Stop Feeling Guilty For Wanting to Work Less

by Joan Garry

There are no excuses. Professional development is not a time bandit. Self care is not a time bandit. They are investments.

A nonprofit executive director client of mine is headed out for vacation next week.

Re-read that sentence if you don’t mind. Note that the word “executive director” and “vacation” appear in the same sentence. Without the word cancel.

So we are headed in the right direction. Then I ask the key question. “Will you be checking your email while you are out of the country?”

The answer is pretty typical: “Maybe just a few times a day, but that’s all. I’ll definitely work less.”

Like I was supposed to offer a round of applause. Like “that’s all” is evidence of a remarkable commitment to self care.

She received no applause from me.  

“That’s all.” Let’s tease that out, shall we?  

  • That’s all… Because I don’t trust anyone else to take care of things?
  • That’s all… Because I have to demonstrate that I work really hard all the time?
  • That’s all… Because I’m a “pleaser” who has trouble saying “no”?
  • That’s all… Because just the thought of focusing on my own well-being makes me feel tremendous guilt?

I’m going to dive into this issue – this sense of guilt so many nonprofit leaders have about any kind of self-investment. It’s time for some tough love from Joan.


Imagine a plane full of nonprofit leaders. In every seat an executive director. Some crazy turbulence causes the masks to come down.

I’m laughing as I write this. NO ONE would be able to put on their own mask! There’d be this crazy scene where everyone would be trying to help everyone else put their masks on. 

Would everyone wind up with a mask? I sure hope so, but what a scene it would be. “Here, let me help you!” “No no! Let me help YOU!”


Let’s imagine another one of those plane rides where the masks drop down above our seat.  

Do you think the pilot’s mask dropped down?

What would you like the pilot to do? The answer is so freakin’ easy. “OMG Please get that mask on!!!!!!” 

Do you want the pilot to have had a good night’s sleep before flying you across the country?

Do you want the pilot to take courses regularly to learn about what is new since she went to flight school 15 years ago?

Do you want the pilot to have a bit of training on how to speak publicly to the travelers on board to communicate confidence, make those aboard feel comfortable, especially if the ride gets bumpy.

YOU are a pilot. I rest my case.


I focused on vacations above, but I mean more than that. I mean investing in yourself. 

Here are a list of items that represent what “investing in yourself” looks like:

  1. Take a one or (gasp!) two week vacation
  2. Take a one or (gasp!) two week vacation where you do not check email
  3. Have a lunch or dinner with a nonprofit leader colleague in your sector to share best practices
  4. Sign up for an online course on how to become a better fundraiser
  5. Read a book on how to be a better leader
  6. Offer advice to a colleague E.D. reminding you of your skills and expertise
  7. Read an article online about how to engage and motivate volunteers
  8. Find a pro bono resource in your community to attend your board meeting to educate all of you on how to use social media to be more effective organizational ambassadors
  9. Attend a conference to network with other leaders for education and to build a sense of community
  10. Take your staff out for drinks after work
  11. Leave work early not because you have an appointment outside the office. Just because.
  12. Schedule and show up for all of your annual health check-ups
  13. Read a good old fashioned page turner of a novel
  14. Take a really nice long bath

Which have you done in the last 12 months?

I’m guessing there are way too many items that are screaming, “CHECK ME, CHECK ME!!!!”


OK my friend. You get it right? There are no excuses.

Professional development is not a time bandit. It’s an investment.  

Leaving the office early to make dinner for your spouse isn’t abandoning ship; it’s investing in your relationship – and that is good for your spouse AND you.  

Coming in late because you are in the audience of a student assembly where your kid is singing? That feeds your soul. 

A class on how to be a better leader will enrich you, make you feel like a more responsible executive director.  

Cocktails with other leaders in your community will make you feel less alone.  

Reading a great novel takes you somewhere else for a few hours, allowing you to come back to your work the next day with a slightly different set of eyes, a fresh perspective, and more creativity and focus. You’ll simply be better at your job.


We talked it all through. My client said she would give one of her staff members access to her email and ask if he could triage, addressing what he could, putting into folders things that could wait for her return and that they would agree on what qualified as a 911 situation that warranted a vacation interruption.

What if you tried something like that?


I totally get it. Sometimes it feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. And there are days when it feels true. I want your shoulders to be good and strong.

I hope I hope I hope that this post motivates you to go check a box you couldn’t check before. In the comments below, let me know something you did to invest in yourself. 

And unlike my client who expected applause for only checking email three times a day while on vacation (applause she didn’t get), each of you who leave a comment? Imagine an auditorium filled with clients, donors, community leaders and your staff – offering you a standing ovation.