What is motivating you to complete tasks and projects in your job? Is it a desire to succeed, to help the company reach more customers and rack up sales, or a deep need to make a difference and share a bright idea with the world? Are you making the smartest decision possible, or is there something else motivating you?

Sadly, what's really motivating us, the thing that seems to drive our decision making, is often guilt. Raw, unadulterated, and persistent guilt.

Think about it. Why do you want to get to inbox zero? Because you have messages in there that have sat for ages and you are feeling guilty about not responding. Why do you finally call that one customer who probably isn't going to respond to your pitch anyway? Because your boss keeps reminding you to do it and you don't want to disappoint her.

The problem with guilt is that it's a terrible motivator. It isn't that smart. We care more about how we will look than whether the resulting action even makes sense. Guilt is also a poor motivator because it hampers our productivity. You have to give some room in your day for guilt. You stew over the guilty feelings about finishing a task, which means the task takes even longer.

But it gets worse. Guilt also makes us feel miserable. When we are driven by guilt in the workplace (or in life), it tends to create an atmosphere of shame. It's like we are working in a jail cell and think that's where we belong. "Poor me, I don't perform well. I don't get the job done. Other people see me as a disappointment. I rarely finish anything." Then we crank through a sales presentation or finish up an expense report in a hurry so the boss doesn't get mad. It's a perpetual cycle of shame and guilt.

Want to break that pattern?

The answer is to remove guilt from the equation. You have to ask yourself some tough questions. Why am I even working on this right now? Why do I think this task is important? Why have I created a self-imposed due date? Is there someone that is making me feel guilty about this project? When you have some of those answers, you have to decide to get cold and calculating with your work and remove the guilt. The decisions you make at work really need to come from a place of guilt-free thinking because then you can make better decisions. You need to finish the marketing slideshow by tomorrow because you are really excited about reaching a new target audience. You have a plan to do some research on a new product because you are motivated by the wonderful discovery that no one else makes a product like that.

This can be incredibly transformative. Your new motivators will make you more productive, happier, and you will churn out something that's more worthwhile. Guilt causes stress; making decisions without guilt leads to a much higher degree of productivity. Your energy goes into the work and not into the guilt. You work toward a goal; you don't complete tasks just because people will think poorly of you or blame you for inactivity. You feel fulfilled because your motives are pure.

Kill the guilt. Then, let me know after a few days or weeks if it is working and if your work output increases, if you are happier on the job, and if other people notice.

Published on: Jul 20, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.