Stop Feeling Guilty About Your To-Do List

It’s the end of the workday, and your to-do list has barely been touched. You feel guilty for not getting more done. But this emotion is neither useful, nor healthy. So, what can you do about it? How should you handle feelings that you’re letting down your coworkers, boss, customers — and even yourself? How can you learn to accept that you are doing the best you can? And, what are some strategies for getting smarter about how you tackle your interminable to-do list?

What the Experts Say

Your end-of-workday shame for not having accomplished what you set out to is often the result of unrealistic expectations, says Heidi Grant, the director of research and development for Americas Learning at EY and the author of No One Understands You and What to Do About It, among others. “Most humans are overly optimistic—we enter the day with an expectation and plan of getting all sorts of things done,” she says. But the trouble is, “we are not grounding our expectations in the reality of the work that we do.” So invariably when 6 o’clock rolls around, we feel anxious and guilt-ridden says Whitney Johnson, the executive coach and author most recently of Disrupt Yourself. “You look at what you didn’t get done, and you get that sinking feeling deep in your soul that you are not enough.” But, she says, “you mustn’t feel like a failure.” Conquering workplace guilt involves a combination of getting savvier about how you chip away at your to-do list, improving how you manage your own (and others’) expectations about what you can realistically achieve over the course of a day, and building self-compassion for those times when you fail to live up to them. Here’s how.

Reframe the situation

When the nagging voice in your head tells you that you’re failing your coworkers and that your boss is frustrated by your inability to finish certain tasks, Grant says you need to recognize those negative ruminations for what they are, “a story you’re telling yourself.” After all, “it’s not objectively true that you should feel bad about this or that; it’s only true because of the way you’re interpreting the situation,” she says. “You’re deciding that it’s all your fault.” Instead, seize the opportunity to reframe and reappraise the situation. “Ask yourself: Is there another way to look at this?” You might, for instance, come to realize that “I did a lot of work today, and I did my best. I hope to get more done tomorrow, and my colleagues probably understand because they’re busy, too.”

Gain perspective on your productivity

It’s also helpful to think about the factors that keep you from accomplishing items on your list, and appreciating that oftentimes, circumstances cannot be helped. “When you think about why you aren’t getting things done, more often than not it’s because you were attending to someone else’s needs,” says Johnson. “Your client, colleague, boss—or maybe even a family member—needed your help, and you provided it.” Johnson recommends replacing the question, What did I accomplish today? with How did I contribute today? “You will find you were more productive than you thought.”

Recognize your limitations

Some work-related guilt involves shameful feelings about your inability to reach your full potential—as in, “If I worked harder and longer, I’d achieve more,” says Grant. This anxiety may be due, in part, to “the myths of growth mindset.” Today’s workplace indoctrinates employees into thinking they can always get better at something—so long as they put in the effort. But while “improvement is always possible, you also need the goal to improve”—not to mention the time, energy, and resources to do so. So, when you find yourself feeling guilty because you’re not succeeding in the way you envisioned, try to recognize that this emotion stems, “from not wanting to reckon with your limitations,” she says. You need to “disengage from the things that are less important to you,” she adds. “Never give up something because you think you can’t do it; give up because you’ve decided it’s not worth investing your time and energy.” Put simply, “Pick your battles and let the rest of it go.”

Get pragmatic about your to-do list

In addition to dealing with the psychological effects of falling short on your to-do list, there are plenty of ways you can get better at allocating your time—which could also help reduce your end-of-the-day shame. It starts with taming your list.

