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The Myth of "Caught Up" at Work: Why You Should Stop Feeling Guilty and Embrace Self-Compassion

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

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Do you have a never-ending to-do list at work? Are you constantly feeling guilty or ashamed about the tasks that linger unfinished? You're not alone. Many people struggle with the pressure to constantly produce and feel like they're never "caught up" at work. But what if I told you that feeling guilty or ashamed about it is not only unhelpful, but also harmful to your productivity?

Today we will explore the difference between guilt and shame, why they're not useful emotions in the workplace, and how you can practice self-compassion and acceptance to achieve a healthier work-life balance.

The Psychology of Guilt and Shame at Work

Guilt and shame are often used interchangeably, but they're actually distinct emotions.

Shame is Rarely Helpful

Feeling ashamed about unfinished work stems from a sense that one has failed or is somehow fundamentally flawed or incompetent. However, research shows shame is an unproductive emotion that harms motivation and focus. When people feel ashamed, they are more likely to withdraw, procrastinate, or engage in self-blame rather than take meaningful action. Shame triggers the body's "fight or flight" stress response, flooding us with cortisol that impairs cognitive functioning. To minimize shame's negative impact, it is important not to define one's self-worth by productivity levels or attach too much personal value to specific tasks left undone.

Guilt Can Motivate but Also backfire

Unlike shame, feelings of guilt can potentially motivate someone to finish an overdue task. However, excessive or prolonged guilt often does more harm than good. Mild, short-term guilt may light a fire to wrap up an important project. But chronic guilt wears us down over time and reduces efficacy by eating away at mental and emotional reserves. When guilt spirals into rumination about all we haven't finished instead of focusing on solutions, it paralyzes progress. Guilt also loses its utility outside of work, as evenings and weekends should be for rest and recharging instead of constantly rehashing workload stresses.

The Illusion of Ever Being "Caught Up"

No matter how efficiently one works, it is unrealistic and unnecessary to expect to constantly stay on top of every task. Workloads ebb and flow, and periods of being slightly behind are normal and even necessary for productivity in the long run. Trying to maintain an impossible standard of always being fully "caught up" sets oneself up for chronic guilt, burnout, and diminishing returns. Accepting that some tasks will inevitably remain incomplete at any given time is a healthier perspective that prevents wasteful rumination over normal workload fluctuations.

Why Guilt and Shame Are Unhelpful at Work

Guilt and shame are not only unhelpful at work, but they can also be harmful to your productivity and well-being. Here are a few reasons why:

  • They create a negative work environment: When you're constantly feeling guilty or ashamed, it can create a toxic work environment. You may become irritable, snappish, or withdrawn, which can affect your colleagues and team morale.

  • They lead to burnout: Constantly striving to be "caught up" can lead to burnout. When you're feeling guilty or ashamed, you may work longer hours, skip breaks, or take on too much, which can lead to exhaustion and decreased productivity.

  • They distract you from the task at hand: When you're consumed by guilt or shame, it's difficult to focus on the task at hand. You may find yourself ruminating on what you haven't done instead of concentrating on what you need to do.

  • They undermine self-confidence: Guilt and shame can make you feel like you're not good enough or capable enough. This can lead to self-doubt and a lack of confidence, which can hinder your ability to complete tasks efficiently.

Practicing Self-Compassion and Acceptance

So, if guilt and shame are unhelpful at work, what can you do instead? Here are a few strategies to help you practice self-compassion and acceptance:

  • Exercise self-compassion: Treat yourself with kindness, understanding, and patience. Remember that everyone makes mistakes and it's okay to not be perfect.

  • Focus on what you have achieved: Instead of dwelling on what you haven't done, focus on what you have achieved. Celebrate your successes, no matter how small they may seem.

  • Practice acceptance: Accept that you're not going to be "caught up" at work all the time. It's okay to have a never-ending to-do list. Instead of fighting it, embrace it and focus on what you can do in the present moment.

  • Embrace Imperfect Action: Take action on tasks even if you don't have all the information or resources. Imperfect action is better than no action at all.

  • Set Realistic Goals: Set realistic goals that align with your priorities and values. Break down big tasks into smaller, manageable chunks, and focus on one task at a time.


Feeling guilty or ashamed about not being "caught up" at work is a common experience, but it's not a productive or healthy one. Instead of beating ourselves up over what we haven't done, we should focus on what we have achieved and take pride in our progress. By embracing imperfect action, setting realistic goals, and practicing self-compassion, we can break free from the cycle of guilt and shame and find a sense of calm and control in our work. Remember, it's okay to have a never-ending to-do list - it means we're ambitious and driven. And when we take care of ourselves and prioritize our well-being, we're better able to tackle those tasks with creativity, focus, and joy. So, let's give ourselves a break, shall we? We're doing the best we can, and that's something to be proud of.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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