Dealing with the guilt from being unproductive

As I’ve gone on and on about, I’ve spent the last few years travelling Australia and New Zealand. I did a post a while back on the hardest parts about writing while travelling, and it still rings true. Unlike back then, I have learned a thing or to help manage the drop in productivity that can come from this kind of lifestyle.

It’s not perfect yet, but it’s a start.

A bigger issue has also come to my attention, one that I’ve been aware of for a while but always considered normal until fairly recently. As I keep exploring and developing my skills, as well as working towards the lifestyle I want, I’ve learnt that this isn’t actually as normal as I thought.

I am, of course, talking about the guilt we can feel when we do nothing or are unproductive.

Making changes to my writing habits

Pre-2020, writing came in bursts.

I’d find a place, setup or schedule that let me take advantage of hostels or the flexible living arrangements I was using and churn out a chunk of writing in a short amount of time. Quality dropped for quantity, as I found it easier to edit than write in smaller bursts.

Then 2020 happened. Thankfully, during lockdown I was in a share house with my own room and a desk. That helped with work and being able to have a space to write two thirds of a novel. This gave me an escape from the pretty crappy situation that most of us have found ourselves in at some point(s) since Covid-19 struck.

Returning to my first book, and hiring an editor, I found it easier to focus as I made even more progress towards my goals. I used this setup to keep editing and redrafting, and even when I began my latest adventure around Aotearoa New Zealand’s South Island, I made sure to take a little time each day to keep working on projects.

Then 2021 hit. I had planned to use this year more efficiently, and despite being in the middle of this adventure, I set a target of editing at least one chapter a day. Ultimately, I did more than that on most occasions. I’ll go into more detail on this in a later post, but it got me into a good pattern of balancing my time each day.

Then I finished that draft and moved onto my next project to keep the momentum going. In between times, and even since starting this draft, I’ve lost motivation and found myself doing very little – or forcing myself on.

Taking breaks

Taking a break is normal.

This is what I have to keep telling myself. We’re not machines, and if we push ourselves into exhaustion, the quality of our work drops. I’ve learned this through my regular jobs over the years, yet I still have a hard time following that advice on my own projects. Why?!

The answer is simple, once I thought about it…


I don’t have as much free time as I spend at work or doing the things I need to keep living. I’ve adopted the attitude of making the most of my time now to enjoy more free time later, but years after choosing this approach, I can see how much it’s fatigued me.

My other hobbies (reading, listening to music, watching film and TV shows, gaming etc) have also taken a hit. Other than specific reasons, I feel like I’m not being productive when I enjoy one of these activities, and, believe me, the guilt hits hard.

Guilt and unproductivity

So, where did this connection between unproductivity and guilt come from?

I don’t remember a specific instance where it was instilled on me, but there are plenty of situations where doing nothing, or relaxing, was certainly frowned upon.

During our education, we’re taught during the day five days a week, but there’s also homework – and this increases as we get older. Time not spent doing homework was often seen as a waste, and this carried over into our holidays, too. Doing nothing was a waste, when this should be a great time to relax and recharge.

If it’s a topic you’re interested in, it feels less like a chore, and college and university courses excel at this – but there’s still a lot of work to be done outside of class hours.

It’s also prevalent at work. Doing nothing at work is frowned upon – even if we’ve done the assigned tasks. More should be done to stay busy, but some people get through things quicker and end up doing more than another worker on the same pay. That can lead to people feeling disillusioned.

There’s also an attitude of being grateful to have a job, no matter what it is, and accept any requests an employer makes of you. This is certainly true in some roles and industries, but it further cements this attitude of feeling guilty if you aren’t being productive.

Is this a UK thing, or is felt elsewhere? Others will undoubtedly have specific trigger points that might be more obvious than my own, but those experiences, for better or worse, put me on this path.

I don’t have an answer yet, but instead of focusing on what I haven’t, or could have done instead, I focus on the things I have. If it brings me any amount of enjoyment, then that’s enough. Some days, I want to switch off from a project and give myself a break. I still feel guilty, but I’m learning to manage it better with this approach.

In the end, that’s all any of us can really do.

Is this something you’ve experienced? How are you overcoming it? Let me know in the comments.