The former CEO of one of the nation's largest media companies recently filled me in on the closing-time follies at his office: "I'd be waiting for my managers to leave so I could leave, and they'd be waiting for me to leave so they could." The dilemma: when to get away without feeling bad for leaving too early, too eagerly?
It's a standoff playing out nightly in offices across America. And the insanity—the product of what I call "obsessive-compulsive productivity"—runs deeper than that. When we want to cut weekly hours from, say, 60 to 45, we feel guilty. When we want to take a vacation, we feel guilty. When we're at home and snag a free moment, what happens? The voice in our head needles, "I should be doing something!"
But work guilt is merely a projected anxiety, what psychologists call "unreal guilt"—a perceived omission, not a commission. And you can opt out of it. Step one is catching yourself in the angst act. Keep a log of when work guilt rears its head. Identify the triggers and your responses to them, and you can start removing yourself from the reactive treadmill.
Step two requires fighting manipulation by others. Work guilt is an emotional default, not a matter of conscience. So figure out who's pulling your strings—the office workaholic, or bosses who have different stakes than you—and refuse to play marionette.
Most work guilt is driven by the false belief that our performance isn't cutting it, which is terrifying for identities dependent on production. "I'm worried that I'm not going to be as effective or successful," says Ran Klarin, a school administrator for the Los Angeles city school district who's battling insomnia from the stress. But unreal guilt can't stick when you submit it to the reality test. It's not you who's inadequate if you're doing the work of three people, as many are in the world of downsizing.
The antidote to guilt is choice. You have the power to eliminate or moderate the indictments you perceive when you choose to finish the work tomorrow because it can wait and life can't, or when you say no to all-night demands. Your decision halts the guilt-resentment cycle by removing the victim vibe that fuels it. If coworkers want to set records in the hemorrhoid sweepstakes, that's their problem.
And let's be real: The boss may be waiting for you to split so he can too.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.