Reader question: Letting go of the guilt

Today’s understatement: Many people have spent the past six months working in less-than-ideal circumstances. Working from home a few times a week is a great way to boost productivity and achieve a better work/life balance. But not when it means attempting to work and care for small children at the exact same time. I’ve heard from a lot of high-achieving folks who’ve been quite bothered by their inability to do their best work. This pressure is magnified in competitive, intense workplaces where people wear their ambitions on their sleeves.

For example, one reader working for just such an employer sent me a note saying that “My company was generous enough to give me 12 weeks of leave to use however I wanted to cover child care responsibilities. I chose to use it part-time so I can help the kids with their school stuff. However, this bank of hours is going to run out before they’re back in school.” This reader imagined that by trading off with her husband she’d be able to log 30 solid work hours per week, with perhaps a few more hours of semi-interrupted email checking too. “But 40 consistent hours like I was doing pre-pandemic is just not happening.” She didn’t think that waking at 4 a.m. to log more quiet hours would work, long term. She realized, she said, that she liked the official part-time arrangement because it clearly delineated a lower expectation. “I have a harder time not feeling guilty about working, say, 35-37 hours during this time,” she told me. “I guess I just need reassurance that it’s fine to muddle along as best as we can.”

Well, here I am to give this reassurance! I checked and she confirmed that no one was keeping track of her hours. She had also worked for her company for a while. Most likely she was not going to face any job consequences for logging 35 hours a week instead of 40. Basically, this was more of a psychological challenge. As with many intense jobs, there was always more work that could be done, and in the current set-up, she was probably going to be doing less of it than she would have done in the past, or that her colleagues without caregiving responsibilities were doing, or that some folks with such responsibilities were rising at 4 a.m. to do.

Progress is motivational, so in situations like this, it’s wise to focus on documented wins. At the end of each day, our reader could write down what she had gotten done. Day to day, as these accomplishments stacked up, she would start reminding herself of just how productive she was being. She could also choose some highlights each week to share with her team and manager, with a bias toward things involving numbers. Everyone loves numbers, even if they’re meaningless, because they have an aura of objectivity. “I’m thrilled that the team turned around this project in 3 days, vs. the 4 it took us last time we worked with this client…” “I’m happy to report that this client requested only one revision this time, vs. the three she requested last time. That means we saved six team hours on this project…” You know what I am talking about. The good news about numbers is that they make us feel productive when we repeat them! This becomes a virtuous cycle.

I’d also recommend carving out some time for focusing on speculative, career-boosting work. When hours are crunched, it’s tempting to focus on the work right in front of us, the day-to-day stuff that seems like it has to get done. But while it may have to get done, it might not have to get done in uninterrupted time. Some of the “good hours” can be devoted to activities like applying for fellowships or awards, writing for an industry publication, pitching a new project to the powers-that-be, etc. Anyone in this scenario can aim to do 1-2 such things a week, knowing that the have-to-do stuff can fill in around these important-but-not-urgent things, but you’re unlikely to do stuff you don’t have to do when the kids suddenly have an assignment to cook something for their virtual home ec class. When some of this speculative stuff comes through, it becomes more documented wins, which then further cements the narrative of being an incredibly productive person.

And finally, make some time for connecting with colleagues. Especially with virtual work, we don’t see what people are doing. Sometimes we can forget that they’re there. Checking in frequently can remind everyone that a) you still exist and b) you’re still a team player, even if you’re playing on the team for 35 hours instead of 40. If people still see your face from time to time, they probably won’t even be aware of that fact. And given that no one is clocking in and clocking out, it need not even be mentioned, except for those circumstances when a meeting time is unavailable because of the child-swapping schedule. Focus on what’s getting done and everyone will be fine.

If you have advice for our reader on letting go of the guilt, I’d love to hear it!


8 thoughts on “Reader question: Letting go of the guilt

  1. Very interesting post! I think it’s important to not be too hard on ourselves and to use self-compassion. What would the reader say to a close friend going through something similar? We really need to be kind to ourselves like we are to good friends and try not to be so self-critical, especially during a global pandemic. And I think that’s very solid advice to focus on accomplishments – try not to fixate too much on the number of hours worked and rather, the quality of the work you’re doing. Hope this helps! 🙂

  2. I am the pastor of a church that is worshipping only online and I was feeling guilty, like I wasn’t connecting with my congregation since I didn’t ‘see’ them in weekly worship. I decided to check that feeling with data. In September I started to record how many interactions I had with folks from my church each day. As it turns out, on most days I was connecting with three or more folks. While that is not nearly the amount I would connect with on a typical, non-pandemic Sunday, it is still connection. I decided to keep the practice of tracking my contacts I make so that I can check data each time the guilty/disconnected feeling surfaces.

    1. This is such a great point! Actually quantifying what IS getting done can really help and might even be surprising 🙂

  3. I think there is a lot of “power” in not leading on that you need certain time arrangements for childcare- not that it’s not important- but I think the power is internal. “I’m available at these times… or I’m not available at this time as I have another obligation” is perfectly acceptable. No need to say it’s for childcare (or a personal matter, etc). We often think we need to explain or apologize for it and we don’t. We are humans who lead complex lives. And in taking back that power, our guilt lessens!

    1. This is an interesting point. I’ve seen a lot of parents at my company resist taking any of the special “pandemic leave” because they’re worried they’ll be penalized for it, even though all the HR guidance is that you won’t. I took it because it’s a great benefit – I’d rather have “extra” time and it immediately relieved a bunch of stress. I am happy to see the official dialogue at work has opened up a lot more since the pandemic about people having other responsibilities besides work – whether it’s elderly parents, kids, pets, etc. I’m happy it’s more open, but I know not everyone has a supportive manager, understanding coworkers, etc.

  4. One caveat to this as a lawyer whose productivity actually IS tracked by metrics… down to tenths of an hour to be exact! Hard not to get down when you see the black and white of the numbers, despite working as hard as you can. Lots of pros to being in law, but time tracking does not allow for much flex or fluff or just not mentioning personal time needed. Just adding one perspective!

    1. Oh man, that’s rough. Are your billable hour targets remaining the same through the pandemic? I used to work as an hourly contractor and *liked* the direct relationship of time worked to pay, but I never had a target and worked part-time so it was pretty laid back.

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