Do you feel guilty when you’re not working?

Killdeer (a type of bird) make their nests on the ground. They frequent large open areas like golf courses or lawns, making their nests in hollows and relying on camouflage and special tactics to keep predators away from their nests.

One of their special tactics is called the broken wing.

You've probably come across the broken wing tactic before - if not in real life, then in an animal documentary (here's a good example on Youtube). This is the tactic that some birds use to distract potential predators from their nest: if you approach too closely, they will fake a broken wing, fluttering around and making a lot of noise and get you to follow them away from the nest. Just as you think you're close enough to reach out a hand to help them (or a predator is close enough to grab them), they miraculously recover and fly away.

Just like birds use distracting tactics to keep you away from their precious young, guilt has a way of distracting you from the stuff that's really important.

We love to work

As entrepreneurs, our work is a very large part of our life. We love our work and we don't mind spending a lot of hours doing what we love. In fact, we love our work so much that we often feel guilty when we're not working.

Most of us know that we need to take time off to have a balanced life, to recover and recharge so that we can deliver quality work. But that little voice of guilt that nags away at us when we're not working keeps us from truly enjoying our time off - to the point that we become workaholics with little or no social, family or personal lives.

Being a workaholic is not necessarily a bad thing - but when guilt keeps us from fully disconnecting, recharging and recovering — it is a bad thing we have to deal with.

Proportionate vs disproportionate guilt

Psychologists will sometimes make a distinction between proportionate and disproportionate guilt. It's useful to understand this distinction:

  • Proportionate guilt is the guilt we feel when we've done something that harms ourselves or someone else. Mostly this is a useful kind of guilt, because it helps us recognise situations where we harmed someone and we need to make amends. This kind of guilt helps us grow and mature as human beings, avoiding similar actions in future.
  • Disproportionate guilt is irrational guilt — we feel guilty even when we've done the right thing. There is no rational reason why we feel this guilt — but we're very good at rationalising them. Disproportionate guilt is almost always generated by our own thoughts rather than by something we did.

Here's a fact for you to consider:

Feeling guilty when we're not working is almost always a disproportionate guilt. It's not good for us, our families or our businesses.

So why do we feel guilty when we're not working?

Your mileage may differ, but here's what I've found to be some of the most common reasons for feeling guilty when we're not working:

  • We believe the only way out is working more. When you're starting a business, or you're going through a tough spot, there's a thousand things to do and never enough time to do it all. So we believe that we have to work, work, work to get out of the situation or build the business so that it generates (more) revenue.
  • It's the only way we have to deal with stress. When we're focused on work we're so busy we have less time to worry. When we stop working the worry — and the stress — reappears. If we don't have another way of dealing with that stress we revert back to the only thing we know — work.
  • We believe that we're only productive when we're working. We may only be productive — in the sense of producing work-related stuff — when we work. But you already know that some of your best "work" is produced when you're not working. Just think back over the last year — when and how did your best ideas come about? Chances are it was in an off time.
  • We realise just how little else we're interested in. Work can become so consuming that it takes up all of our lives — and before we know it there's little or nothing else that we're really interested in. I'm guilty(!) of this one myself — my woodworking and photography are currently taking a back seat to my business development.

You may have a different reason for feeling guilty when you're not working — but you are probably beginning to realise where I'm heading with this: these feelings of guilt are irrational but most importantly they are counter-productive.

Why are these feelings of guilt so bad for us?

Aside from the fact that it's a horrible way to live (feeling guilty all the time), there are some very practical reasons why feeling guilty when we're not working is bad for us:

Guilt creates tunnel vision When you feel guilty about not working you try to get rid of that guilt by diving into work. But diving into a situation where there are a thousand things to be done rarely gives you the perspective you need to identify the most important things you should be focusing on first. We believe doing something is better than doing nothing — even if that something is not quite the right thing.

Guilt is a thief Guilt steals our ability to be in the present. Instead of enjoying the time we have, we end up worrying about what we don't have time for, what's not been done and what's not gone well. So when we're supposed to be enjoying time for ourselves or with our family, guilt steals us away from that moment and makes us focus on negative stuff.

Guilt disables us Guilt holds us back from pursuing the things that really matter to us - the bold business idea or brave career move, the trip you've always wanted to make or the book you keep meaning to write. The stuff that matters to you, that perhaps nobody else is ever going to chase you up on.

