July 9, 2014
Monday I got back from a great 4th of July getaway. We drove to and stayed in Mendocino California, which is a rural and quaint Northern California coastal town (now a vacation destination). If you don’t know that area but are perhaps familiar with New England, think of almost any small coastal Maine vacation town (Ogunquit Maine comes to my mind): rocky ocean shore, old Victorian shops and B&B’s, and a nice slow pace; this is a West Coast version of that. The weather was beautiful with fog moving in and out of an intense blue sky and rolling into the redwood hills. It was a wonderful place to relax for three days.
While relaxing there I spent part of a morning perusing a local bookstore, and in the psychology section I came across a relatively new book called “Speed: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster—And Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down.” Skimming it I decided that in my next newsletter I would continue writing on the topic of my last newsletter, about Letting go of work this summer. If this interests you, read on.
Addicted to Busyness
The premise of the Speed book, which is abundantly clear from its full title, is that many of us are addicted to doing more and more, and can’t slow down. Lots of reasons for that are discussed in the book, with access to new technology like smartphones being a big reason. And some suggestions are given in the book on how to get over it.
I’d been thinking about this topic a lot starting long before seeing that book. I see this problem every day in clients and friends. I see it in strangers who zoom through the local grocery store, getting impatient if the line lasts more than a minute. I see it in couples out to dinner, each buried in their smartphones. We all know of people who work 70 hour weeks and never slow down the rest of the time. I saw it in myself years ago—until I made a point of getting past it.
Reasons for Speed Addiction at Work
I can think of a lot of reasons for people being addicted to too much speed at work. Of course many of the reasons vary from person to person. Or perhaps all these reasons apply to you. I am going to list the ones I think are primary, and if you agree this fits you, and that this is taking a toll on your life, then you may want to follow some of the solutions I discuss. I’ll give a tools list at the end of the article.
First, a New York Times commentary last year explained busyness addiction stating that we seek out extreme busyness because it makes us feel important. Other articles have pointed out that working long hours is now a badge of honor. Apparently, extreme busyness fills a void in our sense of self-worth. If we slow down, we fear others will think we’re not worth much. And I think there is a deeper reason. If we slow down we see ourselves more clearly, and we don’t like what we see—it scares us. So we keep busy to avoid that feeling and to avoid facing our own demons. Or you may be avoiding conflict at home—finding long hours at work a lesser evil. Many books about work or money addiction focus on similar topics, and I think all these points are highly valid. Emotional counseling is a possible solution. Or, if you are working in the wrong career and covering the pain that results, then some career coaching may be needed. Again, I list tools at the end of this article.
Financial Stress, Self-Imposed?
Obviously, many of us work fast or long because we are fearful of getting behind financially, or fear getting behind in our position in the company, or in our career. That may be from an actual shortage of money that is challenging our ability to support our families, and so the obsession with getting or staying ahead feels quite justified. After all, it’s for our kids!
But I truly feel that many of our perceived money shortages are self-imposed and symptomatic of other less noble needs; not needs to survive and thrive, but needs to compare well against others. Whether we realize it or not, many of us over-extend while trying to keep up with our comparison targets. We think if we just work a little harder and make a little more money, we’ll reach our goal and we’ll be happy.
The thing is, this game goes on forever because, once we reach any level, we enjoy it briefly but then start comparing to the next level up and so are never really happy. This happens at all levels. I’ll never forget the newspaper interview in which a bond trader who’d just lost his bonus stream expressed extreme despair because his income was now stuck at $500,000 a year. He was deeply upset and lamented that he could not keep up appearances with the others he socialized with. I’ve heard of billionaires with strikingly similar complaints. We’ll never reach a money level that will keep us happy; and when it doesn’t, we just get frantic about getting more.
So I ask many to ask themselves which is more important, time for a more relaxed life with your family and personal priorities, or chasing the latest Jones? On your deathbed which are you going to remember? I’m not saying to give up your goals and dreams; I am saying to pursue them with balance and grace, and perhaps with a more noble intent. Don’t box yourself into a money game that you don’t need to play—don’t get trapped in that money game. Rather, as appropriate, find ways to be happy with more modest levels. Again, this is usually an inside job, and it’s one worthy of pursuing. If your happiness is dictated by your comparisons to those around you—that’s a hellish life to live.
Tough Economy Is Real, But Don’t Exaggerate it
Another reason people overwork is that they see layoffs around them or know of others with similar skills who are now long-term unemployed. They fear that if they don’t stay ahead they may be the next one looking, unsuccessfully, for work. So they work harder and harder out of fear.
In these times, this is a real concern. My only recommendation is to make sure you are accurately assessing your risk. Many peoples’ fears are grossly exaggerated and their jobs are actually safer than they think. It’s easy to imagine and then plan for the worst, but in so doing create an unhappy life. In fact, you can create your own worst reality by getting so stressed out by your overwork that your perspective and performance suffers and you do lose your job.
The solution is to chill out, stay rested and balanced, and organize your work so you accomplish your highest priority work first (see last section below). Then put in a reasonable set of hours at your job and enjoy balanced time off with your family.
Enjoy Life, Start with this Summer
You know, I often think back to my school days and how much I enjoyed summer then. It was being outdoors of course, and the break from the grind of school. But most of all it was the sense of freedom I felt—all the deadlines and pressures of school were gone for three glorious months.
I truly believe that in many, many cases, we create our own lack of freedom in our adult lives. In many cases, we create our own pressures in our jobs and lives by the unnecessary fears we insert into them. It’s often only ourselves and our misplaced priorities that drive us to busyness addiction. There is real freedom on the other side of that. If you can face your demons and address the root causes of your over-busyness, you can find true freedom in your career. And, except perhaps for some seasonal workers, summer is a perfect time to reflect on that. If you can’t justify slowing down in summer and trying out a more relaxed approach to work and life, when can you? Spend some time this summer doing that and see if you can find a way to truly relax and find balance in life!
Footnotes: Next-Step Tools
I would be remiss if I did not provide next-step tools to help you achieve the letting go I describe above.
First, much of the angst and overwhelm we experience in our work is because we’ve gotten so spun up and burned out that we’ve lost perspective of what really needs to be done and when. Then, in our imbalanced state, we waste time on low-priority actions and we get further behind in our important work. The solution is to organize your work in a way the consistently presents your most important actions, and the 1MTD and MYN systems do that. If you are already using those systems, but have gotten behind, check out this link. If the reason you are overworking is that you have multiple background projects that you are losing control of, check out my One-Minute Project Management class.
Next, one of the reasons we focus so much on money is because we are unhappy in our lives. Obtaining more money, and what it buys, appears to be the solution. One of the things I’ve learned in my many decades of work and life it that the money game never ends. Rather, you’ll need to address happiness directly and place money and the things it buys as only a secondary priority. That may for you mean changing careers or how you approach your career; if so study the Connect layer I describe in my Workday Mastery Pyramid, lots of guidance there. I offer coaching on all the above topics.
If you are over-working to cover unhappiness, it may mean doing some emotional work. The single best emotional work solution I’ve found is a week-long retreat called The Hoffman Process. I have no relationship with that organization but have seen it work miracles, on myself included. I have also seen others achieve excellent results using hypnotherapy with a qualified professional.
Last but not least, perhaps your burnout is telling you to finally get serious about taking a more spiritual approach to life? There are too many solutions to list in this area; use your best intuition to choose something that feels right for you, and get serious about pursuing it.