Guilt is a terrible motivator. That's been pretty well established. Yet, there are times when I'm sitting in my office and I'll ruminate over things I've left hanging, the projects that never reached full closure, and the products I still need to test. If you're like me, you burn up cycles thinking about things that that are still on a laundry list...even though you hate doing the laundry. You even question your ability to finish tasks, even your checkboxes far outweigh your open tasks.
What's the solution? When you feel that pang of guilt--and I mean every single time it shows up at your doorstep--decide to toss it out like the trash. Tie it up, grab the trash bag with both arms, haul it out to the street, and drop it on the concrete. Guilt is a bad motivator because it uses up energy. Get rid of it, don't let it rule your day.
Now for the hard part.
The effort you normally expend debating about how to get things done that are low on your priority list need to be re-channeled into the things that matter, and that takes work. I learned a ton about this topic when I was losing weight recently. (Update on that: I've kept it off.) I decided to see food as fuel and not as a source of enjoyment or stress relief. In the same way a smoker needs to chew gum, you have to find replacements for the things that are using up time.
Here's an example of how that works. Let's see you have to write a few business proposals this week. There's one you have to write that could bring in a six-figure amount, and you breeze through it like a sailboat across open water. Wow, that was easy. Not a shred of guilt on that one. You bang out another proposal; now you are gliding right along. Those two proposals made you feel productive and full of energy. You need to do a few more, but honestly--they are not as important. The skill here is in learning how to set those unimportant tasks aside in a way that doesn't lead to guilt.
You have to view some tasks as a low priority, and that takes some retraining. There's a reason you breezed through the important stuff, even the hard stuff. You knew the reward was a great motivator. The reason the other tasks are sliding is because they are not as important. You don't really need to do them, and that's OK. It's a "completist" mentality, a detail-oriented "have to check all of the boxes" approach to work that most of us learned in school that is the real culprit here.
The work world has changed, though. We're no longer living in an age, mostly due to pervasive Internet access and mobile gadgets, when you can check everything off your list. We have to get almost maniacal about judging what is a priority. Do a few things, boom: Switch to a mode where you finish a few extra tasks that are important. Switch effortlessly to email or Slack, communicate with the team, boom: Switch back to other high priority tasks. You can't linger with low priority tasks anymore.
To help, I will give you a big challenge. I'm not sure what is dragging you down and making you feel guilty about uncompleted work, or if those tasks exist in a physical sense or not. Doesn't matter. There is some representation for unimportant tasks in your life, even if it is just reams of paper or maybe a broken old desk you are using that reminds you of your task guilt. If you're a real-estate agent, maybe you have some old signs laying around. If you are an accountant, maybe it's an old calculator (sorry for the obvious generality there, but it works). If you are a content creator, maybe it's some old notebooks or journals. Or maybe you use a task list manager or an app like Smartsheet that contains a bunch of stuff you never get done that serves as a constant reminder about task guilt. OK. Find a way to make a physical representation of what is causing the guilt. Put the items in a box. Find an actual trash bag. Put the stuff in the trash. Take it out to the street. Then, snap a picture and post it on social media with the hashtag #taskguilt and include my handle in your tweet, post on LinkedIn.com and mention me, or follow me on Facebook and tag my name. Be sure to use #taskguilt and tag me so I can keep track of them.
Why are we doing this? It's a helpful visual reminder that some tasks are not worth doing and only lead to guilty feelings about your productivity level, that we get stressed out about not finishing unimportant things, and that true enjoyment and happiness at work comes from completing important tasks. The cool part about this? If you deal with #taskguilt, you will be even more productive, enjoy your job more, and live with a sense of accomplishment, pride, and success.
Now, I'm not asking you to forget your job and go play golf. This is not an exercise in slacking off. It's an exercise in living without the guilt that comes from a wrong attitude about work productivity. It's an exercise in seeing work differently--to do what matters, not get stress out about what doesn't matter.
Will you live this way?