Why You Feel So Guilty When You're Not Working
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Celeste Headlee. I don't know about you, but I'm a little burnt out. I've been feeling tired and overwhelmed and as if my to-do list will never be to-done. As a high achiever, I try to be productive all the time. I was a driven student who became a driven adult. But somewhere in my 40s, it began to dawn on me that all my hard work wasn't making me any happier or healthier. And so I asked myself, what am I doing this for? So began a years-long investigation of my own addiction to toxic productivity to uncover its roots and the possible antidote.
Today we'll dig into the psychological underpinnings of our society's addiction to checking email and setting up one more Zoom call. And I'll start with a question - when was the last time you watched a movie or show and did not glance at your inbox? When was the last time you left the house without your phone? Can you eat a meal or sit for an hour without doing any work at all? If it's really hard for you to take a day off, then today is for you.
AMELIA ALDAO: Slowing down and letting our brains get distracted and letting our minds wander - it's actually paradoxically key to be, in a way, more efficient and also more relaxed.
HEADLEE: Amelia Aldao is a therapist in New York City. She has some tips on how to put down the phone, the computer, the list of productive New Year's resolutions, and make time for you.
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HEADLEE: Thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate it.
ALDAO: Thank you so much for having me.
HEADLEE: How has stories from your patients changed over the past year? Have you noticed any differences?
ALDAO: I have. I have. And my patients in particular - they tend to suffer from anxiety. That's what I specialize in. And there has been a lot of things. Some are fairly good and helpful, and obviously, some are not. And I'll tell you the two main changes. And the first one, on the negative side, people are a lot more isolated no matter, you know, what their situation in life is. Whether they live alone or with a partner or with kids or with an extended family, there is a sense of isolation that is becoming really problematic. Well, we had a loneliness epidemic for quite some time in America, and it's only getting more and more exacerbated. And that, of course, has a lot of detrimental effects on people's anxiety, also their depression and their physical health.
And then the other side of the pandemic, the plus side, you know, the relatively good effect - it's the idea that it's helping people re-prioritize, right? And listen; nobody is making a 180 change, right? Those things don't happen overnight. We don't become better, more relaxed, more grounded, more mindful versions of ourselves overnight or not even over the course of a year. But the pandemic and all the challenges that we've been facing from, you know, showing light onto health inequalities, racial inequalities, again, as I mentioned before, loneliness and stress - all of that is sort of helping a lot of people realize that maybe the way that they've been living their lives is less than optimal. Maybe we - you know, the race to become more efficient and to go faster and to produce more output - maybe that's not really taking us anywhere helpful.
HEADLEE: I have found one of the most difficult parts of that process - the process you're describing - is the guilt people feel when they're not doing stuff, right? I mean, some people have told me they literally can't sit and watch a movie without checking their email. Like, they haven't been able to do it. How do you deal with that? I mean, that's a two-part question in a way. A, where does that guilt come from, and how do you break away from it?
ALDAO: It comes from, you know, the way - in many ways, the way our society is structured comes from the internalized voices, from our parents, from our family growing up. It comes from the messages that we hear in school. It comes from our peers. It comes from our co-workers. We have this idea that - right? - that we have to be maximizing every minute, that everything needs to be resulting in an outcome or in a product, you know, that we can point at. And if you really buy into that, you know, and if you hear that message time and again, you know, day in and day out from very much everybody around you, it makes sense that you would feel guilty, right?
So guilt is obviously a very, very problematic emotion, but like every other emotion, it's sort of - it makes sense - right? - in the right context. So given that, it would make sense that we would feel guilty when we don't meet them or when we feel like we haven't met them. That's what guilt is there for, right? It's a signal that things are not going the way we think they should.
So the way to work around guilt, in a way - right? - has to do with sort of changing the way that you frame your environment, the way that you reset your expectations, the way that you restructure your life so that the guilt is less likely to sort of show up in the first place, if that makes sense. Once it shows up, it's really hard to work with it because it's a very, very powerful emotion. So a lot of the work needs to be done upfront in a way so that we feel less guilty - right? - or so that when we begin to feel that creep up, we can actually be like, no. You know, I'm not going to go that route.
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HEADLEE: Can you give me examples - obviously protecting privacy of patients, but can you give me examples from your own practice of how this has arisen and what advice you gave them?
ALDAO: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. This is something that I started doing with one of my clients this year, and then it quickly sort of took on, and I kept working on many of my clients on this technique. We sort of jokingly call it the year of no. It's a bit of a riff on the "Year Of Yes."
HEADLEE: From Shonda Rhimes, right?
