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Summertime: Rehab Time for Workaholics

Summertime: Rehab Time for Workaholics

How to use a vacation to conquer work addiction
beach view

    Workaholism is as much an addiction as those to drugs, tobacco or alcohol. Those who suffer from it crave the constant ‘highs’ they get from throwing themselves into work’s deadlines, problems and constant hustle and bustle. Even those near-impossible targets and deadlines can provide an adrenaline rush. Staring into the abyss of an empty order-book or hurling yourself headlong into the race to chalk up still more quarterly profits has something about it akin to extreme sports like bungee-jumping or free-fall parachuting.

    To many people, work seems so much more exciting than the rest of their life. Once hooked on the ceaseless crises and challenges, they can’t let go.

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    Going ‘cold turkey’

    Nearly all addicts face withdrawal symptoms when they try to break free and workaholism is no exception. Recovering addicts are likely to feel unfocused, aimless, tense and irritable. They suffer anxiety (“I ought to be doing something“) and fear (“What’s going on that I don’t know about? Who’s plotting to mess me about some way?”). If they’re in the office, the temptation to fall ‘off the wagon’ and get back into their old ways can be overwhelming.

    That’s why a vacation is a good time to cope with post-workaholic stress disorder (PWSD). Aside from the initial period of cold turkey, the state of nervousness that hangs around is easier to deal with if you aren’t in a place where you can start checking up again. That’s why some high-end resorts now offer to lock away guests’ computers, CrackBerry’s, cellphones and PDAs so it’s almost impossible to slip back into staying in 24-hour contact “just in case.”

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    Designing a vacation to deal with PWSD

    Taking the kind of vacation you’ve always taken — assuming you’re not such a hopeless workaholic that you can’t remember what that’s like — won’t do for this purpose. A PWSD cure needs careful planning in advance and some tough decisions to take your medicine and stick with it long enough to see results. You may need to enlist the help of your nearest and dearest along the way. They’ll probably be willing to assist since, in my experience, they are usually the ones whom you have made to suffer worst during your years as a workaholic.

    Here are the steps you will need:

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    • Take a long enough vacation to allow the cure to work. Three weeks is ideal, two weeks is reasonable, 10 days is the minimum useful period.
    • Go right away — a long way away — so you can’t be called back in anything but the most dire emergency.
    • Contract with someone else (that nearest and dearest person would be ideal) to take charge of all means of contact with your office and deny you access. Tell them also to keep you away from telephones, Internet cafés, and any other ways of getting in touch with your place of work.
    • Before you leave, tell everyone at work that you are going to a place so remote that contact will be impossible. Give an emergency contact number to only one person and threaten to erase all their hard drives and backups when you return if they give it to anyone else.
    • During your vacation impose a total media blackout. No news, no papers, nothing.
    • Select a vacation that includes plenty of activities. It’s best if these are either compulsory or you have paid for them in advance, so you’ll be unwilling to waste your money by not taking part. A beach holiday should be avoided at all costs. The abrupt transition between the continual, hectic activity at work and hours with nothing particular to do will be too much. I used to take group birding tours. You had to go along, because everyone expected it (and you rarely stayed two consecutive nights anywhere, so they couldn’t leave you behind) and you were out looking for birds from before dawn until the sun went down, every day.
    • Act like a recovering alcoholic, for whom a single drink will start it all over again. Don’t check in with your workplace even once. That will send you right back to being addicted. The rule is not a single call, e-mail, or internet connection. Not one.

    Just in case you think this all sounds too extreme and “one little drink — I mean phone call — can’t hurt,” Air New Zealand found that staff who took a total-break vacation showed an 82% improvement in performance on their return. What else can do that?

    Besides, you owe it to yourself to break your addiction, whether it’s strong or mild. Workaholism lowers energy and resilience, undermines your health, wrecks relationships, inflicts needless pain on others and destroys your judgment. The effects can be on a par with drink and drugs. It’s high time organizations took it as seriously and made it either an offense meriting discipline or a condition for which treatment is compulsory.

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    Make this year’s vacation the one where you finally free yourself to live a normal, healthy life.

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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!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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