Many years ago, I went to visit my entrepreneur friend in his office. He gave me a cup of hot tea from his pantry and went straight back to his desk to work. I was standing around and feeling a bit lost. He didn’t give me any instruction where to sit and there wasn’t an empty seat near his desk. What’s worse is the cup of tea was burning in my hands!

Fortunately, one of his staffs was aware and kind enough to give up her seat, so I sat directly in front of my friend. But my friend was still signing cheques and talking to his subordinates as though I wasn’t there. Sipping my hot tea slowly, I was wondering why am I there watching my friend work.

Since then, I had a rule: Never visit my friends in the office again… at least not when they are working.

Do you have the disease of being busy?

In today’s hectic life, busyness seems to be the craze. If you are not busy, you are not living your life to the fullest. People don’t ask me, “How have you been?” anymore. They asked me, “What are you busy with?” It’s as though that what I’m doing is more important than my well-being.

Some people even told me that I should get a full-time job, I’m not living to my full potential, I’m not reaching my goals fast enough, I’m not working hard enough, and etc. That always leaves me puzzled because, in my mind, I’m pretty hardworking.

In fact, I find that I overwork sometimes and I ought to work less. For example this month, I had three jobs. In the morning, I write. In the afternoon, I help my ex-company with their accounts temporarily. And at night, I have to teach. There is hardly any time to take a break.

Every now and then, I wonder: Does life really have to be so busy? What is everyone hustling for? And why do some people just can’t stop working?

Why Are You Working So Much?

Everyone knows the effects of working too hard. It can be detrimental to other parts of our life such as our health and relationships. But yet we continue to work endlessly, why is this so?

Being busy has never been one of my goals in life.

I have many goals in my life. But the last time I checked, “being busy” isn’t one of them. I doubt it’s one of your goals either. Excluding the reason that working long hours is part of your job requirements, the reasons why people work so much is mainly psychological. Being busy has become a habit to help us avoid unpleasant feelings such as shame and guilt. Working hard can also help us escape problems that we didn’t want to face such as relationships and family issues.

The reason why one overwork might be totally different from you. You have to ask yourself and delve deeper: What are you working so much? Below are just two broad reasons why people are so addicted to being busy.

1. You feel worthy when you achieve and perform.

Some people work very hard to avoid feeling unworthy and empty. Sometimes, it’s difficult to see it for yourself, especially if you are an achievement-driven person. It’s easy for you to justify your workaholism as your passion and motivation to excel and be better.

There is actually nothing wrong with working hard and achieving your dreams. It only becomes an issue when you use it to cover any sense of unworthiness. Instead of facing these feelings upfront, you use your achievements to tell you how worthy you are. As I mentioned before, this is condition-based self-esteem. Feeling good about yourself only when you are working hard and achieving doesn’t give you have high self-esteem.

Achievement is a good shield for our feeling of unworthiness.

When you were young, your parents might have put too much emphasis on getting good results. You were praised only when you achieved. When you didn’t live up to their expectations, they either scorned or didn’t give you any attention. Working hard and getting recognized for your achievements has become a habit you have developed to make you feel worthy of yourself.

2. You feel guilty when you are not working on something.

It’s not always our internal motivation that causes us to work more. Sometimes, it is external influences. We might think:

  • What will other people think of me if I leave work early or don’t work as hard?
  • Will my colleagues able to handle their work without me?
  • I feel bad if I don’t help my colleagues with their work.

Peer pressure might make us overwork. If everyone in the office is working late and busy, some of us feel guilty to leave work on time and feel uncomfortable to have nothing to do. So even if you don’t have any productive things to do, you might create extra work for yourself just to make yourself look hardworking.

Also, for perfectionists, it might be the fear of making mistakes and letting others know about your mistakes. When you nitpick, you focus too much on unnecessary details and you end up doing more than it’s required.

Working makes us feel needed. We identified with our jobs.

For some of us, we work too much because we care too much for others. We feel compelled to people-please. We help our colleagues who are in need and feel guilty when not helping them. It’s part of our identity to be helpful. But over-committing might cause us to burnout and not complete our own work on time.

This compulsion to help is similar to the compulsion to achieve. We help to make us feel needed by others. Both are hustling for worthiness.

