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Guilt and Our Choices

Ramit Sethi

Today I want to talk about guilt and the weird way it makes people act.

In college, I never understood the jackasses who would say they had “tons of work to do” and that they “should work” and would go to the library for 13 hours, where they would chat on AIM, read maybe a total of 25 pages, and come back telling everyone they’d been at the library “all day” (wipe brow). This smacks of stupidity and when I saw this, I thanked god that he made me a tall but frail man, because if I were Mike-Tyson-sized, there would be some trouble for everybody.

Was it really that they needed that much time to work? If so, god bless them. We all have our own working styles, with some people working faster, some slower, etc.

But 99% of the time, I don’t think it was that. It was guilt about not working. Guilt is a big old huge issue among people when it comes to getting things done. Why?

I’ve found that guilt is a hugely insidious influence for people, especially people our age. We’re making decisions about classes, careers, money, and life because of guilt in a hugely disproportionate way. How many people do you know that major in econ because they’re guilty about their parents paying $160,000 for them to attend college? Or they go to law school? Or choose some particular job because they “should”?

Now I’ll say it again (and this is my last caveat of this essay, because I hate caveats): If we choose our path ourselves, great. But if you choose a life path–or make a major decision that will affect your life path–because of guilt, I want to scream at you.

It’s not just big decisions, either. I know so many people who won’t go out on Thursday night because they have a paper due next Wednesday. “I should work,” they say in an empty voice that assures they will do exactly the opposite. Will the 3 hours really make a difference over the next 6 days? Of course not. But they would feel guilty going out, so staying in that night–even if they got nothing done–seems productive. After reading this article and my minutiae essay, hopefully there’s a pattern emerging: There’s a difference between seeming productive and actually being productive.

This is why you’d never see me “studying” in the lounge while really talking to 589368943 people around me. Or why you’d never see me in the library sleeping. But you’d also RARELY hear me turn down something fun to do work. In fact, lots of people comment how they never see me working at all. It’s not that I’m especially smart. It’s that I don’t engage in unproductive behaviors to assuage my guilt.

I’m not unique. The truth is that most of my mentors and really productive peers do this same thing. They don’t care what others think about how they should work or live.

This is about understanding your goals and ignoring the guilt of your friends, your parents, and everyone else–whether the guilt is real or perceived, whether it’s intentional or not.

Working style
Lots of people never take the time to learn and accept their own personal working style. For example, I’m writing this at 2:30am and I’m getting a ton done. But during the day, I watched TV, took a nap, and guilt never entered my mind.

Listen, I hate working. I avoid it as much as I can. So I’ve learned to accept the way I work best: On most days, I spend most of my time reading blogs, sending emails, chatting online, and thinking about strategy stuff. This sounds totally absurd!!! But when it all comes together–this happens maybe a few times a week–I’m able to knock out lots of work very quickly.

A lot of my friends joke about my lifestyle, saying I don’t ever work. That’s cool and I make fun of myself, too. Because really, when your away message says I’m taking a nap and it’s 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon, how can you not mock that? But I don’t take it seriously because others’ expectations of my work style are irrelevant. As long as I get my work done, who cares? And I’ll tell you one more thing: I don’t feel guilty about my chatting or emailing or visiting friends for lunch. Because while those things seem irrelevant to my “work,” they actually drive it.

Why do you think I don’t consider posting on here a waste of time?

We all work differently–that’s obvious. But if you take the time to honestly nail down how you work best–if you experiment with different methods, if you ask people around you, etc–just imagine how productive you could be over the next 1, 5, 10, 20, and 30+ years.

If you don’t decide, guilt will
When I decided to major in STS (Science, Technology, and Society) in college, I was exposed to the wondrous world of guilt. Almost all of my advisors and mentors told me, “Oh no, Ramit, you better pick a better major.” Better? I asked. “Something that’s easier to explain.” Now that is pretty dumb advice. (I don’t blame them; that’s what they knew.) And I could have felt guilty about the money or whatever and said, “Aw, they’re right, I better major in CS.”

And then I would have hated my life. Instead, I used STS as a way to open up conversations, because how often do you hear someone that studied technology and psychology? Bam, let’s get to know each other. I actually like what I studied, and things have turned out fine.

Lots of us are making decisions based on guilt. Not small decisions like whether to go out on Friday or not. Big, huge decisions like what major, where to live, and what job to take. Guilt is a dirty, invisible force that’s especially insidious because it’s almost always perceived, not communicated. If you feel guilty about something, it may be that your parents or friends made you feel guilty. But just as often, it’s you perceiving the guilt and acting on it. And just as often, it’s extraordinarily difficult to identify guilt as the root cause of your behavior.

Here’s what I think.

Let’s banish the empty “should.” If you find yourself saying “I should do X” and looking out the window with a thousand-yard stare, either do it right away or forget about it. (This is tricky because lots of people say they should do really important things, like manage their personal finances, and they really should! So use your judgment.)

I also propose that we think about our choices and ask ourselves why we’re making them. If they’re because of guilt, tread lightly. People will always want you to do something and, as you get older, more and more people will want a piece of you. Sometimes they’re right, and sometimes they’re wrong. But if you let guilt invisibly dictate your decisions, you’ll just be subject to the whims of other people’s desires.

