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Are You a Workaholic? Time to Take Charge of Your Work-life

How to control your work life rather than letting it control you.

Not all work is created equally. Tom works three jobs — day, evening and weekend — not because he wants to but because his jobs are minimum wage and the income from his 60-plus-hour weeks is how he and his family can make ends meet. Kathy works in the New York City fashion industry and when Fashion Week hits, she has been known to pull 110-hour weeks. Jake is the new graduate lawyer in the firm: He has a quota of billing hours to make and can’t afford to turn away any work if he wants to get a foothold in his career. He, too, is working his share of weekends.

Tom, Kathy, and Jake don’t consider themselves to be workaholics. The long hours they pull are externally driven by certainly their own goals but more by economics and shifting demands of the workplace. They would tell you that they would be very happy to cut back and have more times for themselves.

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While true workaholics will say that they are only doing what they have to keep up with the work or get ahead, they are, in contrast, more internally driven, a different kind of have-to, one driven by addictive qualities rather than reality demands. Like any addiction, the work is the monkey on their backs, the work running their lives, rather than them running their work.

And like a substance or even video-gaming addiction, what keeps it all going are some payoffs — money, periodic senses of achievement, but also, paradoxically, a sense of control: In spite of the working essentially controlling them, this is one area where they often do have a sense of mastery and control and familiarity compared to other areas of their lives.

As with the other addictions, we can look at workaholism as a bad solution to possible other problems beneath. Here are some of common driving sources:

It’s your identity

I am a ____________. Here the person fills it in with his job, her profession, and it fills up 92% of who they see themselves to be. Again, what feeds this is success, or the desire for success, and control. This is where folks whose lives were so work-centered crash when they retire (if they ever do): If I’m not x, who / what am I?

You only have one basket

This is related to the first. Not only is your job your identity, but, if truth be told, you don’t have much of a life outside of your work — few friends, few real outside interests that engage you the way work can. Without much “out there” going on, work becomes the default thing you do. Downtime on the weekend? You go into the office, a good time to go, you say, because it’s quiet then and you need to get ready for Monday.

You use work to avoid

Your marriage is lacking in a lot of ways, but you don’t go there. The kids can drive you crazy; all you do is feel overwhelmed, depressed, frustrated, or sidelined (because you’re so rarely home) that why bother going there. Again, work is where you have control, get the stimulation that you want and know. It makes up for these other problems are just too messy and complicated and frustrating to deal with.

You’re anxious

You work all the time because you’re always worried. Even though you have enough money you worry it’s not enough. Even though the work is steady you’re worried that somehow it will all come crashing down. You wake up regularly at 3 am imaging all kinds of worse-case scenarios.

This is usually about hypervigilance. If you grew up in a chaotic, emotionally unstable home, you instinctively learned to look out for and mentally prepare yourself for the worse. That’s how you survived. The problem now is that those brain circuits are still firing, that same coping style is still firmly in place. Even though your world is now safer, even though you now are an adult with more control, it takes little for fear to rear up. Like the 6-year-old you once were, you still are always looking around corners, bracing yourself for the worse, driven by ever-present anxiety to keep going.

Can you have more than one of these drivers? Absolutely.

Breaking the Cycle

If you want to break this cycle if you feel you are working too hard, or are truly work-addicted, it’s time to step back. Start by asking yourself these questions:

  • What are you working for? Why? Don’t say to support my family unless that is the only reason. What you’re trying to uncover here are those other possible sources for your driven-ness. What’s your goal? Is this truly your goal or one imposed upon you by the expectations of others — your parents, your partner?
  • What’s your fear if you were to work less? Here you tap into your anxieties: That your business or career will flop? That you will somehow wind up a loser? That your life will inexplicably collapse? The fear may be rational or irrational but you want to know what is that big fear that keeps pushing you.
  • What are you avoiding? Intentionally or not, what does your life allow you to push to the back-burner of your life both in terms of positive opportunities, and more importantly, negative ones like those unaddressed problems.
  • What is your ideal life? If you weren’t so caught up of the quagmire that has become your life, if you were to start over from scratch what would be your ideal life? Think here not in terms of things you want — the big house, car, etc., — but more simply in terms of what you would ideally want to do in a day, a week. How would you ideally want to balance and spend your time? What would be a perfect day?

