The Accomplished Solopreneur

Issue 23.12

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Do you feel guilty when you're not working?

How often do you feel guilty when you're not working? Chances are this is something you feel some—or all—of the time.

Feeling guilty when we’re not working is obviously Not A Good Thing. But it was only when I really sat down to examine why it’s so bad that it became clear it’s really bad.

Read on for the insights — and what you can do about it.

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 going through a tough spot), there’s a thousand things to do. And there’s 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. And when we’re not working, guilt starts up.

It helps us 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 you do some of your best “work” 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 — and often that’s in the shower.

You may have a different reason for feeling guilty when you’re not working. But you’re probably beginning to realize where I’m heading with this:

These feelings of guilt are irrational. Most importantly, they are counter-productive.

But why is it so bad for us?

Why are these feelings of guilt so bad for us?

Feeling guilty is a horrible way to live. But there are some very practical reasons why feeling guilty 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 work 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. That bold business idea or brave career move. The trip you’ve always wanted to take. Your idea for a book you keep meaning to write. Stuff that matters to you, that perhaps nobody else is ever going to chase you up on.

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.

How do we get over it?

To get over that feeling of guilt we have to change our mindset. And the best way to do that is by:

  1. understanding what’s going on
  2. changing the way we think about things, and
  3. practicing good habits.

Here’s how to get started.

Understand what’s going on

Next time you feel guilty about not working, take a minute to understand why. Every time I do this, I come to the same realization:

Feeling guilty about not working is almost always generated by our inner monologues. Clients, colleagues or loved ones aren’t the ones pointing the finger saying “you should be working”.

There are of course always the times when deadlines loom or promises have to be kept. But most of the time, we are the ones driving the feeling of guilt.

Do some introspection every time you feel guilty about not working. 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.

Change the way you think about things

The most powerful way you can change your thinking about “not working” is the following:

Taking time out (not working) is a tool you use to be more productive when you are working.

Run a little experiment: for one week, work exactly 6 hours per day (seriously). Keep a journal to track of how much you got done. Compare with other weeks. I can almost guarantee you that you will get as much, if not more, done working a focused six hours per day versus 12.

Practice good habits

You already know this:

  • Get enough sleep
  • Eat well
  • Get exercise

Basics that don’t need repeating — except they do need repeating because these are the first casualties of guilt.

How often do you feel guilty when you're not working?

If it’s affecting you, your work or your loved ones, it’s time to do something about it. Don’t let it eat you up—it’s not helping. Use the steps above to start getting over it, and most importantly:

Remember that taking time out is not bad—it’s a tool you use to be more productive when you are working.

Have a guilt-free week.