I find the workaholic psychology to be rather complex. It took me a long time to realize that I even was a workaholic. And even longer to finally WANT TO LET GO.
Now, I don’t want to be a workaholic anymore. But after many failed attempts to slow down, I can tell you this is more difficult than I had expected.
So, how can you stop being a workaholic and enjoy life more?
Here are the steps I recommend taking…
1. Examine Your Identity
Have You Always Been A Workaholic?
If you are reading this, you’ve probably been a workaholic for a while.
I have been a workaholic for so long, it feels like I have always been that way.
But that’s actually IMPOSSIBLE. You cannot be workaholic as a young child, can you? Hah
So, when did it all start?
In my case, it started when I was about 18…
Before this, I was this joyful kid who watched LOADS of useless TV series (Superman, and later, Smallville, were my preferred ones), played Basketball, spent lots of time painting in the summer and loved spending time with friends, chatting about everything. And I almost never read books. Just not a reader.
How were you as a kid? What did you enjoy doing? How did you spend your time?
Can you remember what it felt like NOT to be a workaholic?
How Did You Become A Workaholic?
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Now that you REMEMBER being different, it’s important to understand WHO you have become and WHY you have decided to integrate the “WORKAHOLIC FEATURE” into your identity.
I’ll give you my example.
At age 17, I left to study in Paris. I picked a study path which was not based on my personal preferences. To the contrary.
It’s like I needed to prove myself that I could study something that did not interest me and at a really difficult level.
During my first year of studies, I felt really stuck. Most classes were really difficult and demanding, and I felt like a failure most of the time.
Did I make the right decision taking this study path? Should I quit right now or keep going?
One of my main problems is that I did not really know how to learn stuff by myself. Let alone doing this for topics that really were not my cup of tea.
I kept postponing the work and remained indecisive until the end of that first year of study.
And then, something happened. I got accepted into the second year. At this stage, I knew I had to make a decision:
“All in, or all out.”
So, I decided to go ALL IN. It was June, and there was only about one last week left until summer break. But it did not matter.
That’s when I decided to become a workaholic. That week, I stayed in the classroom late every day, learning, learning, learning.
What about you? Did you need to prove something? Or was it the need for money? Or the need to fit in?…
When did you switch ON the WORK MODE, and why?
What stories do you tell yourself?
By now, you’ve probably built up an entire story in your head around your workaholic identity.
WORKING SO HARD probably makes you feel better about yourself in some way.
What’s this story you are telling yourself?
I’ve always been surrounded by workaholics. My dad, my mom, my grandparents…
It seemed to me like the BEST ADULTS in the world HAD to be workaholics.
One of my grandma’s main criteria to praise someone was: “he/she is amazing, he/she is SUCH a HARD WORKER”.
And once my time had come to prove that I was a “good adult”, I transferred their stories about work into my own identity.
This was then reinforced by my university. And, later, by the work culture surrounding me.
At my first job in finance, it often felt like there was no limit to the hours and commitment one “should” make. Bonus points for those unable to say “no”, and ready to sacrifice their evening. No matter how spontaneous and tedious a task could be.
So, the story I ended up telling myself was:
If I don’t work really hard, I am a BAD and UNWORTHY person.
There you go. For me, SELF-LOVE was equal to HARD WORK. Tricky, huh?
What about you? Does working hard make you feel better about yourself for similar reasons?
TRY To Take The Decision
Now, if you are here reading this, you have probably noticed that there are QUITE A FEW DOWNSIDES to being a workaholic, right?
And you want to stop that. You want to enjoy your life more, without feeling bad about it.
But you still want to work a lot. A LOT.
Whyyyyyy is it so HARD to stop working so much?
Because it’s a part of your identity now.
If you want to stop being a workaholic, you first have to work on your DECISION.
Over the next couple of days, TRY to LET GO. Plan ahead. For instance, you could declare that… “tomorrow, I will work only until 5 pm.”
You most certainly will not be able to stick to your plan fully the first few times. And that’s OK. It’s all a process and HABITS don’t just change like that, from one day to another.
If you feel like you are still RESISTING the decision to stop being a workaholic, that’s also great. It gives you the opportunity to dig deeper.
Why are you resisting? There are most probably FEARS that are hiding somewhere…
My guess is that you are probably subject to:
- the fear of change. Your brain is a lazy habit monster. It will resist any new behavioural pattern you are trying to adopt. And you are trying to change YOUR IDENTITY. That’s a big deal. Limiting your work hours will cause a big VOID. How will you fill it?
