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Overcoming Workaholism

Have you ever heard the statement that "Americans are lazy"? That statement is patently absurd. Americans work their tales off. We work long hours. Sometimes two jobs. We hustle and bustle and squeeze in work during lunch.
Picture of Karl Palachuk

Karl W. Palachuk
October 14, 2002


Have you ever heard the statement that “Americans are lazy”?  That statement is patently absurd.  Americans work their tales off.  We work long hours.  Sometimes two jobs.  We hustle and bustle and squeeze in work during lunch. 

The problem is, we’re poorly focused.  We’re busy with busy work.  We need to stop sometimes,

            Focus every action on the goals,

                        set Priorities,

                                    and make time to Relax



Take time for family

Take time for a lunch break

Go home at 5 or 6

Less busy work and more balance.

Recall the “HP Way.”  Balance life and work.

Psychologists might disagree, but I’ve always thought that the mind is like a file drawer that wants to be organized.  We access pieces of our brain all day–information we have and old memories–in order to build new thoughts.

All day long we take files out of the drawer.  Problems and “new things” that come up have to be put into the drawer, along with all that stuff we took out.

Rest, relaxation, contemplative thought:  These are the tools we use to organize the drawer.

We lead lives filled with deadlines and too much work, and chaos, and bills, and we’re always on the go-go-go.  We don’t stop, look around, and change directions.  We just go where the work and the kids and the world take us.

Our “schedules” are full of things, full of details.  Most of those things have been put on our schedule by someone else or by necessity.  So we’re busy-busy-busy with the everyday chores and we don’t focus on the longer-term goals.  Every once in awhile we need to poke our heads up above the cubicle maze and see whether we’re getting closer to where we want to be.

Many of us are trapped in the maze because we’re on the “easy road to success.”  The easy road to success is a lie we tell ourselves.  I don’t know why. 

The Work Can’t Get Done Without Me

We see clearly in others what we do not see in ourselves.  For example, my wife always knows when I need to go to the doctor, but never thinks she needs to go.  “Oh that punctured lung?  It’s just a rib out of place.  There’s nothing the doctor can do anyway.”

This is especially true with workaholism.  My pile of work that will never get done must have my attention.  Someone else’s pile of work will never get done and he should realize that.

I used to think the work couldn’t get done without me.  I think that’s the biggest pitfall for most of us. 

We take on a job and discover that there’s too much work for a 40-hours week.  The boss seems to work 50 or 60 or 70 hours.  So we work through lunch and come in early and stay late.  Then we go in on the weekend.  We work more and more and more.

We fool ourselves four ways with this behavior:

  1. We tell ourselves this is short-term.  Once we get the work caught up, we’ll go back to 40 hours.
  2. We tell ourselves that we’re indispensable.  No one else can do this.  Oh, sure, you can train people but they won’t be as diligent and you don’t have the time.  Some knowledge you just can’t pass on.
  3. We tell ourselves (or maybe we’ve been told by others) that there’s a big reward at the end of the year (or end of the project).  So we’re working for the bonus.  But then what?  Aren’t you going to want the next bonus too?
  4. We tell ourselves that we’re doing this for the family.  This is for the long-term benefit of the spouse and kids.  But spouse and kids have to feel alive too.

We fool ourselves because we want to fool ourselves.

We’re intoxicated by work.  I believe men are more susceptible to this than women.  But anyone who is raised to measure success in terms of “work,” and who defines himself by what he does “for a living” is a potential workaholic.

And our culture reinforces this perspective.  At a party you meet someone.  The first question is “What do you do?”  If you answer “I’m a father of two and I collect fountain pens” there will be a long silence.  “Okaaaaaay” they’ll say, “and what do you do for a living?”  Try this at your next party.  It’s fun. 

It’s as if we can’t discuss the non-work “you” until we get the work conversation out of the way.

After a long process of distilling my life and focusing my energies on where I want to go, I have developed the habit of defining for myself three goals every morning.  I write down every day the following.

– What’s the most important thing I want to do today for myself personally?

– What’s the most important thing I want to do today for my family?

– What’s the most important thing I want to do today for my work?

More details later.

The point here is that I have defined the three pieces of my life that make up almost all of who I am.  Work is extremely important.  It is silly to think otherwise.  But work has its place and must fit comfortably in the big plan with Personal Self and Family Self.

Every workaholic will eventually have an experience that shatters the imaginary world we’ve built.  We don’t see it coming because we’ve fooled ourselves.

The event that slaps you in the face with reality might be dramatic or simple.  You might get laid off.  Or passed over for a promotion in favor of a clock-watcher who never comes in on the weekends.  You might take off a week for vacation and discover that the business was fine without you.

For me the eye-opener was a disagreement over a bonus.  I had completely fooled myself into believing that my hard work and extra hours and neglecting my family would be justly rewarded.  I took on extra work and made major contributions to the company in several areas.  I traveled all over the U.S. for a year, negotiated a major contract, set up a new office in another state, oversaw the newest product development for the company, and much more.

