How to Stop Being a Workaholic

Reader Carolyn recently asked, “How can an achievement-motivated workaholic learn to back off, relax, de-stress, and feel good about doing it? I am too driven!”

This is a common problem, and one that has several parts we should look at separately:

1. Being achievement-motivated.
2. Being a workaholic.
3. Learning to relax and de-stress.
4. Learning to feel good about it.

Let’s start by saying that there’s nothing inherently wrong with work — it can be fun, exciting, fulfilling, rewarding. I love my work in a way I never did for most of my life, until a few years ago, and work is one thing I live for, that I jump out of bed each morning to do.

However, the reader recognizes that there’s more to life than work, and that relaxing is important, and that stress is a major problem. When work takes over your life and causes problems — with your relationships, health, happiness — then it’s time to step back and figure out a better way.

Each person needs to figure out what that better way is, and I can’t offer one solution to fit all, but here are some thoughts on the four parts of the problem outlined above.

1. Stop being achievement-motivated.
There’s nothing wrong with achievements or being proud of them — it’s a natural thing to feel good about what you’ve accomplished. But it shouldn’t be the only thing that motivates you.

What’s a better motivation? Doing things you love, creating something great, being with people you love, doing things that are exciting.

If your work is something you love, something that excites you, that’s great. You’re better off than most, actually. But there’s gotta be more — what else gives you joy? Do you have hobbies you love? Do you like doing anything outdoors? Do you have family members or friends you love?

Figure out 4-5 things that truly make you happy and excite you — at least one of them should be a person or persons, and one of the others must be non-work-related. You need some balance in your life.

Get excited about these things, and be motivated by your love for them. If you have a spouse and kids, for example, let your life be motivated with the thought of spending time with them.

2. Stop being a workaholic.
What’s a workaholic? Someone who overdoes work — long hours, can’t stop working even at night, obsessed with work, to the detriment of other parts of his life.

If this is you, you might need help — beyond the help I can give you in an article. You might need to reach out to family members, to a therapist, to a group (online or off). There’s no shame in this — sometimes this is what’s needed to conquer an addiction.

But if you aren’t so far gone, you might be able to implement a few steps to stop from working so much.

First, stop working after a certain time — say 5 or 6 p.m. Make this a hard line: tell your office not to call you after this time, and don’t take your work home. Once the clock hits this time, you’re done for the day. The rest can wait until tomorrow.

Second, don’t check email or do other work-related communication after this point. Turn off the Blackberry or iPhone, even turn off the computer at home, and do something else. Also don’t take your mobile devices to non-work events such as vacations, your kids’ activities, family parties and so forth.

Third, schedule other things into your life. Exercise with a friend after work. Make dates with your partner. Take your kid to soccer practice. Set aside time for a beloved hobby. These things will stop you from working.

This should be good to start you out. The other steps are below, but for now, focus on these three things and be firm about them with yourself. No exceptions!

3. Learn to relax and de-stress.
This should be the easiest step (it’s fun, after all) but for many people it isn’t. There are many ways to relax and de-stress, but we’ll just touch on a couple of points.

First, take it in small steps. If you have a hard time relaxing, you don’t need to take a whole week or a month to do it at first (later, you might want to try this). For now, just try it in 10- or 15-minute increments. You’ll get used to it, and be able to do it for much longer.

Second, schedule a physical activity just about every day. This could be walking or running or cycling or swimming or playing basketball or soccer or whatever. As long as you’re doing something, preferably outdoors if weather permits. Again, just start out with 10 or 15 minutes a day. It might take some experimenting to find an activity you enjoy, so feel free to try out different things.

Third, schedule some solitude. This could be 10 minutes of reading alone, or walking quietly, or relaxing with a hot bath, or meditating. You should do it in silence, alone, with no distractions. A peaceful setting is best, without clutter or people knocking on your door. Ask your co-workers (if it’s at work) or family members (if at home) to please help you out and respect this time of solitude. Slowly stretch it from 10 minutes to 15, 20, 30 and so on until you have 45-60 minutes a day.

4. Learn to feel good about it.
This step is hard to comprehend for those who love relaxing, but for those who have a workaholic mindset, feeling good about relaxing can be tough. This takes a change in mindset.

We have to stop thinking that hard work is the only virtuous way. Sure, hard work is good, but so is being lazy, so is relaxing. We need to give ourselves permission to do this, and to feel good about it.

Relaxing and being lazy are necessary to good health and happiness. Our bodies and minds need to recuperate each day and week, and if we don’t have this downtime eventually something will go wrong: we’ll burn out, ruin our relationships, have deteriorating health. So think of it as a necessity, and a good thing.

Do things that are pleasurable. Forget about all the things you have to do and really be in the moment as you do them. Focus on how enjoyable the activity is, and how great you feel. Breathe deeply and feel the tension leaving you.

Give yourself time. It takes time to learn to enjoy relaxing. You’ll adjust, slowly, gradually. But you need to do it, in small steps, and block out negative thoughts and thoughts of work. Let those thoughts go, and focus on what you’re doing now.

This transformation won’t happen overnight, but it can happen. And it’ll be great.