Feel Less Guilty About Work You Haven’t Yet Completed

By Harvard Business Review
August 28, 2018

Here are three ways to avoid the negative effects of guilt and shame – because failing to get every task done does not make you a bad person.

Most people have a to-do list so long that it’s not clear that there’s an end to it. Some tasks, even quite important ones, linger unfinished for a long time, and it’s easy to start feeling guilty or ashamed about what you have not yet completed.

While guilt does not seem to make people worse at completing tasks, feeling guilty when you’re away from work, and unable to do anything about it, is not helpful.

However, feeling shame about work you have not completed is likely to make the problem worse, not better.

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What can you do to counter these negative feelings? 

Exercise self-compassion: Being kind to and willing to forgive yourself has shown to alleviate the negative effects of shame. Imagine that you are giving advice to someone else who is in the situation that you are in — say, to a friend who is behind on several projects. Chances are that you would be willing to tell other people to give themselves a break. You should be willing to give yourself the same advice.

Focus on accomplishments: Research demonstrates that focusing on the gap between what you have accomplished and what you want to accomplish leads to feelings of dissatisfaction. That energy can be motivating to act, but when you’re not able to act, focusing on your accomplishments is a better approach. Banish the guilt by feeling good about what you have already done. When you are in a position to take action again, then you can make better use of the dissatisfaction that comes from focusing on what’s not yet done.

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Practice acceptance: One of the outcomes of many mindfulness techniques is an acceptance of your current situation. This is also useful when you are trying to overcome feelings of guilt. In those moments, you need to remember that all of the work you have to do will be there when you get back to work, whether you feel guilty about it in the moment or not. In other words, remind yourself that feeling guilt at that moment doesn’t help. 

Use guilt as a motivational tool when you are able to get work done, otherwise use these strategies to lose it. And find ways to reduce shame − failing to get work completed does not make you a bad person.

Copyright 2018 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

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