for fixing this vicious cycle and stopping yourself from feeling guilty about the things you didn’t get done.

Stop Competing and Comparing—Care
Cultural historian Riane Eisler examined the so-called “masculine” and “feminine” to develop her cultural transformation theory. Her research says humans are a dimorphic species made of two halves and human culture organizes itself according to a hierarchical ranking. In the “masculine” dominator model, ranking remains at a constant threat. If someone does better or more than you, you lose your rank in the hierarchy. With the “feminine” partnership model, the organization relies on connecting and linking.

History and humanity do not need to rely on violence and dominance to survive or thrive.

Level the playing field and look to the similarities. Human needs are basically the same, including the need for rest. When you focus on competing and comparing, you lose sight of the big picture and, ultimately, lose out.

Care for yourself first and you’ll be able to better care for others.

Stop Missing the Forest for the Trees
Remember the adage, “You can’t see the forest for the trees?” It’s easy to get so caught up in details or an endpoint that you miss the big-picture experience.

Face it—you’re never necessarily finished. Celebrate the process and move from goal to goal, no matter how small it seems. Honor those little wins.

Understand That “Wasting Time” Is Productive
Ever notice how amazing ideas slip into your brain while showering or washing dishes? Consider the paradox: You achieve the most when you flow inside a task, particularly while “doing nothing.”

Maybe understanding creativity and productivity comes down to getting to know how people rest, rather than how they overwork themselves. One study reveals quick diversions from a duty actually improve your ability to focus on the task at hand. The tricky balance is not getting caught up in social media or a movie — walk away from your laptop and grab a coffee or take a walk.

Stop Using Your First Hours for Email
Dread waking up in the morning? Cut out the things that can give us the most anxiety but very little productivity benefits — particularly emails and texts. Time can easily slip through your fingers as you distract yourself all the way to the afternoon with none of the perceived productivity or moments to enjoy the day.

So, stop using your first hours for email — and those last hours before bed, too. Schedule a 20-minute, 30-minute or one-hour block for checking your email or phone and leave it at that. Include these times in your email signature if you have particular commitments — then, others know, too.

Schedule the Meaningful
“Importance” is a weighty word these days, often associated with obligation and the notion that you have to “sell your soul” to do something worthwhile.

Don’t “find time” for yourself—schedule it. Schedule what’s meaningful in your life, including the small stuff.

Keep It Simple
Don’t schedule overly broad to-dos on your list, such as “paint house.” Instead, break up your to-do list objective with simplicity in mind, from “choose color” to “paint kitchen walls.”

Keep your list for the day short, too, and choose three successes—it makes it easier to keep moving forward and feeling good. When you fill your list with too much, you stand a higher chance of becoming stressed and overwhelmed.

Stress represents the body’s normal reaction to a challenge, but it turns chronic if constant. Anxiety is one of the most diagnosed mental health disorders in the United States, and competing obligations at work and home affect your work-life balance adversely. Social participation, traveling, dealing with an authority figure and time management all represent potential triggering challenges. So, keep it simple to give your body a break.

Stop Trying to Keep up Appearances, or Keeping up—Period
Let go of keeping up appearances so you can care more about the meaningful things in your life instead of “wasting” your energy on what doesn’t matter to you. Will it matter to your life a year from now? Two weeks even?

A difficult but important tip is to avoid wasting time arguing in social media discussions, or even spending a lot of time on social media at all. You don’t have to binge-watch “The Originals” because your friend did. You don’t have to fight tooth and nail for a promotion you really don’t desire. News stress you out? Skip it.

Work in Bursts
The idea that you’re going to be able to maintain focus for eight straight hours is, frankly, delusional. Embrace your humanity, because you can’t change that. Burnout kills your passion and contributes to chronic health conditions. An irrefutable link exists between burnout and a lack of control—employees experience job engagement when they perceive they possess the ability to influence choices that affect their job, exercise autonomy at work and gain access to resources that enable them to function effectively in their role.

Try working in bursts for 20 or 30 minutes and giving yourself a brief five-minute break to do whatever you want. Your focus will increase, and you’ll feel less guilty for satisfying very human needs.

Just because you miss out on a few tasks doesn’t make you a bad person or a failure. You’re human, and you do what you must to get through the day, but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your life, well-being or happiness. Start coming at tasks with an “I get to” attitude as opposed to an “I have to” one. And for those tasks that you really can’t make that mind shift about? Well, you might want to consider cutting them out and replacing them with something more meaningful to the person that really matters—you.

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Kate Harveston

Kate Harveston

Kate Harveston is an online journalist from Pennsylvania. She enjoys writing about women's issues, career advice, and sociopolitical change. If you enjoy her writing, you can visit her at OnlySlightlyBiased.com.