18th June 2014

Is Guilt Contributing to Your Busyness?

I felt guilty. It was a full scale assault of doubt, insecurity and anxiety that left me feeling sad and terribly unsure of myself. My three year old daughter woke up first thing in the morning crying and soaking wet. The day before, I accidentally bought pull-up diapers for boys instead of girls. I’d rushed through the store, completely distracted and consumed by a pressing deadline at work, and just pulled a box of pull-ups off the shelf, quickly checked out, and raced home. During the night, poor EC paid the price for my haste and distraction. No wonder I felt guilty the next morning. My preoccupation and distraction made my daughter very uncomfortable. I cannot imagine sleeping in a wet bed! I felt like a horrible, neglectful mother.

Of course, this incident is just the minor leagues when it comes to my guilt—I can lay it on myself so thick that it is almost paralyzing. Am I working too much and not spending enough time with my family and friends? Am I undermining my health and my family’s health because a significant majority of the food consumed in the household this week came from a takeout box? Am I letting down my community because I said no to that request to serve on a local board? All I need to do is to spend a few minutes pondering questions like these and soon I am deep in the black hole of guilt – insecure, confused, and miserable.

Sound familiar?

If so, below are some actionable strategies you can implement today to eradicate guilt and conquer any shoulds that are getting in the way of you working simply and living fully.

Guilt’s Cousin: The Shoulds

There is a very close cousin to guilt that often is just below the surface. I call it the shoulds. The shoulds are those voices in your head—you know the ones—saying “You should be doing this,” “You should like that,” “You should spend time on this,” “You should stop doing that,” and so on and so forth—endlessly. There were numerous unspoken shoulds contributing to my feelings of guilt that morning as I comforted a crying, uncomfortable EC.

The problem with the shoulds is that they can easily become a runaway train, adding to your overwhelm and completely undermining your ability to get clear and focused on what you actually need to do.

For example, one of my clients—Colin, an estate attorney with both a JD and MBA and enough real-world experience to make him a formidable adversary if you are in the unfortunate position of being opposing counsel—was succumbing to a long list of shoulds. His firm was experiencing rapid growth, which prompted his call to me.

When we met, Colin was working 90+ hours a week and had been for months because that is what entrepreneurs should do – their business is their life.

At one of our meetings, Colin confessed that he had just eaten an entire sleeve of Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies for lunch because he was working out of three offices, one of them his car, which had a portable printer in the back seat for use in clients’ offices. Why? Because he should always be accessible and uber-responsive to his clients.

Colin had every electronic gadget known to man, each of them ringing, pinging and buzzing throughout the day, because of course, he should be in touch via the latest and greatest technology.

Unfortunately, with Colin spinning out of control because of his shoulds, the firm he was building was bending under the weight of the increasing case load, forcing him to turn new clients away.

The shoulds completely masked the real issues Colin was experiencing, which were normal business growing pains. He could no longer separate his priorities and goals from the culturally-imposed shoulds playing like a heavy metal rock band in his head.

Free Yourself from the Shoulds. Test Your Assumptions

To combat the shoulds and liberate yourself from their tenacious clutches, the first step is to use the three-step evaluation process to test some of the assumptions that are behind our guilt.

Think about the fears and anxieties that are driving you (guilt is the manifestation of both) and then ask yourself:

  • What is the worst thing that could happen?
  • Is it real?
  • Is it true?

For example, while building his business, a client of mine had gone five years without taking an unplugged vacation (that is, a vacation in which he disconnected electronically from the office) because he felt enormous guilt if he was not always connected to his office. Now his family had planned a ten-day trip to Europe during his children’s spring break, and his wife and two teenage sons had begged him not to work during the vacation. So he called me in a complete guilt-ridden panic two weeks before departure. During our call, I asked him, “What’s the absolute worst thing that could happen if you were not connected 24/7?”

He answered, “The firm could lose all of its major accounts, and the business would fold without me at the helm.”

I then asked him, “How real is this concern? Has this happened to anyone you know?”

“Well,” he sheepishly replied, “I don’t know of any other business in my industry that has lost all of its major accounts in one week. And I have to admit that I have an exceptional chief operating officer with deep industry experience.”

“So, it is not true?”

“No, it is not true,” he admitted.

We then discussed the processes and procedures he needed to have in place to ensure that his clients and team were fully supported while he was on vacation. He thoroughly enjoyed his family vacation, guilt free—in fact, while he was gone, his team landed a brand-new major account.

Strengthen Your Boundaries – Use the P.O.W.E.R. No

Guilt image 2

If you find yourself hooked by guilt’s close cousin, the shoulds, the best way to break free is to strengthen your own boundaries. Start saying NO to the voices inside your head, and maybe externally as well, and doing it in a new way – a way that I like to call the “P.O.W.E.R. No.” It’s based on the anagram POWER—Priorities, Opportunities, Who, Expectations, and Real.

Here’s how it works:

Priorities: When that voice in your head tells you that you should complete this task, lead another project, attend another meeting, or make cupcakes from scratch, evaluate the priority of that message. How does this should align to your priorities, the organization’s strategic priorities and/or your family’s’ priorities?

Opportunities: Explore the opportunities. What opportunities does this should create for you? Is there something that does actually need additional attention in your life? This should could be shining a light on something that you need to address.

Who: Who or what triggered this should? Was it an old script from childhood? Was it an ad in a magazine? Was it your colleague?

Expectations: Whose expectations are these really? Your manager’s? Your mother’s? Your spouse’s? Your child’s? Society’s?

Real: Get real. What is this should really about? Are there real priorities that are driving this should? Or are you taking on societal expectations that are not in alignment with your priorities?

Start saying NO to the voices inside your head and eradicate your guilt.


Only after you have worked through all five sets of questions in the P.O.W.E.R. No are you in a position to make an informed decision about whether or not to listen to and to follow the should.

Work smarter. Respond versus React

Shoulds lead us to over-commit—and when you over-commit, the quality and impact of your work suffers.


When Steve Jobs returned to the helm of Apple in 1997, he quickly recognized that the company’s employees were spreading their creative talent far too thin. He reduced their product portfolio from 300 devices to 10, in the process saving Apple from bankruptcy. Follow Jobs’s example—say No to the many things that threaten to distract you and derail you, so you can focus your energies on the handful of things that will really lead you to success.

The P.O.W.E.R. No enables you to think carefully and critically about all of the shoulds so that you can consciously and thoughtfully respond. It puts you back in the driver’s seat, enabling you to respond rather than merely react.

Stop shoulding all over yourself.


Take back control and conquer your busyness once and for all.

I’ll leave you with one more idea before you go.

Every time you say yes to something you are saying no to something else.


What are you saying yes to? What are you saying no to? Are you consciously and intentionally saying yes and no?

What we focus on determines our experience in life.


What are you focusing on today?

I’d love to hear what you’re thinking and what you’ve found to help you silence the shoulds and eradicate your guilt.