Why not working makes us feel guilty

by | Nov 27, 2018 | General Productivity

Takeaway: Taking breaks from work often makes us feel guilty. This feeling comes from the fact that we value hard work, and that we constantly consider the cost of pausing (the opportunity to get more done). Counterbalancing this feeling is key—reflect on the value of recharging, and how stepping back can actually make you more productive.

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes, 10s.

It’s 4:37 p.m. on a Monday afternoon, and I’m still wearing sweatpants. I woke up relatively late today (at 8:57), immediately made a big pot of coffee, and have spent most of my day reading. I’ll probably do the same tomorrow, with a bit of writing sprinkled in as well. This is a light week: I have three interviews and plan on writing about an hour each day. That’s about it. The rest of the week? More reading, and maybe a bit more email. (Maybe.)

Taking it easy every once in a while feels nice. Plus, we rarely give ourselves enough time to rest after big projects—for me, it was the launch of my second book earlier this year. I’ve grown fascinated by the feeling of guilt, especially as it relates to not working. This fascination is another reason I’ve been pruning my work load.

Guilt is an informative emotion—it’s often a sign we’re not acting in accordance with our values. For example, here are a few of the things that often make me feel guilty:

  • Eating too much sugar;
  • Taking more than a day to return emails;
  • Drinking too much coffee (which makes it difficult to reset my tolerance later);
  • Walking by homeless people on the street;
  • Overindulging in alcohol;
  • Ignoring phone calls from loved ones while working;
  • Recalling mindless or careless things I’ve said in the past;
  • Ordering two medium-sized pizzas for myself instead of one (I hesitated including this one…)

I don’t do these things often, but when I do, I’m not acting in accordance with my values. This leads to my feeling guilty. I like to think of myself as a healthy, reliable, disciplined, helpful, and empathetic person. The things on this list oppose this view. It’s impossible to act in accordance with our values 100% of the time—guilt serves as a reminder that we’re not doing so.
There’s one other thing that really makes me feel guilty: not working

Our productivity is often driven by this guilt of not working. Sure, we work hard to make money, support our families, and save up for a lavish retirement. But we also work hard to minimize feelings of guilt. The more projects we take on, the more we cram into each moment, and the more notifications pinging in our periphery, the less guilty we feel. In reality, this directionless pursuit of more—whether in each moment or in general—makes us lose focus.

I’ve realized the guilt of not working stems from two places. First, it comes from the fact that we value working hard. Second, we consider the opportunity cost of our actions whenever we’re not working—what we could be doing instead of what we are doing. In this case, that opportunity cost is working.

To overcome this guilt, I’ve realized I need to reflect on the value I place on things that aren’t work. Work is important. But ironically, stepping back from our work is what helps us do better work overall. Recharging, relaxing, and scattering your attention is one of the best ways to become more productive. These tactics help you rest, connect dots, and plan for the future.

If you feel these same levels of guilt around break time, I recommend this strategy: counterbalance this emotion by reflecting on how you need to recharge—and, more than that, how doing good work depends on it.

Reflect on things such as:

  • How much you value resting your mind so you can do better, more creative work later.
  • How your focus will benefit from this attention break.
  • How many great ideas come while your mind is wandering (when you’re not working or focused).
  • How often your mind considers and plans for the future while you’re stepping back.

Guilt is typically a sign you’re not acting in accordance with your values. But don’t let this guilt of not working prevent you from taking a much needed break. Chances are you value not working, too.

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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