How to banish not-working-enough guilt

Words by Madeleine Dore
Art by Amelia Goss

“True action, good and radiant action, my friends, does not spring from activity, from busy bustling, it does not spring from industrious hammering. It grows in the solitude of the mountains, it grows on the summits where silence and danger dwell.”

– Hermann Hesse

Many of us have two daily routines – the first is a perfect, ideal routine and the second is the real, messy, ordinary, everyday reality of our lives unfolding day by day.

In the ideal routine, productivity is optimised, distractions are minimised, our output is at a maximum. We are working in a state of flow, seizing our natural rises of energy and completing our to do lists without a miss. We are working at our full capacity, hammering and taking action.

But even if we have a clear picture of our ideal routine or are in tune with how we work best, rarely does anyone adhere to a perfect routine, perfectly.

As advice columnist Heather Havrilesky said in our recent conversation, “I used to tell myself that if I really wanted to be a great writer, I would stop screwing around and wake up at 4.30am every day.”

While she admits there are benefits to being an early riser, it isn’t always practical. “I feel like even if you succeed at that lifestyle and that structure, it's almost like you're living in this really unforgiving routine that tells you that productivity is the number one goal of each day.”

It’s a myth that the ideal routine will render us prolific precisely because it’s so rare we stick to it.

Yet many of us find ourselves feeling guilty if our days go off track, if we can’t stick to our ideal routine or find ourselves idle when we should be working.  

It’s a myth that the ideal routine will render us prolific precisely because it’s so rare we stick to it.

But our days inevitably go off track – distractions come to the fore, plans need to be changed, our responsibilities can call unexpectedly, and our minds and bodies don’t always corporate with our grand plans on a particular day, week, or consecutive set of months.

Perhaps we needn’t expect our days to run smoothly, but instead learn to banish the guilt that comes along when they don’t.

When I spoke to Heather, she was experimenting with “following her whims” and it meant there were many moments in her day that her best intentions weren’t met.

“When I get back from walking the dogs, I try to get right to work. Does that always happen? Not necessarily.”

“I often have grand intentions to get back to my writing after lunch but most days I lose the thread.”

“If I can't manage reading, I sometimes play this farming video game called Stardew Valley.”

“Some days we plan to create, and some days we end up eating muffins.”

All of Heather’s disclosures are relatable – each of us has reached for our snack of choice instead of creating or being productive, or scrolled Instagram for hours instead of reading.

But what’s particularly refreshing is that all of her disclosures come without guilt. Heather isn’t beating herself up for eating muffins instead of working, or playing Stardew Valley instead of reading – she is simply acknowledging that’s how her days can unfold, and that’s okay.

What Heather is showcasing is softness, and being kind to yourself. “I'm experimenting with just following my whims wherever they lead as a means of being kind to myself and being free and feeling inspired.”

Why aren’t we measuring when we are good to ourselves, or put space and rest on a pedestal?

Of course, we can’t expect to follow our whims day after day – and there are times when discipline and hard work are essential – but more often then not, when we create space in our days, we begin to trust ourselves and recognise that the work gets done when the work gets done.

When we are kind to ourselves in the moments we aren’t working or when our productivity is at a low, we make space for the work without forcing it.

As Heather explains, it’s a trade-off. “I feel like it's somehow paying off in these strange little magical surges of being able to write with clarity about things that are complicated – I have a lightness around the process that I didn't have before.”

Perhaps we need to redefine how many hours or effect we need to put into our creative projects or freelance careers. Instead of feeling guilty for doing nothing, we see it as a crucial ingredient for inspiration and restoration.

“I feel like my brain now knows that I don't actually have to work that much, I just have be in front of my computer for those times when everything is flowing and it’s possible to hit that high note. I’m not going to torture myself the rest of the time,” says Heather.

We don’t need to keep telling ourselves the story that productivity is a measure of our worth, and we must feel guilty for not working. Especially with creative work – be it a career or a project – we need to follow our whims, experiment, and embrace doing nothing at all.

Let’s stop torturing ourselves with guilt we have conjured from our own unrealistic expectations of productivity. Let’s instead embrace the moments we find flow, or manage to juggle disparate priorities, or the times we go off track and enjoy it, and find ourselves back wherever we need to be.

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Madeleine Dore