Hello there. Welcome to the third and final part of my series about recovering from work addiction. In the first post I covered what work addiction is, what purpose it serves and some signs to look out for. My second post involved thinking about and tackling beliefs surrounding work, productivity and success. This final post will give you some practical skills and tips to start you on your way to seeking a more balanced approach to working. This is all very personal, and these are things that have helped me and others that I have spoken to you. Perhaps none of these tips will apply to you, in which case I encourage you to seek out somebody who might be able to help you put together your own tool kit to help you.
Admit to yourself (and others)
It’s an age-old saying, but the first step to helping yourself is to admit you have a ‘problem’. I use the word ‘problem’ very loosely, in terms of, you have something that you would like to change. This word is no reflection on any part of you.
Sometimes taking a long hard look at ourselves can be incredibly painful. I know when I realised that over working was a massive coping mechanism and a way of numbing myself from everything else in my life, it felt like everything was crumbling. It felt like I was on really shaky ground. I knew that something had to change, but what I did not know, and the how I was even more clueless about.
A coping mechanism keeps us safe, and will initially serve a purpose, but eventually we gather the skills and we become more capable of functioning with different, more healthy coping mechanisms. It can feel like losing a trusty old friend who knows us so well, and can always comfort us when we need them. But there are better ways of doing things.
Admitting to others can be incredibly helpful, albeit difficult. Telling a close friend or maybe even your supervisor that you think you work too much, can enable you to be accountable. It can help to minimise the shame that you might have and can open up more avenues of support.
I’ll be honest, when I first started writing this series I thought that the term ‘work addiction’ or ‘workaholism’ was way too serious and ‘over-the-top’ but it’s a true and honest description of what I was managing. In hindsight I can look back and see that I was really in deep with over working, that I was over-riding my body and my internal signals to stop and slow down. Don’t be afraid to give what you are dealing with a name, once you do, you can start to get to know it better and to face it.
Take some action
By now you have hopefully gained a little more understanding of what drives you to over work, what you might be avoiding or what over work might be providing you with. The next step is to commit to taking action. This might seem incredibly overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. A gentle, steady and gradual approach is what is needed, by causing yourself more stress or distress, you are only going to be pulled into working more to avoid whatever it is you’re dealing with.
Make a promise to yourself that you will do something small, from now on, to help you move away from over-working. Trust that if by the end of this post you don’t know what that small thing is, that your inner wisdom will show you the way and present you with an opportunity to start to turn things around.
This part can be super scary. A new way of doing things, moving away from a coping mechanism that has really served a purpose, but bear in mind why you are doing this, how life will look on the other side. You may feel massive resistance, but if you are truly ready to move on from work addiction you will be able to trust that you will come out the other side and things will be better. Trust your own ability to get through.
Rally the troops
Similarly to admitting to others what is going on, you may also need to rally the troops. Get yourself a support system in place. Seek out those who encourage you, understand you and can help you. This may mean reaching out to someone else who has expressed that they work too much, becoming accountability partners, cheering each other on.
It might mean mentioning what you are managing to your office mates so that you become more aware of how much time you are spending there. Or perhaps they would be happy to give you a gentle reminder that “it’s 5pm, are you staying late today?”
One of the most important and valuable things for me was having someone who understood and could cheer me on (shout out to you 🙂 ), and probably not in the way you might think. Having someone who knows what you are trying to overcome means that you can have their support. It took me a long time to realise that what helped me most was having someone to congratulate me when I got home on time, to congratulate me even more for taking a morning off or leaving work early, even when I had a to do list as long as my arm. Because these people know how difficult that is for you. It’s not the natural support you might expect, especially in a society where we are encouraged to work long hours and are seemingly rewarded for our long days, sleepless nights and over-working.
Nowadays, I’m the person who encourages my office mates to ‘not work to late’ and to ‘take at least some time off during the weekend’. If somebody tells me through gritted teeth that they didn’t do any work over the weekend, I am absolutely delighted, I am happy for them and I tell them well done. Because actually, this is the type of behaviour that needs rewarding, behaviour that is inherently about self-care and putting our own health and well-being first.
Set limits and priorities
Looking back at my period of over-working (which had been many many years), I could see that my main downfalls were working in the evenings and weekends. Doing so meant that I didn’t have time to be physically active, to sleep, to socialise or to eat well. These were the foundations of my being healthy and capable. This means that now, I do not, as a principle, work evenings or weekends. In my PhD so far I have spent one Saturday afternoon working on a book chapter, and have stayed at the office until about 7pm on a few occasions.
Email was another Achilles heel for me. I would reply at all times of the day (and night) and it wasn’t healthy. I knew that not checking my email wouldn’t solve the issue and could create even more anxiety, so instead I found a balance. My email signature now features a short line that says ‘please note, I do not reply to emails in the evenings or weekends’. This means that I can still check my emails, but those who have sent me a message should not expect a reply until working hours. Of course, sometimes I might deviate from this, but it works for me for the most part.
What could your limits and priorities be? What would you like to make a rule in your working life? A rule that promotes your health and overall well-being, rather than damages it.
Realistic, small steps
Like all things, overcoming work addiction takes time and the best way to approach it is in small, realistic steps.
Chatting to a friend can help you identify what these might be, or maybe even talking to someone professional like a counsellor, mentor or coach. Start small, really small, so small that you think there is no point. Stick with that step for a short time and then gradually add more on. Before you know it you will have been making some pretty big steps without even realising.
Examples for me include:
- Taking a proper lunch break (starting at 15 minutes, gradually reaching just over an hour now can occasionaly extend to a long lunch break with a friend!)
- Adding in some exercise to my schedule (initially a ten minute walk, reaching an hour for a swim and now can mean taking a morning off to go to a yoga class)
- Ensuring there was something that constituted ‘self-care’ in each day (starting from those proper lunch breaks and gradually reaching a massage, social event or some time off, now includes those morning yoga sessions and horse riding classes)
- Not working evenings or weekends (this began as not working late 2-3 days a week, and not working on a Saturday day time, gradually reaching no evenings or weekends at all, and now usually some time off during the week, whether a full afternoon or just a ‘lazy morning’ before heading into work)
- Keeping a record of working hours and productivity (this helped me see that longer hours didn’t necessarily mean more work, and now I feel that I can get nearly double the amount of work done in half the time).
Having continued awareness is really important in this journey. There are still times now where I can feel the urge to work come on, but I have thankfully developed a level of awareness that allows me to catch it fairly quickly and realise that I am trying to distract myself from something.
How can you have awareness? How can you check in with yourself? Early on this might actually mean that someone else has to help you – and if you have that available to you that is absolutely brilliant. Someone who can say, how are things are work feeling? Have you worked many late nights this week? Asking in a considerate and compassionate way, rather than a judgemental way. Eventually, you will be able to do this for yourself and will become more aware.
Maybe you could set some reminders on your phone for your most difficult times? Maybe a 4.30 alarm to signal to you that you might want to consider wrapping things up for the day and heading home.
Ultimately, slowing things down will allow you to pick up on the nuances and the split second occasions where you get pulled into working as a distraction. With practice (yes practice, you will make mistakes and it might not be pretty) you will be able to catch yourself and turn things around. And if you fall off the wagon? The most important thing is to treat yourself with kindness, take a really honest look at why you needed to over work, be understanding with yourself, like you would a friend. Don’t beat yourself up, just identify what tripped you up and get back on the wagon.
This concludes my ‘Addicted to our desks?’ series. I really hope that it has been helpful. If you are interested in looking into this more please keep an eye out for opportunities in the future.
Until next time 🙂