Why You Feel Guilty When You’re Busy

I was driving the other day, running through the Rolodex of projects and commitments I had at present. I was trying to mentally prioritize them and make little plans in my head so I could get them all done. But no matter how I rearranged them all, I knew I was trying to do the impossible.

As I sat at a red light the vague sense of anxiety I’d been feeling bubbled to the surface in a clear realization: I didn’t actually have time to get them all done.

I was just too busy. And that’s an awful feeling.

When I’m too busy I feel:

  • Stressed
  • Unfocussed
  • And guilty

But it’s that last one that has always made me scratch my head.

When you have a bunch of unfinished tasks and looming deadlines it certainly feels stressful, but it also feels a lot like guilt.

Why do I feel guilty when I’m busy?

I came across this quote by David Allen in his book, Getting Things Done, that made a lot of sense to me:

“The sense of anxiety and guilt doesn’t come from having too much to do; it’s the automatic result of breaking agreements with yourself.”

His point is that the reason we feel guilty when we’re busy is because that’s when we start failing to fulfill commitments.

And even when those commitments we are breaking are only to ourselves—e.g. eating healthy, daily devotions, or exercising—we still feel guilty about it.

Allen attributes this to what he calls “disintegrated self-trust.” In the same way, when someone breaks their word to you you trust them a little less, we feel guilty when we break promises to ourselves. Because we know we aren’t acting in a trustworthy manner.

A broken promise to yourself is still a broken promise

The reason this bothers us is that deep down we know we ought to be more dependable. Our God is a covenant-keeping God. He always follows through, always does what He says He will, and always keeps His promises.

“The Lord is faithful in all his words and kind in all his works.”

Psalm 145:13

This is the God in whose image we were made.

We desire to be dependable because we were made in the image of a trustworthy God.

In other words, the guilt we feel from being busy and failing to follow through on commitments—even when they are just commitments to ourselves—is a legitimate guilt.

What do you do when you’re busy and guilty?

First, thank God for grace!

We will continually fall short, and thankfully Jesus Christ came as our substitute to live that perfect life we failed to live. We will break our word to others and to ourselves. And when that happens we have to confess it, ask for help, and move on.

But second, there are some things you can do about it if you are overcommitted and feeling guilty.

First, before you jump to time-management techniques, you need to address the source of the problem: Overcommitment.

I teach a course titled Overcommitment: The Problem Productivity Can’t Solve because I think this is the root problem for many of us. We think we have a time management problem when really we have an overcommitment problem.

If you’re trying to do more things than anyone could possibly manage, of course you’re going to fail!

If you can reduce your commitments to a more reasonable number, you’ll find yourself being able to fulfill them more faithfully and thus feeling less guilty about all the promises you’re breaking to yourself and others.

Where to start

David Allen is again helpful on this point. He says “If the negative feelings come from broken agreements, you have three options for dealing with them.” And these really are the only three options for reducing the number of commitments you have:

  • Don’t make the commitment (AKA, learn to say “no”)
  • Complete the commitment
  • Renegotiate the commitment

The best way to tackle this problem is to sit down and write out all the present commitments you are aware of and any opportunities you have that you are considering making into commitments. Then pray over that list and start making some tough choices.

You can’t do it all.

Part of being a person of your word is only giving your word when you know you can keep it.

P.s. if you want help walking through the process of reducing your commitments to a more reasonable number in a God-honoring way, check out my course Overcommitment: The Problem Productivity Can’t Solve.

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