Workaholic Part III: Breaking the Cycle: How can you not be a workaholic?
I don’t think I want to be a workaholic. I like the idea of doing nothing productive in my current weekend office time and just enjoying life. I dream of being able to relax and consume media like playing video games and watching television and movies all day. Putting aside the fact that my temperament with regards to smaller children is decidedly ‘old school’ the concept of the family outing isn’t entirely abhorrent to me. But something keeps me working, well it’s several things. My personality, the goals I’ve set and what it will take to do them, and my desire for greater levels of security.
In the first article of this series I talked about a friend who has a hard time comprehending a life where someone can just go to the weekend public even dujour every weekend and enjoy living vs. working. Maybe it’s the car show, maybe it’s Mule Days, or maybe it’s just the monthly art walk downtown. I made the comment about my concern for her happiness and how my work ethic impacts my own satisfaction with being able to enjoy life. This ultimately results in the question, is it possible to break the cycle of being a workaholic? The answer of course is: Absolutely YES and it’s inevitable. The qualified answer, depending on your perspective of the question is more along the lines of ‘maybe’. The more interesting question actually is “Can you stop being a workaholic voluntarily and just refocus and enjoy more of what life offers while you are able to?”
We are humans. We are born, small, reddish, and in the case of my youngest, with more hair than Cousin Itt from the Addams family. When we are young we have boundless energy. As we age we slow down a bit but we still can have great resolve in our efforts. Character and knowledge allows us to manage our energy levels and personal industry. The productivity of the mid-career workaholic is generally high. The problems is we get old and there is no escape from it. Our systems eventually break down. It can be a huge emotional challenge to deal with as we slowly discover we can do less and less, and need to just rest more and more. Eventually everyone learns to accept the cycle of life if they don’t keel over. I’ve known energetic 80 year olds but none I would consider to be workaholics. There are a few stories of some in the media, but they are outliers. Everyone I have ever known who enters into their twilight years eventually succumbs to ‘just enjoying life’. On the whole, this biological certainty is a good thing, but by default there is limited time left to enjoy life if you are only doing it because you are not physically able to do anything else.
The grand event
Sometimes there is a catalyst that allows you to stop being a workaholic and get to a work-life balance. There are many examples of this. I think of the first and most dramatic example is when you get a life scare. Maybe it’s a heart attack, maybe you’re diagnosed with cancer. If it is health related a change may be prescribed by health officials. you can only work 40 hours a week or you will die is one hell of a motivator to get somebody to go home at 5 o’clock. Even so, many Workaholics fall back on there old ways as soon as they feel healthy again. For others the experience is more permanent. It forces the question “why am I doing what I am doing?” If the realization is that there is no real purpose to it then what naturally occurs is a cessation of the more formal productivity. I.e. the workaholic ceremoniously says “Screw this, i’m going fishing!” The same thing can happen when someone close to you either gets sick or dies. This influential person can be a sibling or a co-worker or really anyone who is just a major component of your psyche.
It may not be health related. It could be something related to your career. If you have had to work your entire life to achieve something and that achievement is lost in an instant because a new senior VP wants to replace the management team then what did all that loyalty and long hours get you? It also could be the realization that achieving your goals does not change the requirement of effort. What I mean by this is that you could have achieved something and think that now that you have achieved it it’s time to enjoy the fruits of your sacrifice. Life should get easier. You should have the time to enjoy everything else. These are the folks who believe in delayed gratification but they realize the gratification isn’t delayed, it doesn’t exist. Burnout happens and there is an inflection event. To quote Dave Ramsey, they become “sick and tired of being sick and tired” and demand a change. When Dave talks about it he is referencing people finally willing to make the tremendous lifestyle changes to get out of the bondage of debt. Work may not be a financial debt, but it definitely can entrap us just as securely.
There are other ways this can happen that aren’t so negative. It could be the birth of a child, or receiving an inheritance. In the end it comes down to that same decision. Interestingly the activity level of the workaholic may stay high but the productivity and focus on achievement may dissipate and the activity then gets focused on enjoying the nuances and experiences that life has to offer.