I worked myself to the point of exhaustion and hit homeruns all year.

And when it came time to review my annual performance I got 80% of my potential bonus for the year.  I was devastated.  As a former teacher I view 80% as a B-.  I know my performance wasn’t perfect–and I’d hung up the phone on a company lawyer once–but certainly I deserved something in the “A” range for all my successes.

In an instant my eyes were opened.  Before I’d blinked twice my life had changed.  For the price of a few hundred dollars the company could have bought a repeat performance for the next year.  But it wasn’t worth it to them.

Before I spoke a word, I knew that I would put in 40-hour weeks from that point forward.  I knew I would leave my desk at lunch.  I knew I would use up my vacation time.  I knew I would find another job.

What I didn’t know at the time is that my boss had already decided to leave the company.  She wanted to keep expenses down in order to maximize her bonus.  She didn’t care about the future profitability of the company.  And she didn’t care about my personal loyalty to her. 

I had fooled myself into working like a madman in search of a reward that was only a pittance.

I guess I was lucky to learn this lesson over a bonus rather than over a firing.  My experience changed my attitude toward work forever.  Not that I became a clock-watcher, but that I try now to have realistic expectations about how valuable I am to “the company.”

When I took my next job, I had a very open and honest discussion about what they expected from me.  They outlined a week that looked like 40-50 hours.  I agreed to that.  And because we had this discussion before I started, I never felt any pressure to work longer hours.

Sometimes our lives evolve and we don’t realize what’s going on until years later.  I am now a computer consultant.  I still work 50 or 60 hour weeks.  I joke with my clients that I work half days–and I get to pick the 12 hours.  I now have lots of bosses:  my clients.  And I have lots of work because there are clear understandings between my clients and me.

They agree to pay a specific price for specific work.  I offer up so many hours at a certain rate.  No one expects to get a bunch of hours for free.  If I work hours for free, it’s my choice.  No bonuses, and I know that. 

Because expectations over hours and pay were a major issue for me awhile back, it is natural that I would evolve to create a job in which this relationship is very clear.

I still have to fight my workaholic tendencies.  But the issues of pay and hours are now very low-stress for me.

Take Your Time—And You’ll Have More Time to Take

One of my great weaknesses is that I want to jump into a job, get it done, and move on.  Sort of a “surgical strike” to solving computer problems.  This is a weakness because it can lead to neglecting the people side of the business.  It also means I have a tendency to be focused on the next job instead of the present job.

As part of my business ethic, I am very attentive to clients’ computer needs.  Rather than just fix the problem at hand, I take a minute and apply software updates and make sure “automatic” maintenance is running.

But I don’t always take time to say “Hello. How are you?” and make the personal contact.

Having employees has helped me on this score.  As I train them, I put a lot of emphasis on focusing on the present job rather than worrying about the next job.  I’ve developed a formula for a customer visit—the KPEnterprises way of performing an office visit.

The goal is to provide a consistent, positive experience for the customer.  And for me it means I end up preaching about the one thing I need to focus on.  Take time—a few minutes—and chat with the customer.  This builds a personal relationship, it keeps the atmosphere relaxed, and it makes the job enjoyable.

I tell prospective employees that one of the benefits to working for me is that you get to work with nice people.  I cultivate clients who are enjoyable to be around.  But, truth be told, 99% of the population are nice people if you stop and take a minute to talk with them.

Taking your time also means relaxing when you have to do all those little things we often consider “necessary” distractions from our “real” job.  This includes filing papers, balancing the checkbook, driving between appointments, reading reports, employee evaluations—any little thing you tend to rush through.

Take your time.  Relax.  Do it right.  Focus on the current job.  When you’ve finished you can move on to the next job.

Our society and our work culture tend to emphasize working fast—often faster than it really takes to get the job done.  Sometimes we find ourselves with too few people and too much work.  The go-go-go mentality results in sloppy work, incomplete work, and no time to focus on quality.

I once worked at a place like this.  The manager sometimes joked “We never have time to do it right but we always have time to do it over.”  We all know (if we take time to think about it) that slowing down a little and doing it right will save work in the long run.  Relaxing a bit can also save a lot of stress.

A great example of this is in the car.  Did you ever notice one of those people who passes you at 20 miles over the speed limit and you catch up with him at the next light?  Then he takes off fast and zooms ahead, but you catch up with him at the next light.  After a few miles this gets to be pretty funny.  One of you is more stressed than the other.

And even if Mr. Stress gets ahead of you by a light, he may only save three minutes in his cross-town travel!

Slow down.  Relax.  Focus on the task at hand.  Do it right.  You’ll produce a higher quality product and you won’t have to do it over.

Take your time and you have more time.

Rfs Beers Cheers

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