Work Guilt: Letting Go of Doing It All

By Robin Madell (San Francisco)

“A person can only try hard and do their best. The goal is not perfection.”
–Leigh Steere, Co-founder, Managing People Better, LLC

Many executive women spend time at work feeling guilty about not being able to accomplish more. Yet with so much expected at the executive level, particularly in a down economy when companies are short-staffed, it’s virtually impossible for an executive to ever clear her to-do list, either in the office or at home.

For women raising families, the potential for guilt mounts exponentially. A study of 2,000 women commissioned by baby care company NUK found that 90 percent of working mothers feel guilty for a range of reasons, which include being too busy to give their children enough attention, working late or long hours, and going back to work after maternity leave.

Manhattan psychologist Dr. Joseph Cilona suggests that among the factors behind work-related guilt for women are a series of long-standing societal double-standards: women are still often expected to be the primary caretakers of children, attend to more than their share of household maintenance, and to look youthful and attractive in the bargain.

“Women are frequently judged when they fall short of unrealistic, impractical, and often unreachable standards,” says Cilona. “It’s no wonder that many women are experiencing burnout at an earlier age.”

So what’s the problem with guilt? If we feel a little guilty while we work or parent, is there any harm? According to Cilona, the answer is yes. “As a psychologist, when I think of guilt, I immediately think of an emotional cancer that can do serious damage to both the self and relationships,” he says. “Though debated by some, for me there is no sufficient evidence that guilt is a universal human emotion like joy, sadness, or even anger, which have recognizable facial and postural expressions across cultures. Guilt appears to have emerged out of cultural rather than biological determinants, all of which to me are utterly toxic.”

If there’s a secret to learning to recognize the toxicity of work guilt and release it, we all want to know what it is. Here are some strategies for women to consider.

Face Reality

Amy Zhang started her hedge fund administration firm, Affinity Fund Services, in San Francisco three years ago. As the founder, she found herself having to wear interchanging hats and struggling with growing to-do lists. Her advice to release work guilt is to set realistic goals about what’s really achievable, and take baby steps. Failing to do so can lead to frustration and disappointment when you don’t get everything done.

“Don’t fill your hours with to-do items all the way to 100 percent,” says Zhang. “The reality is, things will happen and your work will be interrupted. You will need to get on the phone with your associates, your clients, and maybe your kid’s nanny or teacher. Normally I allocate 20 percent of the working hours to ‘MISC’ – during the busy tax season, it can go up to 50 percent.”

“We live in a culture where it is normal to have overwhelming to-do lists,” adds Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better, LLC. “We can move through life in a more relaxed way if we embrace this belief: the goal is not to finish the list, but instead to make a dent on the highest priority items each day. Each day, we decide anew where we need to place the most focus.”

Take Control of Your To-Dos

Speaking of to-do lists, think about who’s in charge of yours. The purpose of a to-do list is to give you a sense of control; a to-do list should not control you. “Corporate America has a penchant for adding to people’s to-do lists without asking,” says Steere. “This is a boundary violation. If people are committing your time without asking you in advance, you need to have a conversation with them to set some ground rules about asking permission before committing your time.”

If the work part of your to-do list seems unmanageable, Steere suggests being honest with yourself about whether you are delegating effectively. In cases where delegation is not an option, try enlisting others on your team or in different departments to take on pieces of the project that might draw on their expertise.

Look at the Big Picture

When you reflect on what you’ve accomplished at the end of the day, week, or month, do you focus only on projects you’ve completed or business you’ve won? If so, it may be time to widen your focus. While finished products are important, Zhang reminds us that Rome wasn’t built in a day. So she suggests broadening your definition of what you’ve really achieved by counting each milestone on your way to the finish line.

“Take notes on how many new prospects you’ve talked to; what have you learned from those meetings, and how may you improve next?” says Zhang. “Recall conversations with your associates; what problems did you solve or prevent, and how did that help push the project forward? And that phone call with your client—maybe it’s not visibly productive, but perhaps contributes to a bonding relationship and customer loyalty.”

Know Your Limits

As former vice-president of a savings bank, current entrepreneur, sole provider for her family, and mother of a 13-month-old, Kathrine Farris knows all too well the truth behind the saying, “You can’t be all things to all people.” Instead, she has learned the value of devising a plan to be all you can be and be happy with it. That plan must specify what you will and won’t do.

“Establish limits and boundaries for the various aspects of your life; for example, when you will end work every day and how often you will check email from home,” recommends Farris. “By setting limits ahead of time, it will help you manage all of your responsibilities to the best of your ability.” If that doesn’t do the trick, then you have to decide what’s most important to you. “Start making changes and decisions that will allow you to focus on the most important aspects of your life,” says Farris. “Learn to ‘let go.’”