Maturation of Perception
In the instances where it’s not a big bang, change can come from a slow percolation. Think of a pot of water set on the oven with the burner on medium low vs. a firehose spraying on a burning car engine. Where the grand event firehose water will sizzle, pop, and crackle when it hits the burning vehicle, It may take an hour or two for the perception in the pot to become steam but eventually the water is going to boil and disappear. Just like the slow boil, over time a culmination of life experiences can change your perception of being a workaholic.
The genesis can be many. It could be the culmination of religious study or long term personal self improvement. It could be a slowly growing sense of futility with your efforts. In the end it’s not a shock to the system as much as it’s a winding down. It’s saying “all this isn’t worth it”
I have one friend who is a good example of someone who made this change. She called it “Recreating your own Reality”, most likely a phrase she pulled from a self help or religious study guide as she has a preference for those sorts of activities. She told me the key was learning to let go of your internal perception of what the world thinks. She used to work long hours at her full time job and many part time jobs. She did not do this to make ends meet, but because she felt there was a positive aspect, a groove to it, if you will. She kept it up because she internally believed she was supposed to work like this. i.e. her own reality was ’this is what I should be because this is what is expected of me’. At the same time she felt there was always something inside that continually was saying “This sure is hard to do, I sure am tired. Is it always going to be like this??” Only when letting go of what other people thought of her decisions was she able to recreate her reality.
She feels that people work as hard as they can, in part, to prove that they are doing what they were set up / socialized in society to do. In effect to get approval from the people who told her to work hard. It’s difficult for me to find fault with this argument. As a child I was told countless times by my senior family members that I need to “Go to school, study hard, get a good job”. This socialization isn’t just limited to work and school. For example I was also told “you need to be productive” by my grandmother several years into my marriage. This was code that she expected my wife and I to start having children as we had enough time to enjoy each other. and as anyone with children knows, that is not a decision that should be taken lightly. Socialization is very very influential in our decision making process.
What broke my friend out of her out of cycle, or what she says broke her out anyway, was that she realized it didn’t matter. Her quote was “When you let go of what they thought, then you just did what you needed to do for you” with the implication that you will be happier and able to enjoy the balance of what life has to offer. She reiterated that she used to work four jobs plus school, and “never blinked an eye at it, never occurred to not do that”. She claims, and knowing her I don’t doubt it, that she is much happier now. Did her ability to get ‘stuff’ lessen? She says yes but not nearly as much as she thought it would. Her top example was that she still gets to travel as much as she ever did even when she was earning much more. Again, I can confirm this because it seems she’s always on some trip that’s ½ mission trip for her church and ½ fun for her.
“Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in”
I do think that there is an ebb and flow to this type of lifestyle behavioral change. You can get close to it, and then back away from it depending on circumstances. Emotionally I think it’s a bit like the sentiment expressed by Al Pacino in the Godfather III. You can get close to change to a non workaholic lifestyle, but for the true workaholic it’s possible to not actually cross the line and quickly fall back into the old ways.
In the same way that a grand event can pull you out of being a workaholic, events can keep you from changing. Most typically a financial need may scare you back into the lifestyle for several years. You can be seduced by the promise of coming close to the next big goal just when you were ready to walk. I have seen members of my family come close to pulling away from being a workaholic and focusing on enjoying life only to pull back in to the lifestyle because of a big work opportunity. Even if you get to the point where you are engaged more in ‘life’ activities, it may not stick. After a lifetime being a workaholic, spending free time being non-productive may actually feel uncomfortable and may motivate someone to want to get back to something that feels more ‘right’. There is also the seductive nature of the comfort level and inertia that comes from all of the benefits discussed in the second article in this series.
