“They intoxicate themselves with work so they won’t see how they really are.” —Aldous Huxley
There are many faces of work addiction, and sometimes it’s hard to detect. All workaholics work too much, but not all act alike. Some are too careless, others too ploddingly scrupulous. Some can’t get started; others plunge in on a dozen projects and finish little. The end result of these differing work styles may look the same from the outside—an unbalanced life dominated by long hours at the office—but each face expresses a different set of emotional vulnerabilities. The broad umbrella of work addiction is only a starting point. From my clinical observations and research, I have identified four major classifications of work addiction: the relentless, the bulimic, the attention-deficit and the savoring work addict—all based on the proportion of work initiation versus work completion.
If you’re a relentless or dyed-in-the-wool work addict, you’re distinguished by high work initiation and high work completion.
You work compulsively and constantly day and night, holidays and weekends, regardless of the deadline. You’re a hard-driving perfectionist, your work is thorough, and your standards practically unreachable. There’s no letup and few periods of down time in your life, and leisure and recreation are rare. Instead of dragging your feet with deadlines, you complete them weeks ahead of schedule. When you approach a project with a six-month deadline as if it were tomorrow, you get an adrenaline charge. Getting the project finished early leaves extra time to focus on other job tasks. Your focus is constant initiation of tasks and completing them at all costs.
If you’re a bulimic workaholic, you have out-of-control work habits that alternate between binges and purges and are distinguished by low work initiation and high work completion.
Faced with a time crunch, you manufacture adrenaline as you engage in frantic productivity, followed by inertia. You over commit, wait until the last possible minute then throw yourself into a panic and work frantically to complete the task. Jenny worked for two days straight, collapsed and slept off her work high in her clothes for another day, like an alcoholic sleeping off a bender. In contrast to relentless work addicts, you know you’re a bulimic work addict if you go through long periods where you don’t work.
Chances are people wouldn’t know you’re a work addict if they caught you in one of your down times. You approach deadlines by procrastinating until the last minute and putting yourself under the gun to finish.
Procrastination and frantic working are two different sides of the same coin of work bulimia. You might become so preoccupied with perfection that you’re paralyzed to begin a project. Yet while you engage in distracting behaviors, you obsess over how you will get the job accomplished. During the procrastination period, when you’re paralyzed and unable to work steadily, you are what is referred to as a work anorexia—someone for whom avoidance of work is as much a compulsion of work addiction as overworking is because of your obsession with it.
If you’re an attention-deficit work addict (ADW), you’re distinguished by high work initiation but low work completion.
You’re adrenaline seeking, easily bored and distracted, constantly after stimulation. Your appetite for excitement, crisis, and intense stimulation is a strategy you unwittingly use to focus on a task. You like risky jobs, recreation and living on the edge because it gives you an adrenaline charge that helps you focus at work or play. Creating tight deadlines, keeping many balls in the air and taking risks at work make it difficult for you to slow down and relax.
If you’re an ADW, you seek out jobs that have the potential for thrills: playing the stock market, parachute jumping or working triage in a hospital emergency room. Easily bored with follow-through details, you jump ahead to the next item on the agenda to get another charge. You might create a crisis over small things to get an adrenaline fix such as throwing a fit because someone is late for a meeting. You get high from creating ideas and brainstorming the big picture, then launching projects without finishing them. A self-manufactured adrenaline fix functions as a biochemical cocktail that provides the needed focus, allowing you to buckle down and complete a task.
As a result, you start and leave many half baked projects and move on to the next thriller. The compulsion to jump impulsively into work projects before plans are thought through or solidified makes it hard for you to complete projects in a timely manner, and you find yourself constantly backtracking to clean up your own messes.
If you’re a savoring work addict, you’re the opposite of the ADW—slow, deliberate and methodical. You’re distinguished by low work initiation and low work completion.
You’re a consummate perfectionist, terrified deep down that the finished project is never good enough. You have difficulty telling when something is incomplete or finished. You savor your work as an alcoholic would savor a shot of bourbon. You inadvertently prolong and create additional work when you’re almost finished with a task. You’re notorious for creating to-do lists that take longer to generate than completing the task. Your detailed, self-absorbed work style makes it hard to function on a team. Your nitpicking and inability to let projects go are maddening to coworkers who complain that you drag your feet, dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t.’ When colleagues are ready to move on, you hold them back by over-analyzing, taking ideas apart, thinking them through from every angle, getting bogged down in detail and sending things back to committee over and over again. Because projects seem incomplete, even when others deem them finalized, you have difficulty with the closure of old tasks and the initiation of a new one.
10 Tips For Work/Life Balance
Regardless of which profile fits, you can benefit from these 10 tips. Hopefully, they can prevent Karoshi—a Japanese word for death from overwork—from becoming your retirement plan, and you will be around to enjoy doing the things you want to do with the important people in your life.
- Work Mindfully. Make a conscious effort to toil in the present moment as much as possible instead of regretting past mistakes or worrying about future projects. Be mindful of your coworkers, and consider eating, walking, and driving slower.
- Find Balance. Make sure you balance your days with personal time to unwind and nutritious food, regular exercise, and ample sleep.
- Avoid Multitasking. Studies show that multitasking isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, that workers who focus on one task at a time are calmer and more effective and productive.
- Set Boundaries. Refuse to commit to more projects when you’re already overloaded. Tell yourself there’s a limit to what you can do and see this practice as a strength, not a weakness.
- Develop Self-Compassion. Instead of attacking yourself when you forget, make a mistake or fail at a task, shower yourself with compassion. Practice pep talks and treat yourself with the same nurturing support and loving-kindness you give to loved ones.
- Come Up for Air. Mother Nature didn’t design your body to be desk-bound for long periods of time. Put time cushions between appointments, take time to breathe, eat a snack or stretch and move around.
- Unplug. Set aside time for self-care. Just five or 10 minutes a day can make a big difference in lowering your stress and raising your energy level. Indulge yourself with a nap, brief walk in nature or meditation to take your mind off red alert.
- Block Off Time for Relationships. Leave space in your schedule to spend time with coworkers, friends and family. Take days off and vacations to unwind and have fun.
- Gain Deeper Insight. Look beneath your addiction to understand why you require yourself to overwork. And why that sanctuary is necessary for the uncertainties of living fully in the present.
- Get Outside Help. If you can’t stop overworking on your own, resources are available to help: professional counseling, support groups and Workaholics Anonymous online meetings, where members work the Twelve Steps.