ALDAO: Yes, yes, exactly. That's a great book, by the way. But, you know, I was kind of joking with a client about this earlier last year. And she's just sort of, like, a type A overachiever who overcommits herself, who feels guilt about not saying yes to things. She's very successful in her career, so people are constantly asking her to do more and do more. And it gets positively reinforced - right? - because the more she does, the more praise she gets, the more accolades she gets, but obviously, the more she's stretching herself thin. And she was getting to the point that she wasn't being able to fulfill many of these obligations. And, again, this is very, very common with a lot of my clients who have anxiety, right?
So what we decided to do was the year of no, you know, and basically start finding opportunities for her to say no to things, to learn to sit with that guilt, in a way - right? - to let it come and go like we do with many other emotions, whether it's fear, anger or sadness, and to ground herself in that sort of greater purpose, which, for her, in that case, was to protect herself - right? - to create a buffer between her and the world.
So sometimes what we do is a prioritization matrix. It's pretty simple. It's basically a two-by-two matrix. You basically write down the things you have to do. And the X axis is going to be how urgent something is, and the Y axis, how important, right? So basically, you want to make sure that you do all those things that are urgent and important. And that's where you should spend most of your time - 70, 80% of your time and energy. And then the things that are low importance, high urgency or low urgency, high importance - you spend some time on them, you know? But then the things that are low importance and low urgency - do not even bother with them, right?
The second you write them down, they're out of sight, out of mind, basically. If something does become important or urgent, you'll know. People will tell you, right? Your family will tell you or your boss to tell you. Your co-workers will tell you. But until then, don't bother with them, right? Don't use them as a distraction to feel productive, either.
HEADLEE: It's so interesting that you say this, Amelia, because this is - something I find for myself is that the work doesn't end, right? I ended up having to make very detailed to-do lists, mostly because otherwise, my workday never stopped, right? When I got done with what you're calling the important and urgent tasks of the day, instead of saying, OK, done with my work for the day, I'd say, OK, what's next? - because there's always something. There's always something I need to be doing. And breaking away from that mindset of the treadmill is difficult, and the only way I was able to do it was by literally scheduling in time to do purposeless activities (laughter).
HEADLEE: I mean, needlework and crossword puzzles and wandering around the park with my dog - why are those so crucial to well-being?
ALDAO: You know, they're crucial to well-being because, paradoxically, we have this tendency to want to do more and more and more and achieve goals because we get this dopamine hit every time we accomplish something. But at the same time, our brains also need to relax. You know, we talk about being really focused and sort of thinking in a tunnel vision, and that's really helpful when you need to accomplish something. But we also need time to sort of let our minds explore - right? - to let ourselves be, to, you know - sometimes in psychology, we refer to it as broadening our attention, right? The, quote, unquote, "mindless activities" in a way are actually, in some ways, the most important ones to our mind.
I do a bit of writing sometimes. And what I have found was, over the years, is that - say that I schedule three-hour - like, a three-hour gap to write. If I try to get a lot of writing done during those three hours, it doesn't happen. I write a bit. I get distracted. I get tired. My brain gets foggy. I can't do it. And I probably end up writing for an hour out of those three. But if I also schedule three hours to write and I take a lot of breaks to do, quote, unquote, "mindless" things like go for a walk, get some coffee, listen to some music, I actually end up finding myself that I end up producing a lot more. I end up writing a lot more pages. I end up writing for longer than an hour, which is what I would have written otherwise.
HEADLEE: I also find it mind-boggling how much our work mentality - this sort of addiction to productivity and efficiency - has bled into our personal lives, the personal choices we make. And I wonder if you have also seen this in the patients that you help, whether you also see this sort of - these checklists that people make, the self-improvement. Does it - is it also affecting people's personal lives?
ALDAO: Oh, my gosh, 100% or 110%. Let me clarify. Yes. You know, and I have worked with so many clients of all genders and sexual orientations and ages who basically do what I call the checklist dating approach - right? - in trying to find the perfect partner who has the perfect job and the perfect looks and the perfect personality and the perfect whatever. And all those notions of perfect come from the outside in. They're all based on movies or TV shows or their friends or their parents or somebody else in their lives. And so many times, you know, I work with people who have such a checklist view of what a good partner will be that they are sort of, like, constantly optimizing for the wrong kind of partner, right?
Instead of letting themselves figure out who they like, letting themselves get carried away with emotions, with feelings, with attraction, they end up trying to do it in this very heady, very cognitive way. And it doesn't work. I have yet to see it work, you know? So - but that's very, very challenging work to do - right? - to sort of step away from this very rationalized ideal of who our partners need to be or, really, for that matter, our friends many times and sort of take what I would refer to as a more bottom-up approach - right? - where things are coming from our emotions versus top-down, which would be things coming from our mind.