The great irony of being a workaholic is that it’s a greater effort to break out of the cycle. The executive has to say “no, i’m not going to spend the next decade pushing for the CEO’s position”. As skilled as the types of individuals who aspire to that management level are, I really don’t think many of them have that specific personal discipline. I think it gets especially difficult for those in high income positions. It’s one thing to say “From now on i’m going to turn off my phone after 5 and on weekends and I know that means i’ll never get picked for promotion”. It’s another thing entirely to say “I’m going to leave my high paid corporate, legal, or medical job and that means i’ll have to cut my lifestyle to the bone but i’ll finally get my life back”. I did something similar before. I took the steps of selling the bigger house, moving to a lower cost neighborhood, and only driving older used (and completely paid for) cars. You would think that the decision would be celebrated as courageous, that everyone who aspires to a simpler life would pile on the accolades. Shockingly, we experienced just the opposite. The societal pressure to get back to the expected financial and professional equilibrium can tremendous. Saying “I’m going to be less than I can be to enjoy more than I currently enjoy” is just not vogue. I distinctly recall a close family member making a scathing comment about my new middle-middle class neighborhood. So much for support? Thinking back it’s easy to see why my friend thought of it as “Recreating your own Reality”. She’s absolutely right in that everyone else’s reality of what is best for you can affect your reality if you let it.
Should you or Shouldn’t you?
In this series of articles I tried to explore why people become workaholics in the practical sense. I tried to be even handed at the benefits and negatives to this sort of lifestyle. For those professionals who feel stuck working 24/7, I tried to offer ideas on the things that can get people to switch gears and get more out of life. I don’t write many multi-part articles, but the this was not just a simple subject, it personally resonated. In the same way that one day I looked in the mirror and saw my Father looking back at me and wondered “when did that happen?”, I looked at my life and saw a workaholic and wondered the same thing. So these articles are as much as reflection to offer to my readers as it was to myself. The exercise allowed me to think about my life and experiences and reassess how my work ethic meshes with my own personal goals, or at least it was the start that thought process.
I was very overweight for a large part of my life and then I decided it was time for a change. Now i’m looked at by some in my family and at work as a health nut. I thought I would never want to go back to school, and then I decided I needed more education. Not only did I get the masters I’m working on the plan for the PhD. I saw a homeless kid who needed some help, and a year later we were in front of the clerk of the courts signing adoption papers. I decided I wanted to blog and now I have a pretty extensive one with hundreds of articles, some of them are even interesting. Yes, this sounds like a soliloquy of a workaholic saying “hey look at all I accomplished” but that’s not what I’m getting at. What i’m really saying is when the time is right, and if it’s what I decide that I want, I know I can pull back. I can walk away from it. The question for me is when do my stars personally align for this to happen?
For my readers and for those who listen to my podcasts and who who find themselves working days, nights, and weekends in a never ending cascade I hope these articles gave you something to think about. I hope you have more of a framework to answer the questions of “Why am I doing this?” and “What should I do about it?”. For workaholics, our work ethic is an innate part of who we are. We didn’t start as workaholics, we won’t end as workaholics. We just have to decide how long we want to be one and if the benefits of continuing our efforts outweigh the negatives. We also have to decide how we will change our life if that’s what we decide to do.
Normally I like to end my articles with a zinger. For these articles I would say something like: Stopping our productivity drive and focusing on the other things that life has to offer is difficult. We will really have to work hard at making it happen, but fortunately we are pretty good at that! But that’s not the last line I want to use. Today, writing this, I want to be a bit more solemn. I want to say that it’s important to be aware of all of this. You should not just soldier on in your unrelenting workload, but continue to be introspective of who you are and who you wish to be. Figure out a balance that’s good for you and a pathway forward to where you want to be. Maybe my zinger line is more appropriate than I thought because the process truly won’t be easy, but it can be done. Either way I wish all of you who are challenged by this topic the most heartfelt wishes for success with whatever you decide to do, or not do.
Come to think of it, i’d love to hear about it. You should tweet me with updates, I occasionally like to stop and listen to them.
~sorry, couldn’t resist. :-)
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