Acknowledge the importance of guilt. Decide for yourself. Stop saying should unless you really mean it. And on a related note, take the time to understand your own working style. It makes a big difference in getting things done.

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  1. avatar

    Great article! I was never THAT bad- you wouldn’t catch me sleeping in the library either- but I have spent countless hours surfing online while “writing a paper”. Ironically, that was how I found this site. I guess good things can come from bad habits, but nevertheless this article will definitely change how I approach my work.

  2. avatar
    Chris Yeh

    In the work world, the equivalent quasi-work are meetings. Once you’re in a meeting, all your emailing, IMing, and Web surfing are officially productive, because you are on the clock.

    In case you haven’t guessed, I hate meetings!

  3. avatar

    Is it possible to get his entire financial portfolio. Did he release it himself? Very interesting.

  4. avatar

    One tip I’ve heard along similar lines is to recognize what your values are (to help you sort your tasks) and then to apply your available energy to your tasks. Too often we fear the big assignment and procrastinate it until later because we think that if we start on working on it, then we must do significant work on it. This isn’t necessarily true. If you have energy to work for only 10 minutes, say, a week before such an assignment is due, then work those 10 minutes without any guilt. You’ve achieved something you wouldn’t have done otherwise, and will hopefully feel less dread later on . . .

  5. avatar

    Fantastic post Ramit. I don’t think I’m quite as bad as the college jackasses you described, but I often catch myself saying “Uhh, I should be working.” I love your advice, “either do it right away or forget about it.” Often the guilt of not doing the task, is worse than actually doing the task.

  6. avatar

    Great post. I’ve found myself turning down countless requests to go out because “I really need to study.” Cheers to not “needing to studying.” How superficial people are…

  7. avatar

    I have 19 years old.Last year I had to choose betwen what I wish to do with my life, and what my parents wanted to do with my life.

    I want to make money, to have a capital, and open my own business.

    My parents want first to finish a faculty, and not a simple one, a very hard one.

    Guess what.I choosed what my parents want, i don’t know why, but this option is more secure.

    What would you do if you were me ?

    P.S – I have some problems writing in English, sorry if i made some mistakes.

  8. avatar

    You hit the hammer right on top of the nail. I graduated in 98 and ‘guilted’ myself thru a lot of courses. Now, living life is almost the same; a lot of guilt here and there because I ‘should.’ It’s frustrating, horrifying and downright destructive.

  9. avatar

    I feel pretty much the same way , but sometimes for really big decisions the guilt factor becomes an immovable wall preventing you to do what you really want to do; For times like this I seem to always be helped by my small trusted group of people who tell me to go get it! without them I’d probably be living a life decided by guilt! great Post!

  10. avatar

    I so totally disagree with you.

    Guilt is good, because how can you be guilty if your doing something right.

    If I have a paper next week on Wednesday then I should stay in and study. I should be guilty if I do not study and chat away the night.

    Here is my theory.

    Life is a commulation of small discisions. If you want to be more productive its the commulation of small descisions e.g. the discision not to go out on Thursday nite, not chat with h*tbabe etc that will commulatively make you more productive between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm.

    A good example is the descision to be more healthy. The smaller discisions might be no cake today, gym tommorow and a jog next week. If I do not do these things ( I love food) I feel guilty ..which is GOOD. If I actually listen to this guilt in the long run it becomes habit … i stop missing cake and enjoying gym. Result – Better health.

    The only time I agree with you is when other people make you feel guilty into doing things for them. Actually, I don’t think its guilt …rather pressure. If I want to start business rather than go to college and I know am right ..I won’t feel guilty no matter what anyone tells me coz I know am right. If you have any ikling of guilt about skipping college I suggest you go to college coz ..HOW CAN YOU FEEL GUIILTY IF YOUR RIGHT.

  11. avatar
    Fable Fox

    I always visit this site, but rarely comment. Regarding guilt, in the end of the day, it’s YOUR life – not your parent’s. Right now I’m feeling guilty because I did what they wanted, not what I wanted. And now I’m 30 already. I feel like a robot remote controlled by my parents, and giving them more life to do what they always wanted.

  12. avatar

    You’re describing exactly how I felt and what I thought when I confronted myself about it.

    Except you write a lot better than I do. Hope you keep it up.

  13. avatar
    Chad Jewsbury

    This is a great post. I discovered your blog/book a few weeks ago and keep finding these gems of insight. I currently live in S. Korea teaching english to pay off some school debt and save up some money . I too fell into the guilt trap to a certain degree but have come to realize it’s only my life to live…

    Can’t wait until your book arrives – tomorrow I think (10 day shipping around the world). I’m excited to get started saving and changing the way I think about my finances.

    Congrats on all the success… From what I’ve read so far it’s all well deserved. Thanks.

    BTW… did you built this site on your own? (If so – which comment system are you using?)

  14. avatar

    This is great – like what Cal Newport says about psuedo work (he referred to your book on his site, so I assume you are familiar with him).

    One question though – what time do you get up if you’re working at 2 in the morning? Surely you’d be too tired at that point to get much done, as opposed to working in the mornings?