Are You Working Too Much? Here Are Signs and Effects of Overworking.

Stopping yourself from overworking is not just about work-life balance. It’s about preventing yourself from being addicted to work. Workaholism is no different from other forms of addiction, such as overeating, over-consumption of TV programs and games, and gambling addiction.

We deceive ourselves that working is positive because it produces positive outcomes. However, workaholism is just as bad as any other addictions because we aren’t able to stop our behaviors. Our mind keeps seeking rewards from the work we do. We become so obsessed with working that we aren’t able to control our actions anymore.

A car that can’t be stopped is dangerous.

Imagine you are driving your car. A car is useful because it brings you from one place to another. However, a car is only useful when you are able to stop the car and have control over it. You can’t reach your destination with a car that can’t be stopped or a car that will only stop when it crashes. Not only is it dangerous to you, it’s dangerous to the people driving on the same road as you.

Workaholism doesn’t just hurt you and your health. It hurts the people around you too. Your spouse, partner, or kids feel neglected from your lack of presence. If you are a leader, your subordinates will feel exhausted trying to catch up with your pace. And if you are unhealthy, you will affect the productivity of the whole team.

If you can’t stop yourself from working when you needed to, you are not controlling your mind anymore. Your mind is controlling you. The car is driving by itself, not you.

Working Long Hours vs. Workaholism

How much work is too much? How do you know that you are working too many hours?

Some people need to hustle to feel alive. They can work long hours without feeling tired while others can’t do the same.  Even though workaholic works long hours, but working long hours or overtime doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a workaholic. The key difference between the two is one of them works compulsively and the other just works hard.

If you want to know if you are a workaholic, ask yourself:

Are you able to stop working?

When I say stop working, I mean: Can you stop thinking about work 24/7? Some of us check our work emails or plan what to do the next day even when are not in the office. The line between work and non-work is so fuzzy that everything we do is somewhat related to our work.

Someone who works long hours but takes frequent breaks to talk to others and be in touch with themselves shows no signs of workaholism. This is because they can stop themselves from working if necessary. They are not obsessed with work.

Effects of Working Too Much

I still remember the day when I had a gathering with my university classmates. One of my friends came very late after work and when he arrived, his soul was gone. He looked so tired that he could collapse anytime. He used to be the most energetic person in our class, but at the gathering, he was so spaced out that he couldn’t even respond to our questions properly.

If your inability to stop working is a telltale sign of work addiction, then the effects below are like red traffic lights that tell you that you have been working too many hours and you need to stop soon.

  • Exhaustion, fatigue, and burnout: Don’t feel rejuvenated even after you take a break or have no energy to work even if you want to.
  • Impatient and easy irritable: Get angry with others when they hinder your work.
  • Anxiety and stress: Can’t stop worrying about the work you need to do.
  • Depression: Want to stop working but feel like you can’t or have no choice.
  • Physical sickness and pain: Gastric pain from having irregular meals, migraine from too much stress, and etc.
  • Problems in relationships: No time to meet your friends, frequent conflicts with your spouse, your family feels neglected by you, and etc.

How Not to Be a Workaholic

1. Understanding why you work so hard.

If you are working non-stop to the point of affecting your health and relationships, perhaps it’s time to audit your beliefs.

  • What rewards does working give you?
  • Why do you work so much even though you know it’s damaging to your health?
  • What do you truly desire? Can working so much really provides you what you want?
  • Do you feel like a nobody or a failure without your success and work?
  • Are you trying to prove to yourself and others that you are worthy and valuable with your achievements?

Challenge the beliefs that you have.

If you are an entrepreneur or a manager and you find it difficult to delegate your tasks to others, think this through: Is there really no one who can do your job? Or are you too identified with how indispensable you are? Before you help others, ask yourself: Do the other person really needs my help? Or am I doing it to feel good about myself?

Take a good look at yourself and figure out if you are trying to avoid anything unpleasant such as the feelings of unworthiness and loneliness or relationship issues.

Don’t just stop at the surface level. Delve deeper. You get a lot of information from self-inquiry. Also, ask yourself: What’s the meaning of life? Is life just about working hard, retiring, and waiting to die? Why do we work so hard just to die? This might give you some new perspectives.

