How to Turn Guilt Into Productivity at Work

Martha C. White, NBC News
Frank and Helena | Cultura | Getty Images

We all have them: those work tasks hanging over our head that we keep putting off even though doing so makes us feel even worse.

Tap into that guilt over unaccomplished tasks and use it to make you a more productive worker, said Nick Jehlen, partner at design consulting firm Action Mill.

Jehlen started an experiment he dubbed "guilt hour." At a weekly meeting, workers publicly identified the undone task they felt the most guilty about putting off. Everyone spent the rest of the hour tackling the task they named. "It was instantly helpful," Jehlen said.

Jehlen said that the "social aspect," in which co-workers will offer to help out or share a burden, is one benefit, since tasks can be transferred but a person's sense of guilt hanging over it doesn't go along with it. "People feel guilty about something they're not doing ... but somebody else can take it off their plate and not feel guilty about it," he said.

It's possible to use guilt in a positive way to complete tasks even without group feedback, though. There are a couple of principles that anyone can apply to their own backlog of dreaded duties, Jehlen said.

One reason "guilt hour" works is because people spend an entire hour working on just their individual single tasks. "It's a huge, huge part of it," Jehlen said.

"Attention has become the most critical barrier today to high performance and productivity," Louis S. Csoka, president and founder of APEX Performance, said via email.

"Multi-tasking and other things can diminish our productivity," said Taya R. Cohen, assistant professor of organizational behavior and theory at the Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University. "With procrastination, often it's just starting or carving out that time."

Making the time is one catalyst to getting the job done. Another is saying you'll do the task you're putting off in front of other people.

"Accountability can be a really powerful tool," said Mark Ellwood, president of Pace Productivity. He created a website called to help workers stuck in a rut on a personal or professional project. They can use the site to find like-minded people who will check in with them, offer advice and hold them accountable.

It's also worth taking a look at what kinds of tasks you tend to put off, and which ones you feel the worst about shirking. "Anytime you're asking somebody for a favor or advice, that's the kind of thing that often comes up" in guilt hour, Jehlen said.

Ellwood said administrative tasks are often blamed for sapping productivity. "The sorts of things people are procrastinating are the things they don't see as adding value to their jobs," he said. But although we might not see them as valuable, paperwork and the like can prompt stronger feelings of guilt because these tasks often hold up someone else's workflow if they're left undone.

Cohen added that it's also important to keep the guilt focused on a specific task. "Guilt can be good if if's focused on specific behaviors you can then do something about." Feeling bad about yourself as a person and your work overall, though, can be detrimental.

If done wrong, tapping workplace guilt can be bad for morale. "This is a negative approach to something that should be looked at it in a more positive and encouraging mode," Csoka said. People would be better off just developing and executing a clear goal plan, he said.

But if an unfinished task is really putting a drag on productivity, acknowledging the feelings you have about it might not hurt. "The longer you don't do it, the more guilty you feel about it and the harder it is to get done," Jehlen said. So, block out an hour on your calendar and alleviate your guilt.