Hi, Carolyn: I work from home at a career I love that I built myself. I'm also the parent of two small children.
And I have a paralyzing sense that I'm a lazy bum.
This is despite the fact that I am by all (external) accounts a hard-working, productive person. I know my fears of being lazy are overblown. I get my work done. My clients are happy with me. I'm a good parent. I follow through on my obligations.
I just also sometimes take a nap or read a book while my kids are at school, instead of doing my paid work. For a while, I tried to just own it. When my inner critic would call me lazy for procrastinating or for taking a bath in the middle of the day, I'd respond, "Okay, so I'm lazy. So what?" This was helpful at first, but it is losing its effectiveness.
Other than talking to a therapist about this — which I'm working on, but it's been very difficult to find someone I click with and this is not an urgent issue — do you have any suggestions for how to stop seeing my time usage as a moral failing?
— Struggling With Feelings of Laziness
Struggling With Feelings of Laziness: I love my country, I love my fellow citizens, I love me some good wholesome can-do-ism, but there are times I want to punch my culture in the throat.
You have won the lottery. You bathe at midday in the tears of your predecessors, who fought and marched and suffered to give their children a world with choices, with agency, with satisfying paid work, with time to raise their children that doesn’t come at the cost of time for themselves.
I mean, damn.
You’ve got it.
And maybe you do have some personal, internal malfunction that keeps you from appreciating what you have, and maybe you’re right that a good therapist is the best way to fix this allegedly malfunctioning part of you — but I can’t be alone in thinking that blaming yourself for this self-doubt is but another symptom of the cultural sickness, the productivity fetish, declaring you unworthy just because you take a few moments to breathe.
Maybe outside permission to relax is all you need to counteract that outside pressure to work. If so, then you’ve got mine. But if happiness were a mere dope-slap away, then your strategy of owning it would probably also have worked just fine. So it’s possible you have to work to retrain yourself to honor rest as a virtue.
Start with understanding productivity. Yours is a knowledge-economy type job, yes? So, research suggests you have only about six productive hours per day anyway. (From 2012 and with some broken links, but still a persuasive aggregation: bit.ly/LessAsMore.)
And, rest at regular intervals improves your performance at anything you do. More creativity, better work; more patience, better parenting. That you toggle between work and child-rearing as your main pursuits, without having to rob time from either to get the other done, probably also makes you better. Each keeps you from getting worn down or bored by too much of the other good thing.
Next, use your schedule as a moral ally. Deliberately block out X hours that you need to work, after which you earn your right to play.
Disclosure: It kills me a bit to advise this, because flexibility is a gift. It allows you to work more when you’re feeling more productive, and makes you efficient. But if more rigid scheduling can help you forgive your own success, then try it. (And ditch it fast if it doesn’t help.)
Next, find a new way to apply your skilled and rested self toward the greater good. Keep up the naps, books and bubble baths, by all means — you are an inspiration, and I am not being facetious — at your usual pace except for one day a week. With that one exception, dedicate your time to a cause that’s meaningful to you. Work at a food bank, call lawmakers, nurture the neglected, raise money, put your skill set to work (or cultivate a new one). Let the world be better for your well-managed workload and it’ll be hard to keep feeling as guilty as you do.
Next: Start conversations about work, life, balance. If you have a platform, then use it to invite discussion and novel ideas. Shame hates sunlight.
Finally, sigh, don’t keep postponing therapy. While you may be influenced by external pressure to work, it’s still a source of unhappiness inside you that it’s up to you to address — and it also may be, too, that you have a condition such as depression or anxiety that’s using “laziness” as its hook. Act now to set up some intake conversations, to find a good fit. It usually takes a while to begin treatment anyway. You can always cancel if you find you’re feeling better in those intervening days or weeks, though please don’t; “paralyzing” anything is a body’s cry for help.