Action Steps

  • Step back and do a realistic assessment.

This is about putting your rational brain in gear rather than running on habit and anxiety. Here you may want to crunch numbers, reassess your 1-year, 5-year plan. If you cut back on work hours, will you really lose clients or customers, will your work world collapse? If this is too overwhelming to think about, if you are too much in the weeds of it all, you may want to find or hire an outside person who can look at it more objectively.

Unlike, say alcohol addiction, you don’t need to go cold turkey, nor is that obviously practical and possible to do so. That said, you can experiment with skipping those weekend office hours, try coming home earlier.

The aim here is to help you realize that what your anxious mind is telling you will happen, doesn’t. By taking baby-steps towards changing your habits, your confidence goes up.

  • Time to tackle what you’re avoiding.

Time to talk about the elephants in the room — the problems in your relationships, your struggle with the kids. Plan half-hour “business” meetings to get things on the table, come up with a behavioral plan for change. Your goal is pretend you’re at work, stay sane, rational, stay focused on the present and future rather than the past. If this is too overwhelming or difficult, consider couple or family therapy.

  • Time to tackle your anxiety.

If you have generalized anxiety disorder, your obsession about work is likely your default place your anxiety goes. Even if work were more settled, it's likely that your anxiety would likely move towards some other weak-spot in your life. You want to treat the underlying, chronic anxiety that's driving it all. Here you can consider low-dose medication or cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Similarly, if you are in transition — say, in the middle of a divorce — it’s easy to throw yourself into work because again it is one area where you likely feel more in control and competent when other areas of your life are understandably going to pot. If this is the case, here too you may want to consider medication or therapy to help you better cope with the stress.

  • Brainstorm and experiment.

Remember when you used to enjoy playing softball or playing music? If you are work-obsessed and your life has narrowed to that one work basket, it’s time to begin looking for other ones to help you create a more balanced and diverse life. Brainstorm, think back to other things you may have enjoyed in the past, or nurture any new ideas of catch your fancy (think back to your ideal life). And then experiment: Join that softball team for few weeks or pick up that old guitar and sign up for a few lessons to jump-start you back into it.

That said, expect, as it is when coming off any addiction, that these new activities are likely to not give you the stim and juice that you got from work when it was going well. That’s to be expected, it’s part of the transition. Stick with it, or try something else that fits you better.

  • Expect to feel guilty and anxious.

Emotions always lag behind behaviors and it will take a while for those new brain circuits to override the well-worn old ones. It is the guilt and anxiety that has running you all these years and like hyperactive guard dogs, they are likely to be barking louder than usual initially. Eventually they will calm down.

  • Be patient.

A lot is going on here, in your brain, in your relationships, in your habits and lifestyle. Think of this as a reclamation/renewal project. Give yourself six months for it all to begin to feel okay, to begin to settle in as a new reality.

And if you’re a partner living with a workaholic

You may be resigned to this is just how your partner is, or you have mixed feelings — that you don’t like the long hours but also do enjoy the benefits, or you know there are problems that are not being addressed but it’s understandably all too easy to just not go there.

You can help by going there, by speaking up and talking about the elephants in the room, about your own feelings, your own dreams and visions. You’re breaking the code of silence that so easily has become your reality over time. You want to be clear, you want to be kind, you want to talk about worry rather than anger, but you want to talk. Again, if difficult, suggest a short stint of couple or family therapy to have a safe place to get these issues on the table.

If you’ve gotten this far, you’re likely already halfway there in tackling this problem: Ready for a change?

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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