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Why Do I Feel Guilty When I Relax? A Comprehensive Guide for the Busy Executive

Last Modified On: March 16, 2024, Author: Amy Sanchez

Many executives I speak with have the idea that busy=results. When their daily packed schedule suddenly stops or slows, many execs feel like they are falling behind and find ways to increase the busyness.  The notion of taking time to relax feels almost foreign and shameful. The recognition that follows sounds like: “Why do I feel so guilty when I relax?” or even, "Why do I feel guilty for not being productive?"

The key missing insight in this mindset is the scientifically-proven fact that taking breaks allows you to be more creative, strategic, and intentional in everything you do.

So let’s move past some older definitions of productivity that are hindering us and look into how to make sure you truly take advantage of that well-deserved relaxation to increase your effectiveness.

The Productivity Paradox

The more experience you bring to the table, the more likely you are to overextend yourself. This phenomenon, dubbed by Harvard Business Review as the “overload problem,” means that those at the top of a company with the most skills and knowledge are also the biggest victims of overworking. With great power comes great responsibility but also a far larger workload. And in some cases, a feeling of self-doubt thus if it really exists then, overcoming self-doubt becomes even a bigger point of concern that needs to be worked upon immediately.

But sometimes, when you think you are maximizing your productivity, you’re actually doing the opposite.

Does this situation sound familiar to you? You took the day off since you had the sniffles, but your phone keeps buzzing, and you worry about missing something, so you answer a few emails and take a few calls. But when you’re back at work the next day, you didn’t really get the rest you needed, so you’re unfocused and inefficient. So as soon as you reach home and have rest, the question may pop up again, "Why do I feel guilty for not being productive?"

The result? A blended, constantly-working-a-little lifestyle that leaves your brain foggy and your eyelids heavy. That when you might want to ask yourself the question, "Why do I feel guilty when I relax?"

What the Stats Have to Say On Feeling Guilt when Relaxing?

Burnout is significantly driven by today's workplace's “always-on” nature. More workers have more expectations, priorities, and tasks to manage than ever. The reality is that this can make it hard for many executives to give themselves permission to take a step back.

Quick Stats:

  • The psychological and physical effects of burnout cost an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion a year in U.S. healthcare spending.
  • Research from Harvard Business Review found that senior executives now receive 200 or more emails per day.
  • The multitasking expected in most corporate cultures slows down productivity rates. Switching to a new task while in the middle of another has been found to increase the time it takes to finish both by as much as 25%.
  • A recent Microsoft study found that it takes people an average of 15-20 minutes to return to an important project after an e-mail or other interruption. The same study also suggested that more multitasking leads to higher levels of stress in the workplace.
  • A decent amount of workers (39%) say their career is extremely or very important to their overall identity. However, over half (53%) of workers with advanced degrees and experience view their careers as central to their value and who they are.
A woman reading looks out the window and thinks, "Why do I feel so guilty when I relax?"

Why Balance Genuinely Matters For A Guilt-free Healthy Lifestyle?

A solution to this constantly connected cycle isn’t just working more. Instead, it’s un-blending your work life and your relaxed life. When you’re working, turn off distractions and work intensely. When you’re relaxing, do the same thing: relax intensely with no phones, completely in the present moment.

Because executives are more likely to place their self-worth and identity in their careers, you might feel like there’s a lot more than a paycheck riding on your performance. Staking too much of your personhood to your work can make it impossible to detach as much as necessary.

But productivity doesn’t have to be all about driving sales, sending countless emails, and hosting as many meetings as possible. It’s about investing time and effort into all the things that help you work efficiently. 

A balance between work, relaxation, and self-care gives you more opportunities to thrive at what you do. You’ll be more strategic, creative, and intentional because you’ve given yourself the space to do so. No amount of grinding can make up for that. This is one of the most efficient ways of living with the question 'Why do I feel guilty when I relax?'

