I try to spend time with my wife, Ju, in the evenings. Over the past month or so, I’ve not been doing that as much as I should. A busy work schedule and some unproductive days mean I’ve been working longer into the evenings than I would like. This sucks, of course, but freelance life occasionally demands that this be the case.
But it’s the feeling of guilt that does the damage. When I’m working late in the office, I feel guilty. It saps my energy and restricts my ability to focus. So I finish what I’m doing and go spend time with Ju, but that doesn’t fix the problem. I’m in a distracted state, thinking about all the work I need to be doing, and how I should really just get back to the office to crack on. More guilt.
This is just one example but there’s thousands of things that cause guilt. When you don’t reply to an email when you said you would, or when you have an important item on your todo list but you ignore it, watching cat videos on Facebook instead.
Guilt isn’t always an easy thing to detect, though. It’s often far more nuanced, like a car with it’s side lights left on, slowly draining the battery, and virtually undetectable in day light. It’s tempting to push on, to work harder and longer, and ignore the feeling. But it builds and builds and builds. Guilt – anxiety and regret, too – will drain your energy and are enemies of productivity.
I try to live by the simple rule: When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done. It’s important to create space to let your brain recharge. Resting your brain improves the quality of your work. But guilt gets in the way. If you take time off, but then feel guilty about it, you’re not taking time off. Guilt will stop your brain recharging.
It’s now well understood that sleep is important if we’re to be productive, make good decisions, and perform to the best of our ability. But, again, guilt gets in the way. If you’re worried, anxious, or regretful, you’ll struggle to sleep. Guilt is the death of sleep.
In Buddhism, these negative emotional responses are called the second arrow. We all experience the first arrow. This is when something bad happens, or when things don’t go to plan. The second arrow is the emotional response to the first arrow. It kills your spirit and stops you moving forward. The first arrow can hurt you, but the second arrow can kill you.
Here’s a few ideas I’m trying to fight the second arrow:
A) Schedule downtime. I schedule in time for my writing and projects I’m working on. I also schedule my lunch breaks and time to relax. Scheduling an hour or two to play Playstation or watch Netflix sounds ridiculous, but it sends an important message: I’ve deliberately allocated that time for “resting”; it’s not procrastination. I’ve given myself permission to do it guilt free.
B) Use a shutdown ritual. I’ve written about my shutdown ritual before. The purpose is to clear your mind, allowing you to relax in the knowledge that everything is prepared for the next day. If there’s obligations left unresolved, your mind will continue thinking about them in the evening.
C) Close open loops. Open loops, in GTD parlance, are things you know you need to do. Often this creates a mental burden because you know you need to do a certain task, even if you’re not working on that task right now. There’s a few things I do to close open loops. First, I add them to my task manager (Todoist) and set a due date. Next, if it’s a task that involves someone else, I’ll let them know when they can expect it to be done. I can then forget about it until I need to work it. Filling it a way until later, in a place I know where I won’t forget it, allows me to move on and focus on other things.
D) Create margin in your schedule. A fully booked back-to-back schedule is a recipe for disaster. To compensate for things taking longer than expected, or unexpected situations arising, I simply book out things in my schedule for longer than I expect them to take. In a recent blog post, Cal Newport shares a basic formula: “Assume you have to schedule a meeting that lasts X minutes. Instead of blocking off X minutes on your calendar, block off (1.5)*X minutes.”
E) Explore the source. When you feel guilty or regretful, there’s a reason. Explore that reason. Perhaps you missed an important client deadline. Your energy now needs to be focused on how to rectify that. Email them, apologise, set a new date. Guilt comes from something that has happened in the past, and since we haven’t mastered time travel, there’s not much we can do about it. So, focus on the present. Deal with the situation.
F) Develop a sense of perspective. Given long enough, most of worries today will seem petty in a month or a year. Think back to when something stressful happened and how you felt about it. You might have felt bad for a week, a month, a year maybe. But with time it fades.