  • Perform a forensic analysis. Grant recommends trying an experiment. Each morning, write a regular to do list, and at the end of the day, see how many things you managed to complete. Do this for a week or two. “Then ask, on average, how many items am I crossing off?” Your goal is to get a feel for how much work you actually get done in a day, so you can learn to manage your expectations about what’s realistic.
  • Pare down your list. Then you need to “right-size your list,” says Johnson. It’s demoralizing when, at the end of the day, your to-do list with 20 items has only one or two crossed off. No wonder you feel guilty. “Lengthy lists are unrealistic,” she says. Trim it down and make the goals on it credibly achievable.
  • Be deliberate about where you focus. “The key to not feeling guilty at the end of the day depends on how you tackle the beginning of your day,” says Johnson. “As you’re writing your to-do list, select a few things you really need to get done and concentrate on those.” Be ruthless about how you prioritize your time. “There are only so many hours in the day, and you have to make choices about where to focus,” says Grant.
  • Pay attention to how your list evolves—or doesn’t. If you notice certain items tend to linger on your list, Grant suggests asking yourself, What is the difference between what I am crossing off and what remains? Is it because I don’t know where to start? Is it because the tasks are too high level? Do they need to be broken up into smaller chunks? Or am I missing opportunities during the day to chip away at these tasks? “It may be an indication that you need to book time in your calendar to do them because you’re not going to do them spontaneously.”
  • Embrace the state of non-completion. Try to cultivate a degree of comfort with the notion that “you will never be caught up, and you will always have things at the end of the day that you really wished you’d gotten to,” says Grant. “Make peace with it. This is the nature of work in the modern era,” she says. Accept the fact that your to-do list will be in a constant “state of non-completion,” she adds. This is particularly true once you reach a certain level in the hierarchy of your organization. “If you can embrace it, it starts to hurt less.”

Set expectations

Once you’ve developed an understanding of your bandwidth and retooled your to-do list accordingly, it’s time to set expectations with others. “Avoid people pleasing,” and “stop overpromising,” says Johnson. Being explicit about what’s reasonable for you to take on “prevents constant requests coming in for things you can’t do,” adds Grant. “It also helps establish boundaries for you, which is reaffirming.” What’s more, being clear about what you can manage often helps you recognize that in general, your colleagues and boss are understanding and reasonable people. “We tend to imagine people having far worse reactions than they actually do. When you inform people of your constraints and they take it in stride, which they usually will, you realize there is nothing to feel bad about,” she says.

Practice self-empathy

Sure, you can be a little shrewder about how you manage your time, and you can set better expectations, but in the end, “you have to be a steward of your own well-being,” says Grant. You need to figure out a way to “preserve your mental capacity” and “stop obsessing about your to-do list.” You can only do “one thing at a time, and that’s never going to change.” Instead of fixating on three things you didn’t finish, pat yourself on the back for the 17 things you did, adds Johnson. Positive self-talk comes in handy here, too. Try a new mantra. “Tell yourself, I worked hard today; I gave it my best shot; I did a good job and I should be proud of that.”

Be patient

Similarly, don’t expect a fast and simple solution to the problem. “You’re not going to read this article and never experience guilt again,” says Grant. Grappling with guilt is ongoing. “Expect to have feelings of guilt and have to work through them again and again,” she says. Johnson concurs. “Sometimes you will struggle with this more, sometimes less,” she says. “It’s a process.” Thankfully, if you implement these practices—in particular, accepting a certain degree of non-completion, “it will get easier.”

Principles to Remember

Do:

  • Reappraise the situation. When you feel emotions of guilt, ask yourself, what is the story I am telling myself that’s producing this emotion? Is there another way to look at this?
  • Recognize that the support you provide to others is a key component of your productivity; those contributions help your organization move forward.
  • Embrace the state of non-completion. Try to accept that your to-do list will never be done, and you will always have things you really wished you’d gotten to.

Don’t:

  • Abide by lengthy to-do lists. Trim down your list and make the goals credibly achievable.
  • Overestimate time, energy, and resources. Make a choice to disengage from certain goals because they’re not worth your investment.
  • Expect these feelings to suddenly disappear. Wrestling with guilt is an ongoing process, and you need to be prepared to work through your emotions again and again.

