Stop feeling guilty about not being productive

A few years back, I found myself waxing poetic about productivity with one of my colleagues.

Let's call him Joel. Since that was his name.

Now Joel happened to be a busy executive, with the endless to do list that's part and parcel with that role. A constant stream of meetings, calls, more meetings, travel, and even more meetings left little time for deep work.

"So how do you get anything done?" I asked.

What he told me next surprised me. "I only try to get one thing done each day," he said. His process was simple: at the start of each day, he would write the most important thing he needed to get done that day on a post-it and stick it to his monitor. Once that task was done, he would toss out the post-it. One day, one task.

Of course, I promptly forgot about this, burying myself under a mountain of post-its and to do apps and planners and coffee. Because, you know, life.

Joel's advice came back to me recently—but not for the reason you might think. Sure, it's an excellent method for being more productive. After all, the less you try to achieve, the more time and energy you can dedicate to your top tasks, and the more impactful and fulfilling your work will be.

But it turns out that this simple approach to productivity can also help you stop feeling guilty about not being productive, and ditch the constant feeling of guilt for the time you spend not working.

Freelance guilt is real. It isn't easy to manage your time and outputs when you're the one responsible for your time. Taking time away from work, even for just an afternoon, becomes a burden. Instead of enjoying your downtime, you struggle to disconnect your brain from work. The ever-present sense of doom that your self-employed dream might come crashing back to Earth at any moment makes you feel like any time you can be working is time you should be working.

But here's the thing:

Downtime is essential. Time away from work isn't a "gift" you give yourself—it's necessary for avoiding burnout and building a freelance business that's truly sustainable. Just like your cell phone, you need time off to recharge your batteries, so you can do your best work when you come back. 

So how do you stop feeling guilty all the time about not being productive during your downtime?

Well, that's where the post-it notes come in handy. 

In their book Make Time (a solid read), Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky suggest choosing a Highlight for your day—your Highlight is the focal point of your day, the one task you'd like to get done. "Choosing a Highlight," they write, "gives you a chance to be proactive about how you spend your time," instead of letting other people (or freelance guilt) dictate your agenda.

Your Highlight becomes the one thing you write on your post-it note. Depending on the day, that could be a pressing work task, like drafting an article for a client. It could be a task that brings you the most satisfaction, like sending an email to your audience. It could also be something less reactive and more joyful, like taking your kids to the playground for the afternoon. It's up to you.

Sure, your highlight is probably not the only thing you'll get done each day. But, choosing one bright spot that's just for you—not for your boss, or your clients, or anyone else—gives you the chance to be more proactive with your time.

More importantly, though, choosing a Highlight lets you focus on the essential tasks. It stops the tug-of-war between your brain and your body—you can disconnect, safe in the feeling that you achieved your goals for the day. It lets you be more intentional with your time so you can be more intentional with your downtime.

Lately, I've been using this trick to re-frame my downtime. Each day, I've written down one goal—one single priority for the day. Setting only one goal each day makes it easier for me to stay focused while working—and to ditch the productivity guilt at the end of the day. I've been getting more done each day, while also having more time to spend with family.

Don't get me wrong—I love freelancing. But the flexibility is both a blessing and a curse. No matter if you're a freelancer or you're working for someone else, that nagging feeling that you should be getting more done in less time. It keeps you from doing your best work, and it keeps you from enjoying the time when you're not working.

I may not have a boss like Joel to tell me when to switch off.

But delegating the freelance guilt to your daily Highlight?

Now that's an idea that's worth its weight in post-it notes.

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