Work Long Hours? How to Survive and Thrive.
How to avoid feeling depressed and miserable when you're overworking.
Posted March 9, 2018
Choosing to work long hours is a mixed bag. Working hard can contribute to your success. You gain skills and experience fast, and you develop your grit. Working hard can also feel very rewarding if you value and enjoy your work.
On the flip side, you can also burnout, harm your relationships, and make poor decisions in your work because you're not giving yourself a chance to step back and see the big picture. Prioritizing work often means de-prioritizing other areas, including health.
Let's look at strategies that can help you you work long hours (at least for periods of time) and still feel happy and healthy.
1. Find short cut versions of self-care techniques.
- No time to do a 40 minute meditation? Try take a few slow, mindful breaths every time you're sitting in the bathroom.
- No time for the gym? Try taking the stairs anytime there is an opportunity to do so.
- No energy for yoga class? Learn some yin yoga (restorative) poses that you can do at home. Do one pose that you hold for five minutes each evening while your dinner is microwaving.
- No time to cook? Find healthier but still tasty versions of pre-prepared meals. Find what's easy and nutritious, like adding an avocado to frozen burrito.
2. Use routines that prevent being busy and distracted leading to unnecessary stress.
When you're busy you can start to act in ways that generate unnecessary additional stress, such as rushing and forgetting something important. Utilizing routines can help prevent this.
For example, having limited time to invest in relationships can result your romantic partner becoming grumpy. To avoid this, you might have a routine of leaving your phone in your entrance way and giving your partner ten minutes of your undivided attention when you walk in the door from work.
Especially if you have kids, considering using a checklist to help you not forget the things you need to do each morning. Include items that apply to specific days of the week, like days your children need gym clothes.
Once you have a routine you can optimize it, which you can't do if you don't have a routine to start with.
Also, ask yourself what you need to in the evenings to reduce your morning stress such as laying your clothes out, packing lunch, or charging your devices.
3. Identify ways to fit in experiences of personal enjoyment.
Just like there are fast versions of self care, there are also scaled down versions of enjoyable activities. Here are tips for fitting pleasure into a busy life:
- Pick options that are less likely to lead to bingeing and going to bed too late. For example, podcasts might work better than TV. Small behavior tweaks can make a difference. Personally I find that if I cast videos to my TV, I'm less likely to binge watch than if I watch on my laptop.
- You may not be able to fit in a vacation, but a day or Saturday night trip to hike in a National (or State) Park might be a more realistic possibility.
- Again, routines can also help, such as having set times to see friends so that you don't need to organize meet ups, which takes time and energy. If your work is unpredictable, you may need to change plans but by having very advanced/set plans, you're more likely to be able to keep that time blocked off and plan around it.
- Knowing yourself well is important. For example, you might know that catching up with friends for an after work drink on a Friday feels nurturing even though you're busy, whereas having people over for dinner feels too stressful.
A benefit of working hard comes from the Premack principle, which is that anything that you want to do more can reward anything you want to do less. If I'm working very hard, any type of break feels like a reward. A trip to the outlet mall to buy shorts can feel like a reward, whereas at other times the same activity might feel like a chore.
4. Have extras of needed items to reduce stress.
- Keep extra snacks and clothes at work to prevent disruptions to your self care. For example, you might keep a pair of sneakers at work so you can take a lunch time walk without needing to remember to bring your sneakers to the office.
- Have extras of items that tend to wander like chargers or charging cords.
- If there is something you rely on that will likely break at some point, have a spare. This includes items that relate to your pleasure/self care. For example, extra headphones.
- Another example - I keep $20 stashed in my glove compartment for the couple of times a year when I manage to leave the house without my purse.
- The last thing you'll want to do when you're working long hours is make a trip to the store because you've run out of a single item, like Tylenol or toilet paper. Keep a stockpile of anything where running out would necessitate going to the store straight away.
5. Step back when you're finding it hard to see the big picture.
Sometimes working long hours can lead to being ineffective, especially if you keep grinding away when what you really need to do is mentally step back and get perspective on what you're doing.
Recognize if this is happening and take the occasional full day or full weekend off once in awhile.
Even very small changes in your routine can help you mentally step back and get more perspective, especially if they involve opportunities to interact with different people or being in a different physical environment. For the latter, this could be as simple as going to a movie by yourself after work, if that's something you'd never normally do.
Many of us need (or want) to work long hours for periods of time. There will always be opportunity cost to doing this, but there are ways you can minimize the potential harm of overworking. By understanding the benefits you're getting from working hard and by minimizing stress-generating behaviors (like being distracted and forgetting needed items, or running late and getting a speeding ticket) working long hours will feel easier to cope with and less of a sacrifice. Your perception is important. Stress that we feel we can cope with is much less harmful than stress that we feel we can't cope with.
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