I'm a Workaholic. Here are 5 Ways I Overcome My Obsessive Behaviors Instead of embracing the "grind," let's learn to embrace rest and vulnerability.
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From movies and TV to music and books, American culture glamorizes "the grind." If you're not working 24/7 to achieve "boss" status, you've settled for basic, and the results will speak for themselves. These representations trick us into believing that mega-wealth and cultural relevance are possible for us all, when in reality, there's only one Beyonce.
But, at least in my case, popular culture isn't to blame for my workaholism. Instead, my obsession is deeply rooted in a need for approval, love and validation. Today, I'm lucky to have an amazing support system, but even so, I desire to please people who will never assuage the empty feeling in my gut. The temporary satisfaction of overperforming for a client is something that, however fleeting, I crave.
The American Psychological Association characterizes workaholism as 1) feeling compelled to work because of internal pressures, 2) having persistent thoughts about work when not working and 3) working beyond what is reasonably expected despite the potential for negative consequences. Check. Check. Check.
Perhaps the biggest difference between a workaholic and a "highly engaged employee" of the sort every employer wants is that the former experiences negative emotions with work (e.g., guilt, anxiety, anger), and the latter experiences positive ones (e.g., happiness, attentiveness and confidence).
Feeling like a thrall to work and craving validation from others is a toxic comfort zone I've resided in for decades. This recent warning from the Surgeon General's Office announcing that toxic work environments are a genuine public health hazard is evidence that millions of other Americans must be suffering alongside me.
The cruel irony is that unlearning workaholic behaviors takes work, albeit of a different kind. In today's hyper-connected world, workaholism is becoming an increasing concern — particularly for younger generations who grew up with smartphones and tablets.
After much reflection and research, here are some things that I've found effective for helping to overcome my worst obsessive work behaviors.
1. Stop justifying the self-destructive outcomes of being a workaholic.
When your workaholism negatively impacts your life, stop saying there's nothing you can do about it. Unless you're a medical professional, most of the work you and I do is not so essential that it can't wait a day or even a week. There may be a timeline, and the client may be depending on you to meet it, but is it worth harming your health or your marriage over it?
Be honest about the fact that you may be aggrandizing the importance of your work or setting unrealistic expectations. If your manager puts too much pressure on you, then have a frank conversation with them. If you are the culprit, it's time to stop blaming others and recognize that your bad decisions led you to this place.
2. Be vulnerable and ask for help (do the scary stuff).
Support groups are a universal element of recovery programs because it's difficult to break an addiction alone. Without someone else to hold you accountable, it's easy to fall back into maladaptive patterns. Overcoming workaholism requires being vulnerable and asking for help from people you trust who are comfortable being honest with you. Embrace that their feedback is meant to help — not hurt — you. Becoming defensive will only delay your progress and may dissuade others from fully engaging in your journey to well-being.
Often, people fear that by asking for help, they're burdening others, but research shows that the opposite is true. In a study by Xuan Zhao of Stanford's SPARQ Research Center, "help-seekers underestimated how willing strangers – and even friends – would be to help them and how positive helpers would feel afterward." Furthermore, most people like helping others, but they may feel uncomfortable offering help without being asked for various reasons. "A direct request can remove those uncertainties," says Zhao, "It can also create emotional closeness when you realize someone trusts you enough to share their vulnerabilities."
3. Appreciate and stay present with "real" sources of connection in life.
In our digital age, the word "connection" has taken on a very different meaning. As a LinkedIn junkie, I have thousands of people with whom I stay connected through DMs, posts and comments. But would I reach out and confide in these thousands of connections with something deeply personal? Decidedly not. There are a handful of people with whom I'm genuinely connected. They are the people who get neglected when I'm answering work emails late into the night or attending Zoom conferences during "vacations."
These sources of authentic connection ground me and keep me focused on what truly matters. The validation I crave is already available to me with the loving people I hold dear. By opening my eyes to the present, I can appreciate how lucky I am to have family and friends with whom I can confide in, overcome challenges and enjoy just being with. This form of connection is healthy, healing and life-giving, and it's something I'm learning to stay more present with daily.
4. Practice routine values check-ins with yourself.
Because my calendar is my God, I schedule regular values check-ins with myself. This is time for me to assess how well I stay committed to my values. As I stated in this piece about bouncing back from rock bottom, strong leaders know who and what they value and bring these values to every decision they make. That shouldn't exclude decisions that affect you personally.
How you make decisions at work should mirror your decisions at home. If these two things aren't aligned, it's worth investigating why not. Why do you have different values at home than you do at work? Does your work environment allow you to be authentically you? Are you fabricating the requirement to bifurcate your home and work values? If so, why?
In my experience, abandoning your values is the surest way to fail in business. Whether at work or home, no one gets to make decisions for you except you. Empower yourself to be the protector of your own values. No one else has the responsibility or visibility to do it for you.
5. Regularly practice small acts of self-care until they become habitual.
Transformation doesn't happen overnight. Unless you're truly exceptional, you will not wake up one day relieved of all your workaholic behaviors. Appreciate that small steps, when repeated regularly, can equal meaningful change. In other words, the small stuff matters.
Setting boundaries is difficult for workaholics, so start by saying no to something small like a meeting for the sake of a meeting. Everyone has a meeting like this on their calendar. If it's a fun time to chit-chat with a colleague, then, by all means, enjoy it. If it takes away from time you could be spending for yourself, cancel it and don't feel bad about it. Like your values, no one can protect your own time but you.
Related: Vacation Tips From a Workaholic
When I'm reflecting on a challenge, it sometimes helps me laugh at myself, but issues of addiction — whether work or substance use related — can be dangerous and crippling. For more information on how to overcome workaholism, check out these resources below.