Give Up the Guilt: Ruthless Priorities Need to Align With Business Goals

I often talk about the importance of “Ruthless Priorities” (and you can download a free excerpt about this from my book, RISE).

But often, people say, “Patty, I am good at prioritizing, I do get the most important things done, but how do I deal with the guilt I feel about all the things I am not doing.”

Next week I am doing a free webinar on “Ruthless Priorities” (and Guilt). But today, I just want to talk about the guilt!

There are four common sources of guilt:

Guilt #1: I need to show that I am committed

Some corporate cultures are very aggressively hard working. The expectation is that you arrive early, stay late, and look busy. If not, you run the risk of being seen as less engaged or committed.

The secret: The employees do this to themselves. They build it up into a competitive frenzy — and most companies don’t discourage it. Why would they?

Your company can absorb an unlimited amount of work from you and not really care.

But you need to recognize that you are not scoring any great points for being extra-committed by your heroic and tireless efforts. Your company will never value your over-work as much as you think they do or should.

What will your company value? It’s “value.”

You don’t want to be known as that person who is always there and always working hard, but no one can put their finger on what value you are adding.

You DO want to be known as the employee always manages to finish the most important, valuable projects. (And when you do this, it doesn’t matter how busy you look.)

What to do: Schedule time to think. Then think about how to make yourself less busy and more strategic. Conceive of ways to contribute more value to the business.

Bottom line: Get famous for adding value not for just working hard.

Guilt #2 – I am afraid of getting fired

This is really just a scarier version of the first point. I have seen whole teams of people working in this mode get laid off. It turns out that not only did the company not need them all to work that hard, they didn’t need them to work at all.

People who are afraid of losing their job often put their head down and do what they are told. This doesn’t help.

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What to do: take it upon yourself to understand what your business values and find a way to deliver more of that. Find a way to solve problems for your team or improve the work environment and do that.

Bottom line: Problem solvers don’t get laid off as much as unquestioning doers get laid off. Don’t wait to be told what to do. You figure it out. Help your manager think and solve problems.

Guilt #3 -I feel bad about letting someone down personally

When saying NO feels uncomfortable personally, try these things:

  1. Talk about what you “Are Doing” not what you are “Not Doing.” Simply saying NO is not that impressive and may invite disappointment. However, if you can demonstrate the business value of what you ARE doing and say that you need to get this really important thing done first, you can buy yourself some time. If you have set your Ruthless Priorities aligned with business goals, you should be able to have a business discussion about why what you are working on is so important, and people will back off and not think badly of you.
  2. Say “Later” not “NO.” Whether your employee, peer, or boss is asking you to do something that is not a Ruthless Priority, you can say “Yes, but not now.” I need do this other thing first. “Later” is much more comfortable than “NO.” (But If you are lying and you really mean “never”, I suggest you go back to point No. 1.)
  3. Keep a list. Keeping a list of everything that is requested of you is a great way to negotiate and deflect. It makes you appear highly competent because you can show you haven’t dropped anything. Then you can use the list to have a business discussion about priorities.

Bottom line: No one other than you has any motivation whatsoever to make you less busy. It’s up to you.

Guilt #4 – Utterly Self Inflicted

There is one more type of guilt I have observed which is completely self inflicted. If you find yourself on a Sunday saying:

OK, so far this weekend I finished the board report, cleared my in-box, did the grocery shopping, helped my son with his science project, did pilates, picked out the paint colors and fabrics for the renovation, exchanged the space heater at Costco, got commitment from the local celebrity to host the fund-raiser, pre-cooked & packaged organic lunches for the family next week .. but I’m feeling guilty about not finishing my Chinese self study lesson…”

The answer: Recognize no one is grading you on this insane to-do list. Give yourself a break!

Bottom line: You are good enough. Successful people don’t do everything.

What do you think? How do you say NO, and feel OK about it?

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.

Patty Azzarello is the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group. She's also an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/business advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35, and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk). You can find her at .


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