- the fear of what others may think of you, now. You are becoming a NEW PERSON. Will they still love or accept you after such a big shift?
Combatting Your Fears
To combat these fears, I had to learn that my personal identity does NOT REVOLVE around WORK. Several steps helped me get there:
- Realizing that I can do a lot more than just work.
Hobbies, sports, learning, socializing.
When there is NO work, there’s still plenty to do and my life still makes sense.
I’m still me, even when I don’t work.
- Being able to be alone.
Yep. Because, if you are a very social person, then what others think of you is VERY IMPORTANT.
By working more, we sometimes hope to get more recognition from others.
And our society gives WORK a very central place. That’s due to the value system which is currently in place.
Hard workers are good people, remember?
And if you NEED OTHERS to fill your void and feel happy, ain’t it a great shortcut being a GOOD, HARD WORKER?
So when you LEARN to be HAPPY ALONE, all of a sudden, what others think of you becomes LESS IMPORTANT.
Meditation helped me a lot on that one. One day, I realized that, with a bit of practice, I could change my mood!
From angry to peaceful, from sad to happy, from overwhelm to serenity. In half an hour.
It gave me so much control back over my life.
2. Work On Your WHY
Those steps caused a major shift for me. But they weren’t enough yet to change me.
If you want to stop being a workaholic, you need to work on your WHY.
WHY do you want to STOP WORKING so much?
If your WHY is not strong enough, your other fears (especially the fear of rejection) will get the best of you.
Use BIGGER Fears
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Your brain is often driven by FEAR. Especially fear of change.
So, a very powerful way to move forward is to VIRTUALLY CREATE AN EVEN BIGGER FEAR:
The FEAR of NOT CHANGING.
How would that work?
You’ve got to look at all the negative effects your workaholic behaviour may have in the future. Write them all down, and pick 3 to 5 that deeply trigger your emotions.
It’s really important that you ANCHOR your WHY and your FEAR of NOT changing into your emotions. You must cultivate a WHY that is strong enough and can help you JUSTIFY your new behaviour in front of others as well.
Because, believe me, you will have weak moments when you will fallback and think other people’s opinion matters more than your own HEALTH and sanity.
Maybe at this stage, you want to know which story was strong enough for me to make REAL PROGRESS and start working less.
Well, for me it’s HEALTH. In a previous post, I told the story of how I pushed myself a little too hard and ended up in the hospital, in the past, while trying to build my first online business.
Back then, I was too proud to admit that it was due to self-inflicted stress. It took me a few more run-tests to finally realize that I should simply TAKE IT EASIER if I didn’t want to end up in pain and unable to do ANYTHING all the time.
But the funny thing is, you tend to forget the bad times when you feel better.
That’s why you NEED to cultivate this FEAR of the future consequences of workaholism for some time. Until it stuck and you finally start working less.
List Up Specific FEARS: What Will You Miss Out On If You Keep Being A Workaholic?
So, let’s work on this list together.
Be SPECIFIC and IMPACTFUL. You can’t just list your reasons neutrally. You need to picture a whole story behind it.
Remember, your brain has to FEAR the consequences of working too hard.
Here are a few ideas. Everyone is really different, so don’t judge, just pick THE reason(s) that trigger the strongest fear and emotions…
1. Mental health
Remember the beautiful world of hard workers? Well, in the meantime we’ve clearly experienced the downsides of it.
The stress epidemic is taking over. Anxiety, depressions, burnouts, suicides…
However, there are many ways to go against this. And as you may have guessed, working, even more, is not one of them!
Using your free time for your relationships, physical activity, meditation… will help you keep your sanity.
2. Physical health
Constant levels of high stress can profoundly impact your body. It’s natural to have little spikes of stress every now and then. We were built to cope with that. But once the stress level keeps being high over a longer period, your body will suffer the consequences.
If you have been accumulating signs of physical health degradation, this story could be enough to motivate you to CHANGE.
What’s your fear around this? Mine is to be forced to lie in bed for weeks, unable to do anything with my life.
3. General fitness
Many workaholics tend to neglect their body.
When you don’t find the time to take care of yourself because you’re TOO BUSY WORKING, you can end up…
- eating unhealthily: fast foods, processed foods, snacks. Anything that doesn’t require cooking and can be ready right away.