2. Draw a clear line between work and non-work.

My entrepreneur friend said that he used to feel rejuvenated after going for a vacation. But now, he still feels tired after his vacations. At first, I didn’t know why. But after a while, I realize most of his overseas trips are a combination of work and vacation. How can your soul, mind, and body get rested properly when you carry your work baggage overseas?

When you relax, you relax completely. No work stuff during your break.

I love how my literary agent set up her boundaries. I noticed she is very quick at replying my emails on weekdays, but she never replies them on weekends. I admire her for that. It’s not easy to have such discipline. Especially for a self-employed or an entrepreneur, the line between work and non-work gets blurred very easily.

You have to be clear when you are working and when you are not working. When you meet your friends, be mindful not to treat it like a networking session. Yes, you can talk about work and career, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you talk about. When you go back home, don’t bring your unfinished work along with you. Let them stay in the office where they belong.

I understand that some of us might have important emails that we need to reply to when we are overseas or at home. Instead of checking your emails multiple times a day, schedule a time to check your email. In this way, when you are having the break, you don’t think about your work at all. You focus on having your break and enjoying yourself. You only think about your work again when it’s time to check your email.

Stopping yourself from overworking is not just about giving yourself a break. You must remove anything associated with your work during your break.

3. Have external reminders that get you to stop.

Children and pets such as dogs are probably the best reminders you can have to stay present. Both of them require a lot of attention from you. You have no choice but to stop.

Eckhart Tolle, a spiritual teacher, refer dogs and cats as our “Guardians of Being”. They remind us the joy of being in the present. One of my entrepreneur friends has a dog that tries to stop him from working during the weekends. It will jump onto his lap, put its head on his hand, and push away the keyboard.

If you don’t have a pet or a child, use an alarm clock instead. Disrupt your work intentionally to get you to stop from time to time. Learn to stop at any given moment.

However, it will only work if you treat them as reminders, not nuisances.

My friend is aware enough to stop working when he sees that his dog needs his attention. But what if your husband, wife, or parents ask you to stop working instead? How would you react differently? You probably think they are too needy or are annoyed by their disturbance. You might even feel that they are talking down to you by telling you what to do.

Whether the people, animals or things around you are able to get you to stop working depends on how you perceive their actions. If you treat their actions as a nuisance instead of a reminder, then it won’t work for you.

4. Set a few non-negotiable priorities.

To prevent your work from consuming your whole life and having no time for anything else, you might want to schedule important personal activities that are non-negotiable. If sleep is important to you, make sure you have 6-8 hours of sleep every day.

Plan your work schedule around this priority.

For example, now that I’m helping my ex-company with their accounts. I’m not sacrificing my sleep or my meditation time for it. These are my non-negotiables. Instead, I sacrifice some of my work time at home for this temporary job.

Trade work time with work time. Don’t sacrifice your personal time for work. They belong to different categories. This brings back to the point of having a clear definition between work and non-work. It’s very tempting to borrow time from your personal life for work and I don’t recommend this. But if you have done so, remember to pay it back.

And how do you know if you have spent too much time working? Track your time and review it weekly. When you measure your time, you know where you spend your time on. When you cross a certain limit, you know it’s time to scale back.

5. Don’t fill up your schedule completely.

This does not only apply to workaholics. Most of us have the tendency to fill up our time with something. When we have free time, we want to do something immediately. Be it to watch TV, surf the Internet, or listen to music. Even though these activities might help us to relax, we are addicted to doing. We are afraid of feeling bored and nothingness.

Get used to emptiness. Just be.

For workaholics, they fill their free time with more work. Most of the deadlines we have are self-imposed, even those set by your superiors. Everybody wants a buffer so that they can get their work completed on time. But what happens after we complete our work early, we have nothing to do and we fill it up with more work.

It’s important not to pack your schedule and fill it up completely. Don’t over-commit. Leave gaps in your schedule and maintain those gaps. Leave some empty space for whatever that arise. Whenever you are free, allow yourself time to breathe. Don’t start looking for the next time to do immediately.

Having a stop button is not enough, you must actually stop.


Featured Photo Credit: Working / Ivan

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