I’ve always been busy and achievement-oriented; I was the college kid with a high GPA, multiple on-campus jobs, and a full course load. When I graduated, it was only natural that my industriousness would continue into adult life, but I was still struggling to make ends meet, so I started working more and more hours. I relocated to a larger city with more opportunities, took on two part-time jobs—one an overnight shift—and redoubled my efforts.
It wasn’t long before this perseverance became a real problem. For two years, I had a near-constant headache and neglected my relationship. When my partner and I went out for a dinner date, I was unable to leave work behind—I was always concerned that a client might email me. I stopped doing things I loved, including spending time outside, reading for fun, and connecting with friends. Finally, I reached a breaking point: I physically couldn’t keep up with the pace I’d been setting for myself and started missing deadlines. I was constantly sick. I realized I’d lost control and finally admitted that I had a problem... even as peers continued to compliment me for my ability to work so much.
It took me months to start changing course. Like many in my generation, I still had six-figure student loan debt, but when I was being honest with myself, I knew that stability would elude me until I changed my habits to make them more sustainable.
Finally, nearly a year after I first began to flounder, I'm in the process of making some concrete changes, so I can get more enjoyment out of time I spend doing something other than work. Here's what I'm doing… if you're going through something similar, these tips might help you too.
1. Put self-care on the schedule.
For people battling work addiction, any time spent outside of work can be anxiety-inducing, but self-care is vitally important. It's still hard for me to relax, so for now, I’m focusing on activities like horseback riding that demand my full attention, so I can't get distracted. When I’m riding, if I don’t focus on the moment, my ride can be less than enjoyable at best, and dangerous at worst. I'm still working toward enjoying unstructured time—right now it makes me very uncomfortable to have nothing on the schedule—but my hope is that by getting more comfortable with not working, I can get more comfortable with actual leisure.
2. Learn to unplug.
A big part of learning how to be engaged in the world outside of my work has been to commit to other activities and to hold myself accountable, so I'm spending a minimum of one hour per week unplugged—my phone is not allowed to come with me on a date, a hike, a class, or any other activity. During that time, I just can't work. My goal is to eventually be in a place where I don't actually need to schedule that time and to learn how to push work completely out of my mind when there's nothing I can do about it.
3. Learn to change the way you talk to yourself.
For me, the hardest part about addressing my addiction to work is the whirlwind of feelings every time I work… and every time I try to take a step back. Like most people in this world, my financial situation makes it impossible for me to go cold turkey, so it is crucial that I have help learning to manage my emotions. The biggest struggle I have is feeling guilty whenever I take time for myself. I have a hard time focusing on activities that are important to non-work-related parts of my life.
My first goal in therapy is to learn to deal with the guilt. We discuss where it comes from, and I'm learning to change the way I talk to myself. While I still often find myself thinking things like, “You’re being lazy and wasting time. You could be working and earning money right now,” or “You’re broke! How can you afford to just sit around doing nothing?” I'm actively working on interrupting those thoughts with new ones like, “You are not doing this alone. Let your partner help,” and “No one can work 24 hours a day. You are not being lazy by letting your mind rest.” One of the most important things to remember is that taking real breaks actually helps me be more productive when I am working.
4. Recruit supporters.
One of the most isolating aspects of work addiction is that being hard-working and industrious is seen as virtuous, even when it’s out of control. There are always people complimenting my ability to focus for long hours. It’s nice to feel admired, but these people unintentionally reinforce my addiction instead of helping me change habits. When I decided to make a change, I talked to my partner and my mother about what I was dealing with, and about what I was trying to do. I asked them to help me hold myself accountable for taking time to do other things. And they’ve been doing it. They remind me that the work will still be there when I come back, that my bank account is doing OK, and that taking a break will help me be more productive later. They also commit to coming with me to non-work-related activities if they can make the time.
5. Set firm boundaries.
One of the hardest things is that these days, there are lots (and lots) of tools that allow you to work from almost anywhere, and I was taking full advantage of them. One of the most important steps I've taken is removing my work email account from my phone. If I'm not in my office, I'm not checking or responding. I thought that by making this change, my career would suffer—after all, who would want to work with someone who doesn't get back to them right away? But what I found instead is that it didn't take long for my boss and coworkers to get on board... and even take similar steps themselves.
6. Learn to delegate and say no.
Last year, if my staff had come to me with a big project idea—like securing grant funding to make important changes—I would have tackled the project almost all on my own. I would have researched options, scheduled meetings, written proposals, and sent them out, asking my team for their feedback occasionally and then calling it a collaborative effort.
But last month, when my staff asked what we could do to improve our workplace, I turned the question back on them, asking what they would like to see happen and what they thought was possible. The result so far has been that my employees have come up with some very creative solutions that my company might actually be able to implement, and I'm not overworked trying to make it happen. Instead of taking on the whole project, I offered my mentorship and material support when they needed it, but let them handle any tasks they wanted to try themselves.
I still struggle with wanting to take it all on, and I find myself resisting putting too much time into projects that really belong in someone else’s hands, but I keep reminding myself that letting them do their thing is giving my staff ownership over our workplace, and showing them that I have confidence in their abilities. The sky is not falling. In fact, it's been great—both my staff and I are thriving.