The Risk of Guilt in Setting Priorities

Image of a man pointing an accusing finger

When you set priorities for the day, you accept a risk. If you do not finish those tasks today, for whatever reason, you will have negative feelings at the end of the day. At a minimum, you will feel sad, just from the failure to meet your own expectations.

If interruptions and factors outside of your control took over your life — if you fought to complete the priorities, but still couldn’t get them done — you will feel frustrated.

But if you believe you should have made a different choice at some critical point — you “should have said ‘no'” or you “should have known better” or you “should have checked the list” — you will also feel guilty.

Guilt is emotionally draining. It makes you want to hide in a corner, lick your wounds, and rest for a bit before going back into action. Or worse. It is a form of suffering.

Fear of guilt stops some people from identifying their priorities in the first place. It drives others to burnout, because they fear the self-criticism they will endure if they don’t complete the priority tasks.

Been there. Done both. Finally found an alternative.

One of the most important skills I’ve learned for sticking to priorities is the ability to handle guilt, frustration, and other negative emotions constructively — particularly guilt.

Guilt is a crucial signal. If you feel guilt, you know that you have made some kind of a mistake. Either you have:

a.  acted against your code of values, or

b.  you have mistakenly concluded that you've done so, or

c.  your code of values is inconsistent and needs some work to integrate it.

Guilt is an emotion based on a moral assessment. Your belief in yourself as a good person is challenged when you feel guilt. It is self-destructive to ignore it.

There is no better time to sort out the truth behind a feeling of guilt than at that moment when you see you didn’t complete your priorities. You have the maximum recall at that moment. You see what you did, and what you didn’t do, and you can remember why.

But at that moment, if the guilt and frustration is intense, you may not have enough mental space to think the issue through. You need to be able to ground your emotions without suppressing the information they represent. They are your leads to the values at stake and the reasoning (or lack thereof) behind the actions you took.

This ability to ground emotions is critical to gaining objectivity about yourself. It helps you get clearer on your knowledge, your values, and your present skill level. With that information, you can make an objective judgment about whether you “should have” done better.

If you decide the guilt was unearned, the relief is immense. Then I recommend you switch the thinking to, “how can I troubleshoot this concrete problem so I can achieve what’s most important to me?”

If you decide the guilt was earned, I recommend you mourn for a moment, and then you switch your thinking to, “How can I be the person I want to be? How do I repair or remedy this situation?” Your willingness to recognize a mistake and take action to correct it reinforces your sense of pride — your moral ambitiousness — and will give you the confidence to continue.

In both cases, you switch your focus toward the positive — toward what you want to achieve in this situation, not what you did wrong. You take steps toward values, rather than running from fear.

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