This week I’m laid up with my main priority being to heal from a medical procedure. At least it should be. But here’s my problem: I can’t sit still. I am terrible at it. I have a constant tug and drive to be productive with my time. This bit of self-awareness is not new to me. It’s not new to anyone in my inner circle either because as one friend likes to say, “Uh oh, Heidi needs an activity!” You wouldn’t believe the number of times that I have heard in my life “Heidi, relax!” Believe it or not, I feel most relaxed after the work is done because in my mind nothing is hanging over my head.

Let me give you just one visual of my issue: If I am watching TV/Netflix, I have a pile of laundry that I’m folding, my computer on my lap working on stuff for my business, a book that I’m researching, homework from a coach that I’m reflecting on, or a list that I’m writing of ideas to blog about or post on social media. And you can bet money that there is always a list.

It struck me that I should probably blog about this when even while on Oxycodone I was making a list of things that I should do while I’m at home healing … when I was on a narcotic and I couldn’t sleep because I was making a damned list. Yes, Houston, we have a problem!

But here’s the thing … my amazing Mom was with me yesterday, taking care of me. We both knew I’d have my medical procedure done and then have to rest all day. The apple does not fall far from the tree. Mom showed up at the hospital with a tote of things to do, including her laptop and magazines. She also brought over a butternut squash to use to cook me soup when we got to my house. Knowing how much she likes to stay busy and productive, I even had things laid out for her that she might find interesting to do. (I had already cleaned my house or I knew she’d do that!)

Ironically, we actually talked about it. She admitted while we were watching our favorite food channel shows that she’s not good at sitting still either. We talked about the emotions that surround our “problem” that include (but are not limited to) boredom, guilt, sometimes sadness, restlessness, anxiety, frustration, and drowsiness. Feeling a constant need to be productive is both a blessing and a curse for sure. It’s especially hard on those around us who just want to chill and they see me getting all antsy.

So this discussion with Mom gave me my first clue as to where this all started and launched a curiosity of the lessons I learned over the years to perpetuate such a demanding lifestyle. Some of it is heritage. I am German and Germans are known for their very strong work ethic. (This is not a stereotype, you can look it up.) They are keen on rules, direct communication, and are highly efficient and task-focused. (If you fly Lufthansa one time, you’ll see this in action.) These genetics from both parents were only underscored by my (adopted) Swiss grandmother whose idea of fun was working. I’m serious. We knew if we were going to Grandma’s house that we were going to work. In fact, she’d attempt to make games out of working so we’d “enjoy” it a little bit more. But then she’d ruin the “fun” by asking us to redo our work because we hadn’t quite met her expectations. Sigh…

My parents weren’t like that. They were a ton of fun, but they had their standards at home for maintaining a hard work ethic. You would often here phrases like:

“If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”

“Work first, play later.”

“Did you get your work done?”

“Work hard so you can play hard.” – which I have adapted as my personal motto.

“How did you do on your chore list this week?”

“Make yourself useful.”

“What are you doing?”

I was also raised Catholic and attending Catholic school, so the saying “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” came up a few times in my childhood – likely my early teen years – and for sure influenced me.

So how do I find more balance or at least accept my personality for what it is and let go of the negative emotions that come up when I finally sit down to relax? I’m hoping this further research will help you if you are anything like me and my mom.

Associate Editor of Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S., wrote an article addressing this issue. “One reason we feel like this is because ‘We link our behavior, our performance, our productivity, with our self-worth,” said Julie de Azevedo Hanks, Ph.D, LCSW, founder and executive director of Wasatch Family Therapy, a private practice in Utah. So when we’re being less productive, we feel like we’re doing something wrong, she said. We also mistakenly believe that there’s ‘actually a point where we get everything done that we want to, or should, or expect.’ And we start to associate relaxing with being lazy, bad or worthless, she said.”

If you’re feeling guilty about not being productive, these six tips might help:

1. Move beyond comparing and competing.

Hanks cited the work of meta-historian Riane Eisler. According to Eisler, our culture is organized by a hierarchical ranking of its members. In this dominator model, our ranking is always being threatened, Hanks said. That’s because “if someone is doing more or doing better, you lose your rank or position in the hierarchy.”

The key is to recognize that there’s another way for us to exist. “We don’t have to rank, compare, compete.” Hanks likes to visualize everyone on the same level playing field and focus on the similarities among us. “[W]e’ve all experienced pain, need connection with others, need to work, need to rest.”

But what if you work in a highly competitive environment or market?

According to Hanks, “operating out of fear of being ‘less than,’ not being the ‘top dog,’ or not getting the promotion will likely make it less likely that you’ll get the promotion. [That’s] because you’ll be anxiously concerned with ranking and comparisons instead of doing a good job.”

2. Recognize process over endpoint.

Reframe your life “as a process of growth, not of being ‘done,’” said Hanks, also author of The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women. That is, focus on growing and moving toward your goals, she said. “You can celebrate your growth instead of feeling guilty for things left undone or incomplete.”

3. Remind yourself that “wasting time” also is productive.

Here’s a powerful paradox: We are often most productive when we feel it least, when we’re taking a break or relaxing or doing absolutely nothing.

4. Confront your guilt.

“We can reduce our guilt by taking it on directly,” said Elizabeth Sullivan, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Francisco. For instance, make a date with yourself to sit at a café, drink a cup of tea, and people-watch for 30 minutes, she said. Do this without any distractions, such as your phone or even a book.

“This little experiment sounds simple but for many of us it is excruciating.” Similar to Bregman’s assertion, Sullivan noted that if you build up your rest muscle, you’ll be more creative, energetic and present with your loved ones.

But if you’re constantly focused on staying busy, “it is difficult in this frazzled state to open up to inspiration, creativity or renewal.”

5. Challenge the idea that not being productive makes you worthless.

For instance, Hanks knew that she wasn’t going to make the submission deadline for a chapter of her new book. She had several ways of interpreting this:

“I could make the fact that I am missing the deadline mean that I am a loser, a failure, and don’t deserve to have another book published anyway. Or I could make it mean that I am human, that I needed a break, and that I haven’t wanted to or had the energy to work on the book. My worth is untouched.”

6. Reevaluate your expectations.

Are your expectations actually attainable or more like unattainable ideals? According to Hanks, “You may fear that if you shift your beliefs to allow for less than ideal productivity that you’ll become a ‘slacker’ or ‘lazy’ or ‘less productive.’” However, she’s found that when her expectations are more realistic, she has more energy to be productive.

How do you know if your expectations are realistic?

Pay attention to your mind, body and spirit. For instance, you’ll feel a sense of peace (in your mind and heart), Hanks said. You’ll naturally breathe easier, think more clearly and recognize and label your emotions, she said.

Again, productivity requires respite. According to Sullivan, “we must alternate between times of action and times of reflection and rest. It’s just the way organisms work.” But if you’re having a tough time resting your brain and body, try meditation, yoga or psychotherapy, Sullivan said.

Chris Bailey, who has written hundreds of articles on the subject of productivity, and is the author of two books: Hyperfocus, and The Productivity Project, says to reflect on things such as:

  • How much you value resting your mind so you can do better, more creative work later.
  • How your focus will benefit from this attention break.
  • How many great ideas come while your mind is wandering (when you’re not working or focused).
  • How often your mind considers and plans for the future while you’re stepping back.

Guilt is typically a sign you’re not acting in accordance with your values. But don’t let this guilt of not working prevent you from taking a much needed break. Chances are you value not working, too.