Stop Using Guilt as a Motivation Tactic

Broken.jpgIf you need guilt to motivate yourself, your productivity system is broken.

“Are you procrastinating?” my roommate asks me. Three exams the next day and I wasn’t studying.

“No, I laugh, procrastination means I intended to do some work. I never planned on working tonight, so technically it isn’t procrastination,” I respond.

This was a conversation I had last week, during an exam period. Although my review schedule before exams tends to be a lot lighter than most, the biggest difference isn’t the time. It’s that I refuse to use guilt as a motivation tactic.

Stress-Cases VS Relaxed Achievers

Here’s the process a typical stressed-out student or worker uses to motivate himself:

  1. Worry.
  2. Be unsure where to start.
  3. Take a break.
  4. Take another break.
  5. Feel guilty about breaking for so long.
  6. Do 15 minutes of work.
  7. Chat on Facebook.
  8. Repeat.

Although there are probably a lot of problems in this situation, I think the worst is step #5. When you use guilt as a motivation tool you increase your stress without accomplishing anything.

Worse, guilt tends to be a lousy motivator, resulting in a little bit of effort but nowhere near the effort needed to succeed with your plan.

Now contrast this approach to the way a relaxed, effective student motivates herself:

  1. Worry. (Hey, sometimes you can’t help it)
  2. Stop and form an action plan with specific tasks.
  3. Create a list of the tasks to be done.
  4. Break the list down to a daily basis.
  5. Work hard to complete the tasks.
  6. Relax guilt-free.

Instead of guilt, there is a system. It’s this system that not only creates the results, but eliminates the wasted stress and time.

The System Doesn’t Need to be Complicated

If I’m making it seem like the second approach requires a black-belt level of mastery in GTD, that’s not my intention. A system doesn’t need to be hard or complicated to still work extremely well in 95% of cases.

Here’s the system I’ve used for the last few years of relatively guilt-free work:

  1. Make a to-do list.
  2. Chunk that to-do list into a list just for today.
  3. Complete the list, without adding new items when you finish it.

Now, this may sound too easy. Sure, this might work for some people, but my work is too difficult, my academic program too intensive and the competition too fierce to limit myself in this way.

Wrong on both counts.

First, that attitude is wrong because this system works even better the more difficult your program is. The systematic approach to productivity, with pre-established limits, excels when your workload is hellish.

I’ve used this approach when managing full-time classes, international competitions, two volunteer positions and a part-time business simultaneously. Cal Newport has used a similar restrictions-first approach to get a PhD at MIT, build a wildly successful blog and publish several books.

Don’t tell me you’re too busy. You’re too busy not to have a system.

Second, this attitude is wrong because it assumes guilt is even remotely effective. It’s not. Guilt may be used in the 5% of situations where your system breaks down. But when you’re using it on a regular basis, it wears out and becomes useless.

Studies have shown that willpower is an internal resource. If you use it up on one task, you have less of it for the next task. So if willpower is this scarce, why force 100% of your work to rely on it?

Martyrs of Busyness

The real reason a lot of people like using guilt is for a secondary benefit that has nothing to do with accomplishing anything: social status.

When you tell people you have a killer workload, you aren’t just complaining. You’re also trying to tell people you’re important enough to have a killer workload.

Some tribes put discs in their lips or brand tattoos. Ours walks around telling everyone how “busy” we are, grinding away hours of our life in half-productive work. Whose is more destructive?

Guilt Free and Accomplished

January 2010 was the second best month for income I’ve ever had on the website. It was the number one for direct income. My health and fitness are nearing a personal best, last week I was able to complete 10 one-arm pushups with each arm in a row. Academically my grades will likely be staying high during my year abroad, and I’ve made significant progress learning to speak French.

Despite this progress, I’ve been more relaxed this year than perhaps any in my life. Tonight will be my forth night out in a row, in a series of going-away parties for friends leaving France. I’ve enjoyed enough free time to practice my cooking, read more books and enjoy the weather, women and wine in the south of France.

I’m not saying this to brag, but to point out a contrast. In other years I’ve had considerably more stress, a lot of it being self-inflicted. Also, during those years I arguably accomplished less towards my main goals.

I think that’s evidence that the burnout, guilt-soaked approach to work not only isn’t sustainable, it often doesn’t even get the most done.

  • Arami

    For every semester throughout college so far, I’ve pulled at least one all nighter (more like several). It was hellish, but it did feel socially acceptable to stay up all night, sometimes along with all the other procastinators as well. I laughed as I read your process for the typical student, because that is exactly what I had been doing every semester so far.
    But for the last semester of classes that I’ve had, I made it a point to not pull an all-nighter – no matter what. That was one of my major goals that I haven’t completed in college. And after I was done that semester, it felt very refreshing to do so. I had always felt that I needed to rack my brain up to the very last minute before tests, but by making smart decisions via To-Do lists I was able to be much more relaxed, even if I did have a test or two the following day.

  • Anders

    Great article Scott,

    I’m optimizing my own personalized GTD. I’m some where in between the two types of students you mention. I really want to improve, but sometimes, even systems flunks – especially if one misses sleep, eats poorly and doesn’t get enough exercise. There are a lot of things in the equation, and not only the steps you describe – but you have mentioned these things in various other posts!

    Keep up the good work. Can’t wait to get the next “Ass-kicking email” 🙂

  • Priyanka D

    Guilt and stress both reduce productivity, I find, they cannot be seen as motivators. A sense of responsibility is what would really help manage work loads, but when it gets misplaced they lead to procrastination and ensuing guilt trips.

  • Craig Thomas

    Thankfully I tend not to use guilt as a motivator – I’m more of a carrot type guy. I prefer to go out there and get it myself.

  • Jim Greenwood

    Guilt and stress point in the direction where action is needed. Breaking through to the action is the challenge. Your advice works.

    WOW! Ten one-arm push ups with each arm … Congratulations. How long did that take to accomplish?

  • Richard Shelmerdine

    Ouch that hit a spot! I remember being a stress case and not a relaxed achiever. I stayed up for 2 days revising and caused myself some serious mental damage once in school. Learned a lot from it though. Nice post.

  • Zen Choices

    I agree that guilt should be extinguished from motivating yourself. I think a great way to do this is to create inspiration for why you are doing what you are doing – whether it’s studying or building a house.

  • PM Hut

    I have discovered, after years of Project Management, that making a “realistic” to-do list is much much better than a to-do list, which is better than nothing.

    If the to-do list is unachievable, then the person can easily get frustrated and guilt will start to make a major role, and he will start experiencing the symptoms that you mentioned.

  • Wendy (Give Love Create Happin

    My favorite line – Complete the list, without adding new items when you finish it.
    Mental note – GOOD IDEA!