The busier we get, the guiltier we feel

by | Apr 28, 2016 | Time

Takeaway: The busier we become, the guiltier we feel—both because of our culture, and because of the uncertainty that busyness creates. Feeling guilty about your work is a great signal that you should step back from what you’re doing, to make sure you’re working on the best possible things.

Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes, 57s.


In my productivity project, one of the experiments I think back to the most is working 90-hour weeks. For a full month, I alternated between working 90 hours one week, and 20 hours the next, to observe the impact that working both insane hours and relaxed hours had on my productivity.

When I looked through the experiment logs at the end of the month, I was stunned: I accomplished only a bit more working crazy hours. I figured this was for two reasons: first, that in the long weeks my work expanded to fit how much time I had available, and second, that in the short weeks my work became more urgent because I only had limited time to get everything done.

But one aspect of the experiment that I haven’t been able to get to the bottom of was why I felt so damn guilty about my work throughout the experiment—especially during the 90-hour weeks. Even though I was working for basically every waking moment of my life, for some reason I felt guiltier during those weeks than at any other point of the project.

Since then, I’ve wondered about why this was—on the surface, it makes zero sense. So when David Allen recently invited me on his podcast to chat about my productivity project (I’ll post a link when it’s up!), I couldn’t resist bouncing the idea off of him.

He suggested two reasons for the phenomenon:

  1. That our culture frowns upon inactivity—from the culture of our religion (like the Protestant/Puritan work ethic, which I wrote about yesterday), to our ethic culture, to our company’s culture.
  2. A lack of working intentionally. Even though I wrote an entire book about working more deliberately and intentionally, looking back, this idea makes complete sense. When we work faster and more frantically, we’re never truly confident that we’re spending time on the best possible things.

The first, in a way, goes without saying. Just yesterday I posted about how the Protestant work ethic is broken. The conditions we work inside of have changed so much since this work ethic solidified in our culture, so the way we think about productivity needs to change, too. The culture we work inside of informs how we act and work more than we realize. But I think that this second reason is even bigger, and more powerful, especially on a personal level.

Whenever we don’t work intentionally, we fill that lack of intentionality with guilt.


  • Continually question whether we’re spending our time properly
  • Find it difficult to become fully immersed in our work, in case something more urgent comes up
  • Feel as though we’re never truly invested in what we’re doing
  • Are always worried that something might arise and derail our productivity, because we’re working more reactively than intentionally

Feeling guilty about your work is a signal that you need to step back to figure out what’s important, so you can feel more confident that you’re working on the best possible things.

My natural impulse when I have more work to do than time available is to work harder and faster. If you’re like me, it’s important to realize that this way of working just leads to more guilt. The best response when you have a ton to do is one that’s counterintuitive, especially when you’re busy: step back and think about what’s important. This is why the Rule of 3 and defining your most productive tasks are such powerful tactics—they remind you of what’s important, both every day, every week, and in general.

Working harder and faster is an impulse worth breaking.

Written by Chris Bailey

Chris Bailey has written hundreds of articles on the subject of productivity and is the author of three books: How to Calm Your Mind, Hyperfocus, and The Productivity Project. His books have been published in more than 40 languages. Chris writes about productivity on this site and speaks to organizations around the globe on how they can become more productive without hating the process.

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