Case Study #1: Edit your to-do list and cut yourself some slack

When it comes to guilt, Steve Martin, the chief marketing officer at Ann Arbor, Michigan-based DaySmart Software, is apt to quote his personal trainer. “He’s fond of saying, ‘Do your best and forget the rest!’”

Sound advice, but it’s not always been easy to follow, Steve admits. “For a while there, most days, I wasn’t sure I had done my absolute best,” he says. “I always started with that intention. I began my day charting a lengthy to-do list full of high-value tasks. But I was always side-tracked by hallway conversations, customer crises, and a mounting inbox.”

By the time he was shutting down his computer and packing up to go home, he felt guilty about all the things he had failed to accomplish. It was a recurring feeling, says Steve, who’s spent the majority of his career in startups. “I called it ‘my end of day inadequacy.’”

For the sake of his mental health, he knew he needed a different approach. First, he performed a “root cause analysis” to help him figure out what was going on. “I needed to dissect the real problem,” he recalls. “What was keeping me from finishing what I needed to get done? Were my expectations off? Was I setting myself up for failure?”

During the period of reflection, he realized that his to-do list was too long. “There was simply too much on it. No normal human being could do any better,” he says.

So, he made some changes. Instead of a to-do list with 20 items, he now writes lists with only six or seven. He also makes sure that he spends at least an hour of each day tackling the most important task.

Next, he developed a coping mechanism to help him gain perspective on his looming list. “I started by acknowledging the reality that, in any given moment, I perceive the impact of something to be larger than it ultimately is,” he says. “So, while I may feel guilty about not achieving all of the day’s objectives, I must accept that no matter how ‘important’ something seems, a month or a year later, it will assuredly be less so.”

Finally, he realized he needed to give himself a break. He will always have outstanding items on his to-do list. “Perhaps my best isn’t good enough—not because of any personal failing—but because the volume of work outweighs the current resource capacity,” he says. “I will never get it all done.”

“Maybe my trainer is right.”

Case Study #2: Measure your value by the contributions you make, not by checked boxes

Katelyn Holbrook says that the guilt induced by all the unchecked boxes on her to-do list grew as she progressed in her career.

“The stress mounted as I moved from an individual contributor to leadership position with greater accountability,” says Katelyn, senior vice president at the Boston-based PR firm, V2 Communications. “And it became more challenging to manage when I became a parent.”

Katelyn, a mom of three young kids, vividly remembers how awful she felt as some tasks remained on her to-do list longer than she would have liked. “I simply couldn’t prioritize everything; more urgent items were always popping up,” she says. “So, the non-pressing items would stay on my list, and when colleagues checked in, I’d anxiously let them know I had not gotten to it or it was still in progress.”

But over the years, she has changed her approach and the guilt has subsided. For starters, she makes it a point to clearly communicate what she can and can’t do. The effect has been liberating, she says. “I make my schedule very clear to my colleagues: I can do internal team meetings by phone before 9:30 or after 4:30—in fact, I like to because that often frees up more time for priorities during the day. Any meetings I need to be physically present for should be scheduled in between whenever possible, with the exception of client meetings, as I often work around their schedules,” she says.

She also has given up trying to take everything on herself. “A big breakthrough came when I realized I was doing more damage by keeping my colleagues waiting than by just asking one of them to help,” she says. “I’d felt that I would be burdening them, but in most cases, those tasks were items that junior team members were eager to take on because it allowed them to work on new skills.”

Finally, she bears in mind that even though many days her planned to-do list goes off the rails by 10am, it is often for good reason. “It’s because something more urgent has come up,” she says. “It’s either an unexpected client issue, or a breaking news item that needs my response, or a colleague that’s seeking advice, or something else that I need to address,” she says.

Today, Katelyn doesn’t measure her value by the items she crosses off the to-do list—rather she looks at the contributions she makes to her organization, her colleagues, and her clients. “When I’m looped into something that wasn’t already on my plate, it is because I will add value in some way,” she says.

All Rights Reserved for Rebecca Knight

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