If you feel guilty relaxing, you need to Redefine “Productivity”

What does “being productive” look like to you? It might involve an early-morning fitness routine or pulling a long shift at the office. Or maybe it’s about staying on top of emails and responding to each and every one within minutes of receiving it or turning out lots of deliverables. Much like a machine, the more you can produce, the more “productive” you have been.

But consider this: how productive can a machine be without power? Without maintenance? Without proper resources and care?

What’s hidden behind our traditional view of productivity is all the work that goes into ensuring it can come to fruition. When you take a nice, hot bath, you’re not sacrificing time that could be spent productively. You are being productive.

You don’t need to hang on to the word “productive” to justify self-care, either. But it might help ease your mind to realize that investing time into your life outside of work isn’t actually a hindrance to your performance. In fact, it’s a vital input.

Time away from work can still be spent to help you achieve your goals. Maybe you aren’t checking emails, but you could be checking out the latest publications from your favorite industry leader. Perhaps you aren’t micromanaging next week’s calendar, but you can be scheduling your next day trip.

When you focus on one version of productivity, you miss a world of opportunity to discover who you are, how you thrive, and what you want out of life.

How to Learn to Relax (For Real)

Even with all this insight in mind, giving yourself permission to unwind can still be tricky. You might rationally know you aren’t sacrificing progress, but keeping your mind off work may prove to be a challenge especially when you feel guilty when relaxing.

Below are some of my tips for unplugging and relaxing when needed. Consider self-care one of your many work-related commitments; make time for it and stick to it.

Take breaks

Give yourself a chance to zoom out by taking small breaks throughout the day. Even a five-minute break every hour or two can be transformative. This is the perfect time to grab a drink, do some stretches, meditate, or do whatever else calms you down, allows you to check in, and gives you the energy to keep chugging.

Practice prioritization

Learning how to prioritize as a leader can be challenging. You’re probably responsible for more tasks than there are hours in the day, which can make everything feel important. But making time to prioritize will help you determine where to focus your limited time so everything you, and your team do, will help move the needle. Maybe you don’t need to check your email quite so many times, or perhaps you could lessen the number of meetings you host each week.  Whittle your to-do list down to “must-haves” versus “nice-to-haves.”

Create boundaries

Set a time to be in work mode and a time to be in “you” mode. When it’s time to focus on you, give the same energy you’d give to work. Remember that it’s okay to use this time to recharge because it’s fueling you to be better at work, and at home.

Build self-care into your day

Take a walk at lunch or grab your favorite coffee during a break. Find little ways to show yourself you matter as you get work done to lessen some of the stress around being as productive as possible.  Also, be sure to celebrate wins instead of only focusing on the gaps.

Talk about it

When stress builds, it helps to give it a place to go. Consider journaling or chatting with a trusted colleague or non-work support person to help you process how you feel.  When you’re trying to solve a big problem at work, you likely enlist the help of others.  Apply the same formula to taking care of yourself.

Why do I feel so guilty when I relax? - Conclusion

No matter what, you have the skills to manage a healthy work-life balance. All it takes is a bit of practice and intention.

It also helps to have someone supportive in your ring to help you navigate the changes you’ll want to implement to get back to feeling like yourself again. I offer Bay Area executive coaching to busy executives and their teams. If you want to be more productive, feel more aligned in your work, or make a major career switch, let's have a conversation. Learn more about how executive coaching can help you learn to love your schedule (and yourself) in and out of the office to make life fun again.

About The Author

Leadership Consultant and Coach Amy Sanchez

Amy Sanchez is a certified executive and career coach located in the Bay Area who specializes in helping mid- to senior-level executives achieve their full potential and build the lives they want.

She has an MBA from USC’s Marshall School of Business and 13 years of corporate experience.

She is a skilled coach and neutral partner who provides clients with tangible tools and effective guidance to successfully navigate the waters of this fast-paced, hyper-connected, high-stakes job market.

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