Can Shame be Productive?

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For centuries, shame has been used as a tool of social cohesion. Parents have used mild shame as a way to teach children what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. But other forms of shame are toxic and the polar opposite of productive. One form of toxic shame, particularly prevalent in our modern working lives, has been given its own name; productivity shame.  

Before we go further, let’s answer the question.

It depends. Some subtler forms of shaming have proven productive. Any form of shame that’s used to build rather than to destroy may be called productive. For example, a parent subtly shaming their child into sharing their toys is helping to develop their child’s social skills and manners. Other incarnations of shame can be toxic and even damage productivity, chiefly because these forms of shame are used to undermine confidence and self-worth. This is often the case with productivity shame.

Methinks it’s time to delve deeper.

The earliest online reference I’ve been able to find to the idea of feeling ashamed and guilty about productivity was made in July 2015. This has since been judged as a toxic form of shame that can be a bad omen for your personal efficiency, self-esteem, and motivation. Later, I’ll share tips on how you can overcome productivity shame. First, though, let’s find out what it actually is.

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What is Productivity Shame?

Productivity shame what you experience when unrealistic goals or schedules for yourself and then blame yourself when you fail to meet your own pre-set standards. It might be the reason you never feel you’ve done enough, and feel guilty for walking the dog or reading a book, rather than doing something you believe to be more productive. It’s an awful feeling that gets in the way of our happiness and well-being. As it damages self-esteem, it can’t really be considered a useful or productive form of shame because, as I’ve pointed out before, happiness and high levels of motivation can help bring about a visible uptick in productivity.

Remote Work and Productivity Shame

In the world of work — particularly remote work, or any profession in which you chiefly work with knowledge or information — there often aren’t strict guidelines on what needs to be done on any given day. Instead of having something clear to deliver each day, most of us face days filled with meetings, collaboration, and context switching.  

We tend to focus on the amount of work we can complete, rather than paying more attention to the quality of the work produced. Thus, we become vulnerable to completion bias. This is when our brains concentrate on finishing smaller tasks rather than working on larger, more complex, and perhaps more meaningful ones.

 It’s easy to feel you never get enough done in the course of a day. Soon, we find ourselves becoming stressed and overwhelmed. If things continue unchanged you might become a victim of burnout. Burnout is the death knell of efficiency.

But don’t fear. It’s now time to find out how you can overcome productivity shame.

How to Beat Productivity Shame

Here’re some tips I think would be useful, if you want to combat productivity shame and start setting more realistic expectations for yourself each day.

Think about efficiency in a different way.

True productivity is about completing important tasks consistently.

Most of us who chiefly work with information spend much of our day context switching, according to research done on the cost of interrupted work, meaning that it’s rare to spend over 20 minutes of uninterrupted time on a single task.

So the first step to banishing productivity shame is to stop doing things that are in large part just keeping you occupied. Instead, try to focus on completing the most vital tasks. In other words, don’t just get busy. Get busy doing the right things.

When you start thinking in this way, you’ll be more confident about how you spend time. You’ll therefore be more decisive about how you spend it. This, in turn, has a huge impact on your ability to concentrate on what matters. With practice, you’ll be able to more easily enter a state of flow, as Britany Berger explains.

Use the progress principle

Take advantage of the progress principle. Sometimes the reason you don’t feel you’ve done enough is because you don’t see enough progress being made daily.

Our brains are hardwired to want to finish tasks. This means that if you always set huge goals, you’re likely to feel you’re often falling short. However, it’s not just setting giant goals that can hold you back. There’s also the planning fallacy to consider. This is another cognitive bias — first proposed by Kahneman and Tversky — which refers to our tendency to underestimate how long it will take to finish something, even if you remember that a similar task you did in the past took longer than you expected.

So if you end up spending more time than expected on tasks, you’re bound to feel that you’ve not accomplished as much as you feel you should have.

How do you solve this problem then?

You can still set big, ambitious goals, but you need to break those goals down into manageable pieces. This lets you use completion bias to your advantage because you’ll start crossing meaningful tasks off your list, which will improve your motivation and thereby boost your efficiency. By completing more of your meaning full work, you’ll also have a better idea of how long portions of your work will take to do, so you’ll be less likely to fall prey to the planning fallacy. Thus, you’ll be more able to sustain high levels of self-esteem.  

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Create support systems using your favourite tools

The first spurt of excitement we typically experience when we set an ambitious goal is not normally enough to get us over the finish line, no matter how determined we are to begin with. Motivation tends to vanish when we most need it. The lack of control we have over our excitement and motivation can lead to us feeling productivity shame.

We often tell ourselves that we need to get motivated before we begin working on a project. But the truth is that motivation only comes to us once we’ve made a start. To make achieving a difficult goal possible, it’s imperative you set up support systems. Then you’ll be less likely to fall into the trap of blaming your own lack of willpower and motivation for a lack of progress.

The trick is to use surges of motivation to put support systems in place so that you can continue to make progress even when you don’t feel motivated.  Your own support system could include using a time tracking app to help improve your time management and using automation tools like Zapier to help cut down on the amount of time you spend doing busywork. As you continue to make visible progress towards your larger goal or goals you’ll start to feel more motivated, which will help boost your productivity.

Switch off at the end of your workday

With the rise of remote work, smart devices, and changes in the workplace, it has become harder than ever before to separate work from the rest of your life. This lack of ability to draw distinct boundaries between the two can cause you to constantly feel that you’re not doing enough with your life. You’ll be plagued with productivity shame.

To ensure you can fully switch off at the end of your day, you can:

  • Create a ‘power down’ routine that you follow at the close of each day.
  • Take yourself away from your work environment and tools.
  • Relax.
  • Do something you find joy or fun in, or are passionate about.

If you give your mind something to focus on that’s not related to your work, you’ll give your brain a chance to rest. You can recharge without continuously thinking there’s more you could be doing.  

Redefine enough

Perhaps the best thing you can do to avoid feeling productivity shame is to decide what enough is before you start.

Ask yourself at what point you’ll feel good about the day, but can honestly say you’ve challenged yourself as well.

We all hope to excel in our work. One consequence of this is that we often end up overworking ourselves, making ourselves more susceptible to fatigue and burnout, which can both damage our productivity.

But how can you find your own sweet spot?

Why not try the OKR (Objective and Key Results) goal-setting method?

OKR allows you to create a broader view of success that means achieving about two-thirds of what you expected to is enough to challenge you without undermining your confidence. When you use OKR, goals aren’t all-or-nothing. You can achieve a large part of your goal and still feel good about yourself.

When you set objectives for using OKR (typically not exceeding 3 at any one time if you’re in a small organisation or business) you’ll want to make them uncomfortable so that you’ll have to stretch yourself to achieve them, but not so daunting that you’re completely unmotivated. After you’ve decided on your objectives, the key results you set should act as milestones you pass on the way towards your main objective.


It’s true we’ve given shame a bad name and that some forms of shame may prove useful and have good consequences. However, we’ve seen that productivity shame is a relatively new, toxic form of shame that undermines self-esteem, confidence, and damages personal productivity. Why not try and follow some of the tips I’ve given today? I’ll bet you’ll soon be able to put the spectre of productivity shame to bed for good.  

Published by Lizzie

Lizzie here. I'm a freelance copywriter and editor based in the UK. I'm also passionate about volunteering and hold a MA in History from the University of Warwick. I've written for a multitude of fantastic websites and companies, including a legal automation software company, a dog training site and more. Check out my reviews on Fiverr and Upwork for more info!

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