At the end of 2011, I was keeping a secret.
I’d been running my consulting firm for 8 years, and business had never been better. I should have been ecstatic, but I wasn’t.
My secret was that I was miserable. My work/life balance was a joke and it wasn’t getting any better.
The problem wasn’t related to the work itself. I love the work, love my clients, love my colleagues.
The problem was that I had become so engrossed in the work that I was neglecting the rest of my life.
I had become a workaholic.
Hard Worker vs. Workaholic
There is a crucial difference between being a hard worker and being a workaholic.
The distinction comes down to boundaries. You can love your work without being a workaholic. You can be dedicated, driven, and successful without it being a problem.
The problem arises when you start to neglect the other important things in your life.
How To Tell The Difference
Some common areas that workaholics neglect are:
- healthy diet
- hobbies and outside interests
- vacations and downtime
Hard workers don’t neglect these things. Hard workers embrace these as priorities.
By the end of 2011, I was neglecting ALL of them.
If you feel like you don’t have time for the things that make you truly happy, you need to examine your priorities and make a change. It’s as simple as that.
In a lot of industries, there’s a huge pressure to put your work before anything else. A few that come to mind are: startup companies, consulting firms, finance, advertising, high tech, and construction. I’m sure you could add to that list.
If you work in one those industries, you might feel like the pressure to outperform is inescapable. Doing “enough” isn’t enough. You’re expected to be a rock-star, a hero. You’re expected to “take one for the team” and meet impossible demands.
Here’s a nasty little secret that I had to learn the hard way:
When you push too hard, no one gets you at your best.
It might be counter-intuitive, but it’s absolutely true.
If you’re putting work before your health, you’re going to start getting sick.
If you neglect your relationships, they’ll grow weaker.
If you don’t sleep or eat well, your cognitive functioning will start to slip.
It might not happen right away, but it will happen.
Being a workaholic isn’t sustainable.
Everything in your life is connected. Ironically, even your work will begin to suffer.
Take Back Your Life
The good news is that being a workaholic is optional. You can take your life back if you want to.
If you’re a workaholic, you need to commit to making some changes. Your path might be different from mine, but I’ll share what helped me.
Start Setting Limits
I started the Stop Working Late experiment on January 1st. There are two key parts to the experiment:
- Stop working past 5:00 pm
- Start doing the things I love doing again
Whenever I want to stop doing something, it’s helpful to also focus on starting something else. It’s all about balance, right? If you try to stop doing something, but don’t “fill the void”, it’s easy to slip back into those bad habits.
That’s a big part of the Monthly Experiments philosophy. Rather than trying to simply quit bad habits, we focus on creating better habits.
I wrote about this in my Week 1 progress report. Compared to my old habit of working until 9 or 10 at night, it felt really great when I quit working at 5:00. I knew that the feeling of pride would be stronger if I gave myself an extra reward.
In psychology, this would be called “positive reinforcement” or operant conditioning. It works for people, and it works for dog training. You can train a dog to sit/stay/come with praise alone, but sometimes a little kibble makes things easier. 🙂
It might it sound silly, but my reward was to go out to dinner with my wife. The first week, we tried a new restaurant every night. It was the most fun I’d had in a long time. I felt like a normal person again, instead of the worker-drone I had become. By the second week, my urge to work late was gone.
Fill The Void
This is similar to a reward, but is more about long-term lifestyle changes. Find something meaningful and schedule it. It could be coaching your kid’s soccer team, leaning a new language, or taking up hiking. Whatever gets you excited. Make it a part of your life and stick with it!
I’m filling the void by running again, writing this blog, and spending quality time with my family.
It’s All About Quality
My quality of life is the highest it’s been in years.
Somewhat surprisingly, the quality of my work is also much higher lately. I’m spending fewer hours in the office each day, but I feel sharper, more thoughtful, and less stressed. It’s added up to less income, but better results for my clients. I can live with that. 🙂
How About You?
I wrote this post because I know how miserable it is to be (or live with) a workaholic. If you aren’t satisfied with your work/life balance, I hope you’re inspired to make a change. These are the tools and tips that worked for me, maybe they’ll work for you, or maybe you have some ideas that will work better.
I know there are a lot of smart people reading this.
I want to know, what works for you?
How do you find and keep balance?
Share your tips in the comments.
photo by Peter Kaminski
View all posts in this series
- January 2012: Stop Working Late - December 31, 2011
- My First Week Without Working Late - January 6, 2012
- Stop Working Late – Week 2 - January 14, 2012
- How To Stop Being a Workaholic - January 28, 2012
- Stop Working Late: Before & After - January 31, 2012
Thanks for writing this. I am beginning to realize (just like you did in your post) that this isn’t normal. It took my husband saying he was ready for a divorce. That is my rock bottom. I’m working thru what my next steps are but realizing there is a problem is the first step.
Hank you for helping me realize I’m not alone 🙂
Bev J says
My husband has been 85+ hours a week for the last four years. He has not had an uninterrupted vacation and weekend off for at least five years. He now says he loves me and the kids but he feels numb and has checked out. He is not in touch with his feelings. He moved out three weeks ago. He knows the job has done this to him, but cannot take the first step to stop “the speeding train”. I do not know how to help him. We share common interests but he has not been able to partake in anything for a long time. I told him there is no joy in him. It is an addiction, but it seems it is an addiction that gets him praise from his company peer group. I fear there is a medical crisis in his future.
This post has really helped me realize that I need to start changing some habits (or maybe attitudes?) if I don’t want to end up with this problem someday. I would mention another field -this might surprise some people- where pressure might be amazing: theatre and films. Long hours, competition, a nice (but potentially dangerous feeling) that you’re doing something “greater than yourself” and that you should put the project before your well-being… Wow, I’m just a student in Acting school (but also working part-time and in a lot projects, otherwise I probably wouldn’t be reading this hahaha) and I’m already feeling all of this and witnessing professionals with these problems… I want to try your suggestions, they sound pretty effective. Thank you 🙂
John Muldoon says
Hey Ava. Thanks for the comment! Let me know how it goes. 🙂
Thank you so much for writing this. I am a business owner who actually ended up giving myself a chronic back disability and selling my business because of workaholism. I am in therapy, have an executive coach, and am enrolling in a project management course to get out of this compulsion for good. Your journal on this experiment is very helpful, thank you.