- doing no physical activity at all. NO TIME TO LOSE! So you take your car to go everywhere, the lift to come up and down. And you’ve got this gym membership but you’ve been there only once over the last 3 months. Am I right? 10,000 steps a day? Those crazy doctors don’t know what they’re talking about, huh?
- sleeping too little. You come back home late. You’re tired but your stress level is too high, you can’t sleep. Plus you’ve been irradiating your computer’s blue light all over your face for the last 12 hours. No wonder your body thinks it’s the middle of the day.
The list goes on. If you keep being a workaholic like this, you may have trouble walking a simple flight of stairs or going for a walk with your kids someday not too far in the future.
Of course, you could start looking chubby and feel less and less at ease in your body.
Don’t let this happen!
4. Your relationships
Here are a few FEAR stories that you can use for your WHY:
- You will miss out on how your children are growing.
- Maybe you and your partner or spouse will grow apart.
- Some friends will grow tired of you never showing up. Your social circle will become smaller, and smaller. Until one day, when you need help, you realize that there is no one you can call.
Relationships require time and energy. They’re an investment. Probably one of the BEST investments you can make.
5. Your long-term performance
I love it when people think they get MORE done when they stay in for hours and hours of overtime.
Quantity is certainly a way to measure your work contribution. But what about QUALITY?
I’ve seen people make major mistakes that could cost the client millions when they were dead tired, still at work way past midnight.
Do you really believe that you are superhuman?
We all need to sleep. And in the meantime, science has proven that our brain performs best when we are well-rested.
If you’re afraid of under-performing at work, this could be the perfect story for you. CULTIVATE THE FEAR of failing because you are too tired.
6. Killing your creativity
Creativity can be cultivated by learning new things, getting out of your comfort zone and varying your input.
A workaholic attitude can cause you to focus only on work. If your work is not diverse enough, you may, however, be staying in your comfort zone more than you think.
Free time is important so that you can have leisure activities and stimulate your brain in many different ways.
7. Never realizing your dreams
That’s also a strong motivator for me.
Are there any things that you’ve always dreamt of doing, but never had enough time to do?
Travelling, learning to dance, singing, learning a new language, painting, volunteering in Africa for a few weeks or months…?
What do you think you will regret most when you’re 80? Not working enough?
8. Becoming inflexible and paralysed by change
I’ve seen this happen to family and friends. They work in the same area for years and years.
They specialize in an area and 10 years later, they think that’s all they’re capable of. Because they spent all their energy on THIS job.
Their brain has grown so AFRAID of change that they are literally paralysed.
Having enough time outside of work to cultivate other types of skills can help you stay mentally fit and flexible. It will also give you the sense that there are “other things in life” than just this one job.
Which leads me to my last idea on this brainstorm list…
9. Having no other “reason to live”
Don’t get to the point where your work is everything.
If that’s your tendency, I highly recommend you do a little mental experiment. What if you got laid off? And what if your job got replaced by a computer? What if…?
Then you’d be glad you kept your health, family, friends and hobbies…
Make The Story Your Own
Once you have picked ONE FEAR, build up the story around it that emotionally triggers you the most. Try to visualize it and feel the pain that would come into your life if you keep being a workaholic.
Once you have done this, take a few minutes to figure out how to FORMULATE your reason to others. You can work on 2 versions of this:
- a longer version, consisting of a couple of sentences.
- a very short version: one sentence that reflects your strong WHY and immediately communicates a STRONG REASON and FEAR to others. So much so that it makes them think about their own behaviour.
For the shorter version, my example would be: “stress literally makes me sick to the point that I cannot do ANYTHING anymore”. How can you argue with that?
It’s important to have this sentence ready because you will want to tell it to OTHERS when you feel misunderstood or rejected. But you will also want to tell it to YOURSELF when you feel like the voice of others is “virtually” taking over via your inner critic.
3. Take Time Off And See How It Feels.
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Now that you’ve got your WHY and have built a STRONG STORY around it, do it. TAKE SOME TIME OFF.
You can start with a truly relaxing weekend. Or a full week of vacation. Better yet, take a sabbatical for however long you can: 3 months, or even one year…?
But what’s really important here is to OBSERVE yourself during your time off. Are you trying to be productive in a workaholic way, even when you’re not at work? Or do you manage to totally come down and relax?
