Unsolicited Advice: How to Stop Being Such a Workaholic

In DC, the first thing you’re asked at a cocktail party is “what do you do?” This is a multi-purpose question. It allows you to size up the person you’re talking to: do they work on the Hill? Are they a consultant on K Street? Do they work in tech? Are they a lobbyist or working for a nonprofit? You also might get some insight on their tax bracket, political affiliation and how much power they wield. In DC, it’s all about power.

In New York City, I’ve heard that the first question could be “how much did you pay for your apartment?” An odd question elsewhere, New Yorkers know this is code for many things. How long you’ve lived in New York, because if you’ve got a great deal in an awesome neighborhood you probably know someone, or have rent control. It gives you insight into their income and savvy-ness about the city. As a friend who was a longtime Brooklyn resident told me, “I know it sounds weird, but this question is totally not off the table!” In New York, your money and city-savviness arguably win the day.

Out west, in places like California or Colorado, the first thing people ask is “what did you do this weekend?” At first blush, this is such a refreshing question when compared to the DC and New York crowd. Wow, this person cares about my hobbies, the non-material aspects of life, what I do outside of power and money! It’s true that this question is a bit more spiritual. But don’t be fooled: these folks are judging you, too. If you biked the trail, did some backcountry boarding, or got first chair on the ski lift, your priorities are in order. You also probably have the disposable income to do so. Out West, they’re definitely not as materialistic … when it comes to houses and even cars. But you may be judged for not measuring up spiritually.

Sadly, any of the questions above, although socially acceptable and seemingly innocent, start something of a pissing match. Our culture celebrates the idea of the workaholic. We easily slide into complaining about how hard we worked – whether actually at work, or how sore we got at Crossfit / skiing / surfing (at play) – maybe even bragging about it. No amount of work is too much work. Workaholism is a drug, and so many are so addicted.

But … here’s what’s so ironic. Working more doesn’t mean you care more, or get more done. Working in an unsustainable fashion means you will inevitably crash, become burned out or worse yet, resent your clients, your work, even your craft. Once this starts happening, you add lots of bad energy to the client relationship. Things rarely recover. A friend and small business owner regularly emails her clients reports of what she’s done and how many hours she’s spent. I think this is nonsense. Sure, she did some things – but what were the results she generated? Did new income or new prospective clients result from her efforts? How did her effort impact her client’s bottom line? If you can’t connect the work you are doing to actual dollars and cents, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

We’ve all heard by now that we’re supposed to “work smarter, not harder.” But workaholics do all this stuff because they enjoy feeling like heroes. Their view of the world creates what economists call “perverse incentives.” Their high value on number of hours spent means they can actually foster crises and fire-drills … because this creates more work for them, which proves their ongoing value. They can make people feel badly for working normal hours or taking a break, which leads to guilt and poor morale. 

All Work & No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy

If all you do is work, you’re unlikely to have sound judgement, and you wind up exhausted. In the end in my view, workaholics don’t actually accomplish more than those who work reasonable hours.

So the next time you find yourself breaking your back through workaholism, ask yourself: 

  • Am I making up for intellectual laziness? 
  • Is workaholism substituting for a lack of creativity? 
  • Am I talking about how many hours I worked because I feel I’m not really adding any value to this project?

FOMO

I believe FOMO, or the Fear of Missing Out, is workaholism’s anxious, social-media-obsessed, whacked-out bastard child. It creates anxiety that we’re not doing enough, going out enough, networking enough, successful enough or that our lives as we’re living them are just not enough. It’s inevitable that when we spend so much time bearing silent witness to friends’ weddings, births, parties, marathons and promotions, we might begin to think that our current situation isn’t enough. We begin comparing friends’ highlight reels to our daily reality, and suddenly feel inferior. As a Gen-Xer who actually used to make plans by phone or email, it’s something I’m still getting used to, and gratitude journaling has all but cured me of it, but I always have to be on alert that it can creep in at any time.

For example this past Christmas season I had been intentionally staying close to home, working on next-leveling my businesses and being very intentional about the invitations I’d accept. As a result, I didn’t even have a consistent babysitter to call. So when I got an invitation to a family-oriented Christmas cocktail party, I was gleeful to plan on going with my school-aged kids. Then the day of the party, my daughter got off the school bus and promptly threw up. Since I hadn’t been out in ages, I was incredibly disappointed – and my mind jumped in all directions. 

“Ugh, these friends won’t ever invite us over again if we don’t go.”

“We’ll all get this virus. Christmas is RUINED!” 

“Oh no … what about our post-Christmas ski trip?” 

“What about NEW YEARS?”

“IWILLNEVERHAVEALIFEAGAIN! DAMN THESE KIDS!!!” 

Documented fact: our minds go to the worst-case scenario when we’re suffering from FOMO.

Thankfully, there was also an angel on my shoulder that night as well. My inner devils were quieted by the calming words of one of my Life Coaching clients, who said: “remember, you are a human being, not a human doing.” 

Inside, I had practically gotten myself into a frenzy over this, precisely at the moment when my daughter needed me to be the nurturing, caring Mommy that I needed to be right then. (Fellow Moms, you know the moment when you suddenly morph into Mother Teresa when one of your children is ill, amirite?) That little voice reminding me to be as well as do allowed me to accept that tonight my place was at home, helping my daughter rest and recover, not a night for celebration. Because a Kindergartener puking right after her school Christmas party is nothing to celebrate. Those with a level of maturity and depth know, there would always be other invitations to parties … and if these friends stopped inviting us over as a result of our last-minute cancellation, it literally would be their loss. I decided right then and there I wouldn’t miss the beautiful things happening right in front of me for Fear of Missing Out.

(Sidebar: my daughter recovered within 48 hours, the rest of my family was spared, Christmas was saved … and we even got to go skiing. Oh! And our friends have invited us back for more of their kick-ass parties. They were tremendously grateful we didn’t expose them to what turned out to be a bad flu virus that was sweeping our island. A win-win.)

Fear or Abundance?

Many of us frame our FOMO or workaholism as a passion for life, or insatiable ambition. I did this for a long time, because it made my crazy behavior seem normal. But living a life full of fear is not normal, and should be called out. This grass-is-greener mentality can be exhausting. We’ve all heard the old adage, at the end of their life, no one ever says “I wish I’d worked more.” Inevitably, end-of-life regrets are more along the lines of: 

I wish I’d spent more time with my family. 

I wish I’d traveled somewhere interesting.

I should have called him / gone on the date / bought the dress / been more eccentric.

I wish I’d tried ________________ (insert an activity totally unrelated to work.) 

Also, how boring is it to talk to people who have no interests outside of work? Don’t be that guy or girl! Get a life – if for no other reason than to have interesting stories at cocktail parties!

Here’s the thing. “Workaholics” almost always have an issue with self-worth. As a recovering workaholic, I know this firsthand. We rely on external validation from bosses, colleagues and clients. We work work work work work work from a place of fear and allow others to determine our value. 

This busy-work ends up spinning us in circles, chasing after something that’s always just out of reach. It takes a different type of “work” to instill the unshakable sense of self-worth which now gives me the ability to set boundaries in my work and social life. Instead of doing, I spend more of my time these days being. Breathing, meditating, introspecting, walking in nature, practicing gratitude, and really listening to the messages my body is trying to tell me when I’m sick, tired or stressed. The key to my success today is staying in balance. In the coming chapters, I’ll share some more of the concrete tools I’ve learned that have helped me stay true to my most deeply-held values, working with a sense of freedom and abundance.

Busy is a choice. Stress is a choice. Joy is a choice. What will you choose? I’d love to hear in the comments.

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