7 Thinking Mistakes Workaholics Make

Thinking shifts to break your workaholic habit.

Posted Apr 23, 2018

Source: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock

Faulty thinking patterns contribute to people staying stuck in workaholic habits when they'd like to break free. Let's unpack the most common thinking errors workaholics make, and the alternative thinking needed to move toward changing the habit of overworking.

1. You're waiting for the "right time" to scale back.

Problem thought pattern: You're continuously waiting for the right time to scale back, but that time never comes: There's always another project or opportunity that drives you to keep putting in long hours.

Cognitive Shift: Lead with behavior. Instead of waiting for the right time, take the leap. Some people believe they can't ever relax because of all the endless problems they have to deal with in their work. For other folks, FOMO (fear of missing out) on opportunities is what's stopping them relaxing. Which camp do you fall into?   

If it's FOMO, recognize that it's okay to miss some opportunities. Adopt an abundance mindset: There will always be more opportunities and more deals. And when you step back, you'll be in a better position to see the big picture and jump on the really big opportunities.   

If you overwork because endless work-related problems land in your lap, figure out what needs to happen so that your workload and expectations of yourself are reasonable. Recognize that if you don't solve a work problem immediately, it's unlikely to result in a catastrophe. Rather than problems leading to catastrophes, milder negative consequences are the more likely negative outcome, if any.

2. You think, "If I don't overwork, a disaster will ensue. My imposter status will be revealed."

Problem thought pattern: People who suffer from imposter syndrome often see overworking as the only thing that's protecting them from career disaster. They implicitly think. "If I don't overwork, my imposter status will be revealed."

Cognitive shift:  Recognize that the belief that overworking is protecting you from career disaster is a thinking error. Try the self-talk, "Hey, this is just my imposter syndrome showing up. My imposter syndrome is tricking me into an unhelpful pattern." Overworking is just as likely to be perceived by bosses and colleagues as a sign of incompetence. It looks as though you have poor organizational skills like you can't distinguish between what's important vs. unimportant, and/or like you're taking an excessively long time to get things done.

3. You believe you can overwork productively, even if other people can't.

Problem thought pattern: When people do something hazardous, they often (implicitly or explicitly) believe they're an exception to a rule. For example, people who text and drive think, "I'm a great driver. I can text safely." In a similar vein, people who overwork think they can overwork without diminishing productivity.  

Cognitive shift:  Recognize that the most likely scenario is that you're like everybody else. It's highly likely that if you're working long hours your marginal productivity will fall, to the point that working more yields very little benefit. There's some general evidence that, as a ballpark figure, this occurs around 50 hours per week.

4. You think, "I'll just do one more thing."

Problem thought pattern: Small patterns of thinking are often what adds up to overworking as a lifestyle. For example, you have a habit of thinking, "I'll just do one more thing." Your pattern might be starting new things when your existing responsibilities already require more than 40-50 hours per week.

Cognitive Shift: Learn to recognize thoughts like "I'll just do one more thing" when they arise and have a behavioral plan for how you'll respond.  Have some alternative self-talk ready, like, "I don't need to push myself to do this extra thing. It's not in my broader best interests to do so. I'm going to experiment with stopping before I'm completely exhausted rather than continuing to push myself. I'll see how that goes."

5. You don't understand the secondary gain you're getting from overworking.

Problem thought pattern: Sometimes people overwork because it helps them avoid things that are more emotionally challenging than working, or because it makes them feel more virtuous than other people. For example, you like to hold it over your spouse that you work long hours and therefore can't do the things they'd like you to do.

Cognitive Shift: Recognize the upsides and downsides of overworking so that you understand what's hooking you into that behavior.

6. You underestimate what you're missing out on by overworking.

Problem thought pattern: You think, "There will always be more time to spend with my kids, hike, read, etc." 

Cognitive Shift: People often don't do a good job of seeing the opportunity cost—that is, when by choosing option B, you give up option A. Become more explicitly mindful of what you and your family are missing out on when you're overworking. Think about this on a real-time basis. For example, "I could stay at work an extra hour or I could go home and kick a soccer ball with my kid."

7. You feel anxiety when you're not working.

Problem thought pattern: If you're in a pattern of overworking, you'll probably experience a spike of anxiety when you try to step back from that pattern. People often misinterpret this anxiety spike as a signal that they need to resume overworking.

Cognitive Shift: Recognize that a temporary spike in anxiety is a normal part of behavior change and not a sign that you're making the wrong choice. Stick to your plan and allow your emotions to settle on their own without intervention.

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