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Are you in danger of becoming a workaholic?

Are you in danger of becoming a workaholic?

I don’t think that anyone sets out with the intention of becoming a workaholic. Nor does it seem likely that most people allow it to happen willingly. Of course, for some, being a workaholic is seen simply as an unfortunate by-product of being successful and wealthy. Yet, even for them, workaholism is likely to destroy much of the pleasure that their wealth and success brings. After all, if you’re working all the time, you aren’t going to be in any position to make good use of whatever benefits your success has brought you.

It’s important to distinguish between a workaholic and someone who is simply wrapped up in their work—either because they enjoy it so much, or because, for a while, they have decided to make it a priority in order to win a promotion or get the kind of lifestyle that they want. For a workaholic, work is an end in itself. While it may bring wealth or power, what matters most is simply working. Just as an alcoholic drinks because he or she must, not because they enjoy it, so a workaholic is addicted to working—even when there is no rational reason for doing so.

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it’s hard to judge precisely where someone might slip from being hard-working, to become increasingly obsessed with work, to becoming a fully-fledged workaholic. I suspect it happens quite slowly, with no real consciousness on the part of the person involved that some boundary had been crossed between a voluntary immersion in work and a state of addiction.

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Match yourself against these indicators
That’s why I’m offering some indicators of potential workaholism: pointers that might help you notice when you may be getting close to the point where hard work has ceased being a means to an end, and has become an end in itself. None of these actions on their own indicate workaholism. But the more that appear to be present in your life, the more likely it may be that the role of work in your life is getting out of hand.

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  • Workaholics are totally preoccupied with work. It dominates their thinking nearly all the time. They talk about it, even when the subject is inappropriate. They find themselves dwelling on it, when it should be the furthest thing from their minds: when they are supposedly relaxing at home, talking with their family, enjoying a leisurely meal, or making love.
  • Because workaholics devote so much time an attention to work, little or none remains for forming close relationships. Many workaholics are loners; not always because they wish to be, but because they find that their obsession with work wrecks their chances to make good relationships. They work such long hours that they aren’t able to socialize or meet people outside of work. If all of your friends and acquaintances work where you do, or have some other close connection to your job, it’s worth asking yourself why that is.
  • Workaholics either don’t take vacations, or time off when they are sick, or they take their work with them. Going on vacation makes them uncomfortable. They dwell on visions of work piling up. They convince themselves that other people will mess up without them. The most paranoid come to believe that someone will deliberately steal their work, or spoil their projects, if they aren’t there to keep an eye on things. If they do take a vacation, they take along work too, or keep checking back obsessively with their office. The same happens if they are sick. In fact, too avoid taking sick days, many workaholics go into the office, spreading infection all around, or even jeopardize their own health.
  • Workaholics cannot delegate. They are obsessed with staying in direct control of everything linked to their work. They usually justify the amount of time they spend working by convincing themselves that only they can handle whatever it is that they do. If the pressures pile up, they simply work harder or longer hours. the subordinates of workaholics often find themselves virtually redundant, or reduced to the most mundane kinds of work.
  • Workaholics routinely neglect everything else for the sake of their work. Even if they accept that they should be devoting time to other things, they will find some reason to justify not doing so if it would clash with work. The families of workaholics become all too well aware of the countless excuses for missing family occasions, school meetings, birthday parties, or any other activity that might require the person to set aside work for more that a few moments. Many workaholics, like many alcoholics, have a wrecked family life and a history of divorce and broken relationships.
  • If they have to undertake non-work activities, they try to link them to work. Social activities become occasions for work-directed networking. They may seem to be keen golfers, for example, until you discover that they habitually use golfing occasions to conduct business. Every supposed social gathering becomes another opportunity to make new business contacts or try to interest others in something connected with their work.
  • A workaholic’s identity is totally submerged in their work. It’s as if the person is their work, and has no independent existence. This is very close to the truth. For a workaholic, the boundaries between their work and their personality and existence have broken down. Their work not only defines them, they feel that, without it, they would no longer have any existence. Take away their work and there is nothing left. They cannot face the emptiness that would remain, so they rush back to the only thing that offers them security: their work.
  • Many, many workaholics are permanently in denial. Like alcoholics, workaholics often deny their problem. They become extremely clever at hiding the truth from themselves. They think up elaborate justifications and excuses for their lifestyle. They use modern technology to hide their activities from others. Today’s cell phones, laptops, and ease of Internet access mean that the old image of the workaholic as someone sitting at home, or on the beach, surrounded by papers and files is rare. All it takes is a BlackBerry, or one of the new cell-phone PDAs, to have instant access to all the files you might need.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest, and satisfaction to leadership and life. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

    , is now available at all good bookstores.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

    More About Goals Setting

    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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