How to Break Your Work Addiction
Working more doesn't actually mean getting ahead-at your job, or in your personal life.
In 1914, just six years after the Ford Model T took America by storm, Henry Ford took a radical, revolutionary step: He doubled his workers' pay and cut shifts in his plants from nine hours to eight.
Not surprisingly, Ford's move was ridiculed by many at the time. But it didn't take long to prove his critics wrong. And to this day, in part thanks to Ford’s innovation, research shows the right amount of work can play a vital role in keeping workers healthy and productive.
What if more of us — especially those of us prone to work addiction — thought like Henry Ford?
The promises of work addiction are lies
Ford’s revolutionary decision took place more than half a century before anybody was talking about work addiction. American psychologist Wayne Oates first coined the term “workaholic” in 1971, defining it as “the uncontrollable need to work incessantly.”
But that piece of history reveals a timeless truth: When we work too much, everyone suffers, as shown in this Harvard Business Review article. I’ve personally felt — and given in to — this pressure at my own business. But there’s actually no evidence that working more has any real benefits for overall outcome. In one study, managers couldn’t tell the difference between workers who actually worked 80 hours a week versus workers who merely pretended to. Researchers found no evidence that working less meant accomplishing less, or vice versa.
Many of us focus obsessively on work because it feels good to have a purpose. Being talented at something and contributing to a larger cause can certainly improve our lives. But working too much can have the opposite effect. Studies suggest that overworking is linked to a number of health problems, including chronic stress, lack of sleep, substance abuse, and even depression. Overworking has also been shown to speed up cognitive decline and memory issues, which is counter to the work itself.
No one sets out to be a workaholic. When I stretched myself thin between a job at a software company and my JotForm side hustle, I was just trying to live up to expectations, while creating something useful. I ended up becoming less useful to everyone along the way. Here are some principles I learned — the same ones I practice today when I sense myself veering toward work addiction.
You can't please everyone all the time
A major reason I became a workoholic while launching JotForm was my definition of success: I wanted to please everyone. I didn’t want to let down my manager or colleagues at the software company I worked for (plus, I enjoyed my day job). But I also had aspirations to build my own software. Thinking I could do it all left me burned out.
If you think pleasing everyone will make you successful, remember that you’ll make fewer people happy in the long run if you burn out. Start by examining your capacity to give. When you are transparent with yourself and others about what you can and can’t do, you’ll produce better work and keep your sanity in tact.
Find meaning outside your job
As mentioned earlier, many of us devote our lives to work because it's satisfying to be good at something. It’s fun to be creative and solve problems, and it’s affirming to be needed. But it's important to have satisfying, creative outlets outside of work as well.
Find purpose in your personal life by investing time in relationships. Take up a hobby like writing, photography or painting to keep your creative juices flowing outside the office. Volunteer at a local organization so you feel like you’re helping people in a tangible way. It might feel counter-productive at first, since hobbies and relationships don’t always come with the same quantifiable rewards as pay raises or a new client. But over time, you'll have something to look forward to other than checking your email.
Break little habits
Breaking a work addiction isn’t just about changing your mindset. It requires altering habits, too. For example, if you show your colleagues, manager, and clients that you’re available after hours by answering calls or checking email on the weekend, you’re setting a precedent. People will expect you to be available at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday or on a Sunday morning, and you’ll perpetuate the cycle.
Think about how your everyday habits perpetuate your larger work behaviors, and then focus on correcting them. For example, when I want to keep my work in the office, I put my phone on "do not disturb" mode after after 6 p.m. and keep my laptop in my briefcase at home. This habit is small, but it trains me to be fully present when I’m with my family.
Start and end your days with something besides work
How you start your morning will set the tone for the rest of your day. If you check your work email before you roll out of bed, you’re “on” before you even get to the office. Social worker Melody Wilding encourages “book ending” your days with rituals that leave you feeling happy. “Begin the day with a morning ritual that leaves you feeling happy. It’ll help you create a sense of mastery and self-control, all before you step foot in the office or open your inbox,” she writes. “End the day with a fun activity so you have a reason to leave work on time. It also gives you something to look forward to and keeps rumination at bay.”
Ask yourself what really matters to you
Ultimately, how you spend your time reflects what you value. If you want to overcome your addiction to work, ask yourself why working less is important to you. How do you want to feel? What do you want to live for? Who do you want to spend more time with?
Remember: By reining in your work addiction, you’re not just working less. You're also improving your health, creativity, and productivity. You're making yourself more available for the things — and people — who matter most to you.