why guilt is a horrible motivator

Why Guilt Is A Horrible Motivator

So you’ve eaten a piece of cake that you weren’t supposed to eat, or maybe you missed your child’s first ballet concert. If you’re like most people, and not a psychopath, chances are, you will feel guilty about what you did. Guilt is what we naturally feel when we believe we’ve done something wrong. But should we be looking to guilt to make us more productive? The answer is no. Guilt is not a good motivator. You’ll be better off counting on other things for that productivity boost.

Guilt Takes Up Too Much of Your Mental Space

If you’re trying to motivate yourself to finally start on that project you’ve been putting off, you might be thinking that you should remind yourself of how disappointed your boss would be if you don’t finish it in time. You might be trying to guilt yourself into working on it so you don’t let your boss down. A lot of times, this will get you working, but will you be surprised if I say you won’t be your most productive while you work?

Guilt makes you feel bad about yourself. When you go on a guilt trip, you’re essentially focusing on your flaws and imperfections. But as scientists will tell you, you’re most productive when you feel confident, competent, and happy, not when you feel like you’re being a horrible human being. Happiness is what increases productivity. If you have to spend part of your mental energy trying to deal with negative feelings like guilt, you won’t be free to focus all your mental faculties on the task at hand. So guilt, instead of helping you be more productive, ends up being just and extra burden on your brain.

It would be much better if you focus on doing the right thing instead of avoiding the wrong. Focus on being a good person instead of trying not to look like the bad guy. Rather than guilting yourself into finishing that project, motivate yourself by thinking of how happy you would make your boss feel when you complete it. Think of how grateful he would be that you did your part. Picture him celebrating the completion of the project and imagine yourself being partly responsible for his happiness. Thinking of the positive impact you can make will get you feeling happy and confident so you can be optimally productive.

It Makes You Do More of What You Feel Guilty Doing

What did you do when you felt guilty about breaking your diet and eating that cake? Did feeling guilty help you get back on track? Chances are, it did the opposite. You broke your diet, felt horrible about it, and decided, “What the heck I might as well have more cake.”

When you believe you’ve done something bad, you begin to think that you deserve to be punished for what you’ve done. If no one on the outside is going to punish you, you start looking for ways to punish yourself. Your self-punishment is your attempt to cleanse yourself of your guilty conscience. You end up punishing yourself by doing more of what made you feel horrible and guilty. You eat more of that cake, feel guiltier and it just becomes a cycle of guilt and self-punishment.

Next time you make a mistake, instead of beating yourself up for the wrong and pushing yourself into a vicious cycle, celebrate what you’ve done right so far. Focus on how you managed to stick to your diet two weeks, for instance, instead of letting that one time that you had a slice of cake overshadow everything. That’s more likely to get you back on track. You’ll end up wanting to feel like you’re succeeding again and getting back to your success strategy.

It’s an Extrinsic Motivator So It Doesn’t Last

You don’t want to be in a situation where the only reason you do what you do is because you want to avoid feeling guilty. So maybe the only reason you’re spending sleepless nights studying through med-school is because you don’t want to disappoint your parents. Maybe only thing that’s making you work hard to finish projects and meet deadlines is your desire to not feel bad about disappointing your boss. This means that you’re looking to the outside to find the motivation to do what you do, and there’s nothing intrinsic pushing you forward.

Your desire to avoid guilt is an extrinsic motivator. What would happen if this extrinsic motivator is removed? What would happen if, for instance, you find yourself working as an entrepreneur with no boss to disappoint? You lose your impetus. The new freedom confuses you and might even leave you paralyzed on how to act. That’s why you might see a person who is very hard-working in a structured office setting struggle to get anything done when they become self-employed entrepreneurs.

What you want to do instead is to find a way to build and nurture that intrinsic motivation. Regardless of the job you have, get yourself to a place where you wake up every morning ready to take on the day, not for your family or your boss, but simply because you enjoy what you do. Find a way to do your job simply because it makes you happy. That way you’ll keep being productive and doing your best, even when you have no boss to impress.

The next time you want to guilt yourself into doing something remember that you’ll be sabotaging yourself. It’s much better if you focus on doing the right thing instead of avoiding the bad, celebrating your successes, and enjoying yourself through every task.

Nelu Mbingu is a self-improvement blogger. She enjoys sharing her ideas about personal growth and social success on her blog, Lessons From Everyday Life. She loves telling her stories, hearing other people’s stories, and becoming wiser day by day. Visit her blog or follow her on Instagram: neluthecurious


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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