Advice From a Recovering Workaholic

“Woman Working on an Airplane Motor,” by Alfred T. Palmer, 1942

work·a·hol·ic:  A person who works compulsively at the expense of other pursuits.

It’s my turn to stand up, avoiding eye contact with the circle of attentive faces while my red and white “Hello, My Name Is” tag starts to peel off.

Hello, my name is Molly, and I am a workaholic.

How it Started

The nefarious mentality of “I must work myself to the breaking point in order to be successful” took root after I graduated from college and moved into a high-profile, high-intensity job as a magazine editor. Ever since then, finding a balance between my life and my work has been a struggle. (Just ask my boyfriend!)

Being a workaholic means, simply, that you invest too much time and energy into your work. You can’t seem to say “no” to yourself when you hear the computer beckoning (“Feed me! Love me! Stare at me for hours!”).

You always have extra projects lying around that need tinkering with, or you’re always “on the beat” trying to drum up more business. There is just so much to do, especially for small business owners and principals who do 90% of the work themselves.

“Workaholism” (I just made up that word, do you like it?) is a disease. It’s an addiction that, if you let it, can take over your life and keep you away from the people and activities that you love.

So Why Did I Let it Happen to Me?

“Chippers,” 1942, from U.S. Department of Labor archives

Well, try asking someone with a substance or alcohol addiction the same thing. It just doesn’t work that way.

Workaholism is insidious. It creeps into your life step by step—every time you work overtime for no pay just to make sure you get the job done right, or take on that extra project that you really don’t need. And it usually strikes people who have a high attention to detail, invest a lot of personal energy into their work and are—sigh, I admit it—perfectionists.

Does This Sound Familiar?

“Operating a Hand Drill,” by Alfred T. Palmer, 1942

“One in three American adults does not take his/her allotted vacation time.”

“Since 1950 the average productivity per American worker has increased 400%.”

“Around 60% of American workaholics spend 20 minutes or less eating during their lunch breaks.”

(Source: this infographic)

American workers are plagued with the idea that we are somehow defined by our work. We overwork, skimp on meals, and spend way too much time worrying about “getting the job done”—sometimes while ignoring our physical and mental health.

When I lived in Spain, it was considered extremely rude to meet someone new and ask them, “¿Qué tipo de trabajo haces?” (“What kind of work do you do?”). To say this to someone you just met is considered a major faux pas, as Spaniards, and many other Western Europeans, do not like to associate themselves, their selves, with work, which they feel is transitory and does not wholly define them. (And they’re right!)

How to Break the Cycle

“Woman Standing on Elephant’s Leg,” from Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, date unknown

For two years I pulled 50–60 hour work weeks, held two or three different jobs at a time, and freelanced on the side. I hadn’t taken a vacation longer than a weekend trip to Estes Park in almost four years. I would come home from one job, have a quick “dinner” (more of a snack) and then dive into my freelance work.

So, I made a deal with myself. Since I worked from home a lot, I needed to set some ground rules.

Rule #1: Set concrete hours.

If you, like me, do a lot of work from home, be sure that you’re setting concrete hours. If you are juggling more than one job (or one full-time job and a freelance career), make sure to keep a schedule for yourself that allows for breaks and personal time.

Rule #2: Don’t break Rule #1.

Let family and friends know when you’ll be working and when you’ll be available, and don’t mix personal business and work business during that time allotment, unless it’s an emergency. This helps you concentrate on what needs to be done, and gives you a sense of freedom when you’ve been productive and can truly enjoy the time away from your desk.

Rule #3: Get active.

Sitting in front of a computer all day isn’t good for anyone. Get outside, ride your bike, run on a treadmill—whatever works to boost your endorphins and get your body in motion.

Rule #4: Have a hobby that you love.

As an editor by trade, you might think that I get tired of reading. Not true, my dear Watson! I still enjoy reading as much as the next bibliophile, and I often can’t wait to devour my next novel. I have other hobbies that get me outside too (see Rule #3), like fly-fishing and bicycling. Find something that you love to do, and do it.

Rule #5: Schedule time with family and friends, and never break your appointments.

It may seem unnecessary, but setting appointments to spend quality time with friends and family can make all the difference. Not only do you have a fun lunch date with a best pal to look forward to, but you’re also making an active decision to see that friend and stay in contact with her. Don’t break these appointments! I mean it!

Rule #6: Nobody’s Perfect

I will be the first to admit that recovery from workaholism is tough—tougher than you’d think. Try your best to break yourself out of it (these rules will help), but go easy on yourself. Try your best, and set up a support network that will help you reach your goals. Or, just find someone to drag you away from the computer.

Are you a recovering workaholic as well? Let me know in the comments!

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4 responses to “Advice From a Recovering Workaholic

  1. Me to a T! Absolutely, wholeheartedly, yes.

    Moreover – have a hobby that doesn’t rely on a computer to perform. Because those are the easiest way to check your email, realize there’s a fire to put out, and then stay up late on 3 more cups of coffee trying to put out every last fire.

    Here’s a few more tips:
    – don’t check your email more than once a day (this is next to impossible for service businesses, but set those expectations in your contracts)
    – don’t train your customers to expect a response within 30 minutes
    – use google voice to turn off your business phone after hours
    – use google voice to screen your business calls so you just get the voicemail
    – do your work in a physical place (ie: cohere, office) so that when you’re done – you can walk away (or use two different computers for your “work” and “fun” time, respectively).

    Great post!

    • Great tips, Nick! I especially like the one that says, “Don’t train your customers to expect a response within 30 minutes.” I’m still bad about that, mostly because I’m also really bad about checking my email constantly. Hence why I am still a “recovering” workaholic…

  2. Great post Molly! I’ve struggled with a similar affliction. I think Rule #1 is crucial. Time-blocking makes all the difference for me.

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