A lot of people experience symptoms of guilt when it comes to leaving work for the day with unfinished tasks they had wanted to accomplish.
Sometimes those previously set work goals are too ambitious, impossible to accomplish without completely draining yourself of all energy and time. And inevitably pushing into your weekend, causing you to work longer hours than required and taking away from your highly necessary relaxation time.
Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, Art Markman, Ph.D., wrote an advisory essay to those experiencing the above symptoms.
Markman sympathized with these scenarios. “Most people I know have a to-do list so long that it’s not clear that there’s an end to it,” he wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “Some tasks, even quite important ones, linger unfinished for a long time, and it’s easy to start feeling guilty or ashamed about what you have not yet completed.”
Markman explained that the feeling of guilt occurs when people feel as though they’ve done something wrong, i.e. not completing a task on their neverending to-do list. Guilt is related entirely to a person’s behavior (or lack thereof).
While guilt may seem entirely negative, Markman said that guilt can sometimes be “motivating.”
“For example, feelings of guilt can increase people’s propensity to cooperate. And, in some cases, guilt can also motivate people to make progress on projects that have stalled. At a minimum, guilt does not seem to make people worse at completing tasks,” he wrote.
“However, feeling guilty when you’re away from work, when you aren’t in a position to do anything about it, is not helpful, and can be painful. It will make you feel worse about your job in general and spoil time that you could be spending with friends, family, or engaging in an enjoyable activity,” he continued.
But there are ways in which to prevent the negative effects of guilt in relation to the workplace.
Markman laid out several tips for interrupting the negative thoughts that come along with guilt to prevent the negative emotions that accompany them as well.
1. Exercise self-compassion.
Tell yourself that it is OK to feel behind sometimes. And forgive yourself for the behavior you are dwelling on.
“Imagine that you are giving advice to someone else who is in the situation that you are in … Chances are that you’d be willing to tell other people to give themselves a break. You should be willing to give yourself the same advice,” Markman wrote.
2. Focus on your accomplishments.
Remind yourself of the successful and proactive things you have done at work lately -- a presentation you worked hard to put together and your boss loved; a coworker you counseled when she was going through a difficult time; a personal goal you set and accomplished.
“Banish the guilt by feeling good about what you have already done,” he wrote. “When you are in a position to take action, say sitting back at your desk on Monday morning, then you can make better use of the dissatisfaction that comes from focusing on what’s not yet done.”
3. Practice acceptance.
Accept that you simply could not have completed all the tasks you wanted to that day. Do not allow yourself to dwell on it further, as there is nothing you can do. And you must give yourself the peace-of-mind and relaxation you deserve after a day of hard work.
“You need to remember that all of the work you have to do will be there when you get back to work whether you feel guilty about it in the moment or not,” Markman advised.
“In other words, remind yourself that feeling guilt at that moment doesn’t help,” he continued.