HEADLEE: What about someone who doesn't feel like they really have control of their time? What if there's someone who is listening to you and saying, I am not able to say no. Either my finances aren't secure, or I don't have health care, or these things are out of my control. I can't say no. What would you say to them?
ALDAO: Yeah, that's a great point. And I'm glad you bring it up because, you know, I don't want to imply that we can all go about saying no to lots of things. There are obviously many implications financially, in terms of relationships and many, many other things as well. What I would say is if you're finding yourself in a spot where you can't realistically say no because there will be clear consequences - you know, immediate, important consequences to your life, the next thing to do is try to see if you can recruit others to help you, whether these are family members or friends or people in your neighborhood. And I don't mean to help you with everything, but are there small things that you can get people to help you out with - right? - or that you can team up with people?
You know, say - I don't know. Say that going to the grocery store takes up too much time. You know, can you team up with your neighbors so you take turns and you go - you know, every other week, you'll go, and then you buy groceries for each other.
HEADLEE: Have you felt burnt out?
ALDAO: Oh, yes, also 110%. Yes.
HEADLEE: And what were the things that helped you the most when you got sort of to the end of your tether?
ALDAO: You know, I'm a therapist. I run a clinic. I train students and other trainees. I do consulting for start-ups. And I'm the mom of twins.
HEADLEE: How old are the twins?
ALDAO: They are 3 years old.
HEADLEE: Oh, whew (ph).
ALDAO: I know. So - and I've been co-parenting, working from home, you know, in the pandemic and all that fun stuff. But what has helped me and what has helped my friends as well is, again, to come to terms with this idea that we're not going to get through everything in our to-do list, you know, and prioritizing what we can and cannot do and learning to let go. And I'll give you a more concrete example. I used to be an inbox zero kind of person. You know, no email went unread. Everything got responded to in a minute. And when the pandemic started, I just couldn't. I just couldn't get through my email. I still can't. But I prioritize my clients, right? I prioritize my team, and I prioritize other people that I might be working on things that are very time-sensitive. And then everything else gets done whenever it gets done.
And it took a lot of work. It took a lot of sitting through, a lot of anxiety. It took a lot of moments when I panicked at seeing how many unread emails I had. But, again, over time it got easier. That's a technique from cognitive behavioral therapy that is called exposure, right? So the more we do the things that make us anxious, the less anxious they make us over time. So I did a bit of therapy on myself. I did a bit of exposure on myself.
HEADLEE: So I'm going to tell you something that I've started doing, and you can tell me if it's healthy (laughter).
ALDAO: OK, go for it.
HEADLEE: So I've started just deleting emails (laughter).
HEADLEE: I get a ton of emails from people I don't know who say...
HEADLEE: Hey; can we have a chat so we can talk about, you know, possibly teaming up? Or, hey; I loved this that you wrote. Will you read this thing that I wrote? And I've started deleting them (laughter) because I just don't have time, and they're unsolicited.
HEADLEE: And I used to feel super-guilty about it, but I don't anymore.
ALDAO: I want to give you an A-plus on that. And here's why I think - you know, here's a therapist answer - right? - is if you're doing a behavior that doesn't cause any difficulties for you - right? - if it's not producing any short- or long-term behavioral or emotional problems, it's OK, right? So unless you're all of a sudden deleting a lot of important stuff and facing negative consequences in your work or unless you're upsetting certain people who were really counting on you responding or any other similar scenario - unless any of those scenarios materializes or is at risk of materializing, I think you're fine.
HEADLEE: Oh, good. Yay, I got the therapist's A-OK on that.
ALDAO: Therapist-approved. So if somebody gets mad at you for not responding to an email, you tell them that I said it's OK.
HEADLEE: (Laughter) I will absolutely. You think I won't, but I will in fact do that.
ALDAO: (Laughter) Awesome.
HEADLEE: Amelia, thank you so much.
ALDAO: Thank you so much for having me. This was a lot of fun, and I hope you found the tips helpful.
HEADLEE: For more episodes of LIFE KIT, go to npr.org/lifekit. We have episodes on all kinds of topics like how to make a really hard decision or how to deal with uncertainty. If you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. And as always, here is a completely random tip from listener Colin Rotella, who has some ideas about PB&J.
COLIN ROTELLA: If you've made a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or had a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made for you throughout the years, you probably know that about the time you really want to be eating them - halfway through the day - the jelly has soaked through the bread and made the sandwich a little soggy. The way you get around that is you put peanut butter on both sides of the bread, and then you put the jelly in the middle. The peanut butter acts as a moisture barrier for that jelly, keeping your sandwich soggy-free.
HEADLEE: If you have a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This episode was produced by Clare Lombardo, who's also our digital editor. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is our senior editor, and Clare Marie Schneider is our editorial assistant. I'm Celeste Headlee. Thank you for listening.
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