The workaholic pattern is hard to get rid of.
When I took a sabbatical year in the past, I tried to use it as productively as possible. That was already a sign that I was NOT READY to let go of my workaholism.
I spent 3 months in Brazil, learning Portuguese and surfing, and using my spare time to do oil paintings.
Then I lived in Melbourne for about 3 months, writing a book!
And, finally, I spent about 3 months in China, taking intensive Mandarin classes (4 hours a day) to learn the language as quickly as possible.
Of course, those projects were hobbies of mine and not work-related.
But the WAY I approached the whole SABBATICAL YEAR adventure was very structured and oriented towards being PRODUCTIVE. I hadn’t switched off the workaholic mode yet.
What about you? How do you FEEL when you take time off?
- Do you feel guilty that you are not being productive?
- Are you overcompensating with activities that feel productive?
- How does it feel to be able to dive into your hobbies?
- … Do you want more of this?
4. The Half-Day Sabbatical: Incorporating A Bit Of Sabbatical In Your Daily Routine
Well, here is the TRICKY PART.
Coming down, relaxing and switching off your work mode is EASY when you go on a weekend, take a vacation or even a sabbatical year.
What I’ve found really HARD over the past years was to NOT FALL BACK INTO WORKAHOLISM once I’m back in my regular routine. That’s sooooo hard, seriously!
It’s like I’m either IN or OUT.
And when I am IN, I tend to overdo it. So much so that my stress levels rise up quickly again and it impacts my body and mind.
Why do I do this? Well, it’s a pattern I learned when studying and at work. Everything felt both urgent and important back then.
With time, I’ve gotten better at filtering out the ONE or two elements that are really important in my work. So that I can prioritize and not feel overwhelmed by the number of tasks I “SHOULD” be doing.
Most Things Are Not As Urgent As You Think
But I still find it hard to take out the sense of URGENCY from work.
This translates into the desire to KEEP ON WORKING. Let’s say I decide to work 4 very productive hours tomorrow. I like to time this using the Pomodoro technique. Well, when time’s up I go: “I could work a little more…”
And then I keep working until my brain doesn’t function well anymore or my willpower runs out. In both cases, I end up getting frustrated. I stick around my computer doing semi-productive things to give me the feeling that I am still working…
When instead, I could have stopped at 4 hours and get the best of both worlds. I would have had a lot of time to enjoy my day and it would have refreshed my brain, big time. Getting back to work with pleasure the next day.
Sending The Wrong Signals
I also found out that tricking yourself into working more all the time sends bad subconscious signals.
If you were so focused and productive that you managed to do your task in 3 hours instead of 4, maybe you could REWARD YOURSELF with this extra hour you’ve just won. Instead of forcing in a new task in your schedule, which will most likely end up frustrating you.
If you are not rewarding yourself for being productive, your brain will find no reason to be really productive in the first place!
You end up with a TRUE WASTE OF TIME. You work longer hours, get less done, feel frustrated AND have less free time.
What about you? Once you’re back at work, can you stop yourself after a few hours and actually ENJOY LIFE?
And by that, I mean doing something for yourself with NO PRODUCTIVITY mindset in the back of your head?
Switching Your Mindset
What really helped me do a major BREAKTHROUGH against my workaholism was the IDEA of a HALF-DAY SABBATICAL.
And I must say that I only managed to get to this point because my WHY has become strong enough. Seriously, I am DONE having stress-induced health issues that take my precious time away.
Since I was having a hard time stopping myself, I decided to go on a SABBATICAL AGAIN. But this time, I can’t afford not to work for a year. I am building a business and I’ve only got a limited amount of time until I run out of money.
But a HALF-DAY SABBATICAL definitely is possible. Working 4 to 6 very productive hours per day, and then doing whatever I want.
Of course, it’s just a way to NAME THINGS. But it helped me a lot actually STOP working and enjoy my free time.
It’s this MAGICAL idea that the world of possibilities is open since half of my day is a SABBATICAL.
It made me realize that I can do all the things I want to do NOW, and I don’t have to wait until I can gather enough time and money to escape for a whole year again.
So far, I’ve used this time for meditation, walks in the autumn or winter sun, yoga, audiobooks…
I still have some moments of weakness, when I work much more than I should in a row. But I quickly slow myself down again, because there’s my half-day sabbatical, waiting for me… right after work.