If you took the rocking chair test, imagine yourself aged 96, looking back on your life, what would you be most proud of? What would you consider to have been time well spent? Chances are those are precisely the things that guilt tells us we don't have time for.

Guilt is a distraction Guilt draws attention to the stuff we're not doing. It thrives on counting losses rather than wins and takes up energy we could have spent so much more productively living a fulfilling life.

What's the prize?

How would your life change if you didn't feel guilty when you're not working? Here's a great exercise to try:

Find a quiet spot where you're not going to be interrupted for 10 to 15 minutes. Take a blank sheet of paper and divide it into two columns. Label the one of the left Living with Guilt and the one on the right Living without Guilt.

Now make an inventory. In the left column, write down all the negative effects living with guilt is having on your life and your work. Then, in the right column, write down what your life would feel and look like if you didn't have those feelings of guilt. How would your outlook change? Your attitude towards yourself, your family and your clients? How would it affect your business?

Here are a few thoughts to get you started:

  • Your relationship with your clients is a little like your relationship with your friends and family. If you're always rushed, distracted, late, not quite prepared or not present in the moment, neither kind of relationship is going to flourish.
  • You do your best work when you're not stressed. When you're rested, energised and have time, you are much more likely to produce high-quality work. To rest up and energise you need to get rid of guilt - otherwise your off time is not effective.
  • Disproportionate guilt is not productive. I assume that you started your business to have a life, solve a problem and not be dependent on someone else for an income. Feeling guilty when you're not working is taking you away from having that life.

How do we get over it?

Even when you know that guilt is bad for you, your family and your business, it can be difficult getting over it. Feeling guilty about not working is a disproportionate guilt — and almost always generated by our inner monologue rather than by events around us.

So to get over that feeling of guilt we have to change our mindset. And the best way to do that is through understanding, changing the way we think about things, and practicing good habits.

Understand that feeling disproportionate guilt is bad for you and your business. I've already pointed out a number of reasons why feeling guilty is bad for you, your family and your business. You need to make this understanding part of your thinking, and to do that you have to do some introspection every time you feel guilty about not working. When you do that, try to come up with rational reasons why you should be feeling guilty, and rational reasons why you shouldn't be feeling it. It will take practice, but in the end rational thinking will win.

Track your productivity. Tracking your own productivity is probably the most powerful way of proving to yourself that taking time off from work is a good thing. Here's the technique I use with my business coaching clients:

Start a journal. Every day, make one entry in the morning and one in the evening, each time noting down how much you intend to do, how much you got done, how your energy felt during the day and how your relationships are going. Do this for at least a week before changing how you work.

Then, run a time-limited experiment — a minimum of one week is required, preferably 4 weeks. During this experimental time, take time off that you "normally" would not be taking off. Do stuff for yourself, your family or something you neglected in the past. Remember that this is time-limited experiment; you can always revert back to your "normal" way of working after the experiment is complete. Keep your journal going.

At the end of the experimental period, compare your journal entries during the experiment with those before it. How did you feel? How much did you get done? Was your life any better as a result? Is your business in better or worse shape as a result?

Depending on what you find this is going to be proof that you're better off taking time off when you need to rather than working all the time. It's not easy doing this - but I've never had a coaching client that did not have a better experience as a result of running this experiment - and made it their "new normal".

Live by your own expectations, not others. We can easily feel guilty when we believe that we're not living up to other people's expectations. Be careful about whose expectations you really attach value to — not everyone's opinion should be important to you.

Calculate your life accounts balance. I've found the analogy of bank accounts to be useful in helping me balance my time. Here's how it works:

Your business, personal, family and social life each is like a bank balance. Every time you make a deposit (spend time on something) you're building up the balance - creating equity. Every time you fail to spend time on something you're making a withdrawal. When you keep making withdrawals without making deposits you're going into debt - and debt will eventually hurt you.

So be careful to keep all of your accounts in good standing.

A second line of defence

When killdeer fail to distract you from their nest, they have a second line of defence. They will puff out their feathers, making themselves look bigger, and run screeching straight at you. They're too small to harm you, but in most cases this second line of defence will cause the intruder to back off.

Getting over your feelings of guilt for not working is going to raise all sorts of objections from your subconscious. You're so used to feeling guilty that it will be difficult to break the habit - but you have to stand your ground and say "enough is enough - no more guilt!".

The results are nothing less than a happier and more fulfilling life - a prize I will chase any day.

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