Its Destructive Counterpart: Productive Guilt
Last week I shared a pretty deep and honest post about the difficulties of post-uni blues, moving out of the city, and starting a business in a place with which I no longer feel such a strong connection. And it seemed to hit home with quite a few of my fellow freelancers out there. So this week I thought I’d have another go at talking about topic that has been grating on my mind recently. That being… productive guilt.
"Sometimes I find that what ends up flourishing alongside my desire for productivity is an overwhelming feeling of guilt."
Although I’d usually be the first person to talk about productivity in a positive sense i.e how good it feels to smash your workload, stay ahead, be active, and just generally ~smash life~, I know there are hundreds of articles out there that will do that for me. Therefore I want to talk about something a little more under the radar with regards to the topic of productivity. Something that’s not quite so talked about openly among people. Productive guilt. By ‘productive guilt’ I’m referring to the negative feelings of guilt that creep in now and again when not being productive. Yep, we’re all told being productive and pro-active are desirable traits to have and most of us strive to embody these. However, as with many things, it’s possible to take it a step too far. And I think it’s about time we addressed the issue.
Like many freelancers I’m sure, one of the primary things I feed off of in this line of work, is productivity. It’s likely that this is the reason many of us, in fact, go into self-employment in the first place. From receiving our ‘assignments’, to setting our own hours, to creating wonderful things from nothing, self-employment necessitates a productive agent. And in turn, it feeds our need to constantly being doing, to feel a purpose, and to consider ourselves progressing in some way, shape or form. Without doubt, to be in the self-employed game, you need a certain mental discipline. You need that inner-drive, that desire for productivity, ambition, and that love for ~the hustle~. However, sometimes I find that what ends up flourishing alongside my desire for productivity is an overwhelming feeling of guilt. I often feel very guilty if every minute of the day isn’t filled with something “productive.” This extends beyond just my design work. If the self-employed life wasn’t hands-on enough, when I’m not working you’ll find me training hard at the pool or in the gym, running little errands, or even just putting mental pressure on myself to constantly be coming up with new ideas and projects. Even now, I’m writing this at 10:30pm, having reopened my laptop at the end of the day due to these feelings of having not achieved enough with my time today. Even though in actual fact, I’ve achieved plenty. Perhaps, this whole blog is an extension of these feelings of guilt. Of course, only I would see launching my own business as not doing enough… I must do that something extra!
"It's all about momentum in this world and as soon as you stop turning the cogs it's very hard to get going again."
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why these feelings of guilt start to arise if I’m having a moment of unproductiveness. Certainly, craving a sense of personal achievement plays a significant role. I’m the type of person who likes to feel accomplished on a daily basis, and productivity is intrinsically linked with this. Being productive in my work, productive in my body, and productive in my thoughts, makes me feel successful. According to Julie de Azevedo Hanks, Ph.D, one reason many of us having these feelings is because “we link our behaviour, our performance, and our productivity, with our self-worth.” It’s a sad truth. I know that there’s definitely a dark place in my mind that links how much I do with how much I value myself. And I’m yet to figure out how to escape and completely disentangle from it.
I think one of the major factors is the fact that I operate in a creative field. Working in a creative field I’ve always felt I have to prove that what I do is, in fact, work. I have vivid memories of my brother barging into my room whilst I’ve been occupied with a design project, asking “What are you doing?” and scoffing at my response, “I’m working”. I think this serves as a pertinent example of how the field of arts and crafts is perceived by many people. It isn’t always taken seriously. How can you class drawing a few doodles for a tote bag, blotting some ink on paper, or designing a few colourful posters as ‘work’?! It isn’t a particularly valued industry in our society. In some sense, therefore, I’ve always felt I have to be seen working on my design stuff at all hours of the day in order to prove to my family and others around me that, despite not having a traditional nine-to-five corporate job, I still work hard and ~pull my own weight~ in this world. Ridiculous, I know! But I would say this definitely contributes to these feelings of guilt.
Of course, the fact that I’m now operating my own business, these feelings have only escalated. At university these feelings were felt out of wanting top marks, striving to push myself, justifying the thousands of pounds spent on tuition fees, and generally making the most of these three years. Now on top of all that, money, client deadlines, and making it an actual viable success all come into play. I’m the only one who can make it so. Everything rests on my two shoulders. It’s like being a bloody one man band! If I’m not putting in the hours, it simply won’t happen. Productivity is key. Rest, and everything comes to a complete halt. As photographer, Steve Booker, stated in his recent blog post, “It's all about momentum in this world and as soon as you stop turning the cogs it's very hard to get going again.”
"To promote the message that you can’t be a success without burning the midnight oil is dangerous."
Finally, I think modern social media is a minor culprit in all this. With the advent of social media networks like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, we see what everyone is up to in their daily lives. And although I’m a strong advocate of curating your feed as to filter whose life you let yourself see a window into, this too has its downfalls. Besides close friends, I use my social media accounts to follow other creatives and entrepreneurs. This way my feed is constantly filled with creative work, inspiring stories, and positive people, which in turn inspires me. However, whilst this is the case most of the time, there can be times when seeing others consistently pumping out creative work, grinding away, and making things happen for themselves, leaves me feeling like my progress, in comparison, is moving at a snail’s pace. It feels like the world is constantly doing, constantly grinding, and therefore I ought to be doing the same. How can I ever be successful if I don’t keep plugging away? I guess this is what makes rest such a tricky thing to allow myself to do. Because without being productive, there is no possible way of achieving. And if I’m not achieving then I most certainly don’t deserve rest. And so the vicious cycle of guilt takes hold.
This isn’t helped by the recent growing trend of entrepreneurs glamorising overworking. Recently, I read an eye-opening article by Katy Cowan at Creative Boom entitled, ‘Overwork Isn’t Heroic’. It talks about the growing trend among many entrepreneurs of glamorising and boasting about ‘overworking’. As Katy states in her article, “People boast about it. They share pictures on Instagram of their laptops on their beds at weekends. It's like "overwork" has become a badge of honour. That success only comes from half killing yourself.” And I’m glad that this is finally coming to people’s attention. To promote the message that you can’t be a success without burning the midnight oil is dangerous. Especially to those just starting out in business!
"From receiving our ‘assignments’, to setting our own hours, to creating wonderful things from nothing, self-employment necessitates a productive agent. And in turn, it feeds our need to constantly being doing, to feel a purpose, and to consider ourselves progressing in some way, shape or form."
So it’s a difficult one to figure out. I guess it comes down to that classic buzzword, balance. Finding that line between working hard and knowing when to ease off and let yourself recharge is so important. Perhaps, one of these days I’ll come to accept that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day for what I want to get done, and that I need to somehow lower my expectations as to what is actually doable. Perhaps, I’ll learn that even if I don’t have anything physical to show for my efforts I can still be kind to myself and rest. Something I’ve never been very good at doing. But productive guilt isn’t easy. It’s definitely a thing. And I wish it was something that was talked about more openly among people. If the things I’ve discussed ring true with any of you hard working freelancers or entrepreneurs out there, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you ever find yourself a victim of productive guilt and if so, what do you do to try and alter your mindset?