The Silent Epidemic of Productivity Guilt

In a society that values the destination, not the journey, a new book by writer Madeleine Dore looks at how to avoid suffering from productivity guilt.

Article by Lucy E Cousins

Photography by Carl Heyerdahl.

When writer Madeleine Dore first tried to increase her productivity levels, she decided to join the “5am Club”. She would rise earlier than usual, begin her day on the right foot and, hopefully, work smarter not harder. The problem was, she says, that technique just doesn’t suit her personality.

“Every evening, I’d find myself drafting this perfect routine for myself for the next day, but then in the morning I’d snooze through my alarm and I’d spiral,” she explains. “Essentially I felt like I’d already failed. I had started the day with failure.”

The experience led her to start questioning people she perceived as successful and productive, asking them for their secret. But what she quickly learned was that there is no secret, no magic app, and no quick fix.

“I found that the more people I spoke to, the more I realised that we all have these shared stumbles and shared doubts and we all feel like we’re not doing it right!,” she laughs. “So, it really led me to ask the question, where does this productivity guilt, this “not doing enough” mentality actually come from?”

The answer to that is the subject of her latest book, “I Didn’t Do the Thing Today – On Letting Go of Productivity Guilt” (Murdoch Books), which brings together the lessons she learned from over five years of research into the subject.

The main takeaway, she says, is to step away from rendering ourselves perfect, because “we’ll never get there”. Perfection, she adds, is like chasing a mirage.

“At the end of the day, society has this blanket expectation that we can all be these perfect robots with this perfect output or consistency,” she explains. “But actually we all vary, and our days vary, so it’s about finding approaches that can be malleable to those variances.”

Dore sat down with T Australia to share her thoughts on the idea of perfection, how to avoid productivity guilt and how to recognise if you’re spiraling.

I Didn’t Do the Thing Today – On Letting Go of Productivity Guilt” (Murdoch Books) is out now.
Author Madeleine Dore spend five years researching the topic for her latest publication.

Can you tell us a little more about your new book?

 “Yes, well, this book is the culmination of a long journey through searching for the secret to productivity. Like many people, I was trying every hack that I could find to be more productive and be more prolific. And I kept falling short. So I turned my attention to asking people that I admired how they do what they do. And I thought that getting people’s routines would be the way that I could do that best because I could find out what they do when they do it, how they do it. And then I could find the rest for productivity and success.”

And, did you discover the secret?

“No! As it turns out this book is a collection all of the lessons I learned along the way and it really looks at this idea that most of us have internalised productivity to be a measure of our worth when really it’s just one of many byproducts to living well. But this book is not about productivity necessarily being a bad thing, we all need to do things, it’s more about productivity guilt and where that stems from and how we can untether from that idea that productivity is a measure of our worth.”

And where do you think this guilt stems from?

“I think it comes from being in a society that does measure our sense of worth and value by how much we do and who we do it for. But there’s also these stumbling blocks associated with productivity. For example, we set these great expectations for ourselves, and when we fall short, we internalise this idea that we’re not measuring up. Other stumbling blocks are comparison to other people and also this idea of perfection.”

Who do you think is mainly affected by productivity guilt?

“I think it comes in very different forms. So, anyone who’s felt that kind of pressure. For example, a student who feels the pressure to achieve a certain grade or someone who works for themselves and feels this pressure to find more clients or to fit more in. It could be someone who’s newly working from home who is having to adjust to the distinction between work and homelife. It can affect all of us in different ways and in different circumstances, but collectively we’re having this shared experience.”

In the book you speak about the productivity spiral, could you please explain that?

“Well, the productivity spiral would be when there’s something that you’ve said that you will do at a specific time, and then you find yourself not doing it when you said you’d do it. So instead of actually adjusting the timeline and perhaps going for a walk to clear your mind, instead you become completely stifled in that anxiety or that guilt and you do nothing at all. When we’re very rigid with how we think we should act, it’s the rigidity that can push us down that spiral.

And so, in order to avoid this spiral, do productivity apps or outsourcing help?

“Well, when you encounter tools or tips that really resonate, then I think that’s wonderful, but it’s when you find yourself turning to these tips and tricks or apps as something that’s going to “fix you” or  “improve you” that they could be less helpful. And if you try them and don’t succeed, then it becomes another reason for blaming ourselves for not being good enough. So the very thing that we were looking towards for help becomes another reason that we don’t measure up. That’s where we become quite entangled in all of these tips, because we’re putting them on a pedestal that they’re going to be the very solution when actually we need to embrace our imperfections and the messiness and the mistakes that we’ll inevitably make.”

So, what’s the one thing you’ve learned about being in a productivity guilt spiral?

“Well, I think it comes back to this idea of being flexible. I think the epiphany for me was when I realised that at the beginning I was really looking at how I could be more creative and productive, however the really big takeaway was that the people I interviewed aren’t measuring their day by their output, they look at it through a creative lens. And we need to learn to live inside the creative process, even if we don’t see ourselves as creative. That’s really acknowledging that there’s an ebb and flow to our days and our energy, our attention, our output, and seeing that there’s value in each of those stages.

So for me, I tried to shift things so I measure my day by creativity, curiosity and learning and I try to deepen my day rather than trying to fix myself or sticking to a ridged plan. This idea of a creative lens is far more accessible because you can define creativity for yourself; you are being creative with the ingredients that you’ve got rather than trying to follow the instructions from someone else. That means you can be more open to surprise and epiphany.”

What’s the best way to move forward at the beginning of the year when a lot of people would like to make a few changes?

“Well, it’s interesting, because at the heart of this book is this idea of letting go of constant striving to “change and fix” ourselves and this constant upward trajectory of improvement as that tends to keep us stuck where we are. Instead of actually making us better, it can increase feelings of burnout and overwhelming anxiety. What about deepening your day instead? Going for run or a sunset stroll, and just delighting in small pleasures.

We’ve all had such a difficult time [over the past two years], and so finding ways to embed joy into our day might be refreshing compared to those constant resolutions, which are always geared to changing something that we don’t like about ourselves. Let’s talk instead about cultivating delightful discipline; we’re so much more motivated when we enjoy something. Of course, there’ll be things that we need to do that we don’t want to do, but if we can make it more delightful or joyful, it’s far more motivating in the long run.”


I Didn’t Do the Thing Today – On Letting Go of Productivity Guilt”, $32.99, Murdoch Books, is out now.