6 Subtle Signs You're Addicted to Work — And What to Do About It

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Woman working and stressed


Melody Wilding
Melody Wilding
June 23, 2024 at 11:59AM UTC
Our obsession in modern society with doing more is rivaled only by our preoccupation with doing more harder, better, faster and stronger. We’re gunning the engines at max speed, cramming our work days full of tasks, then feeling guilty if we steal a quick second to call a friend or read a book for pure pleasure (gasp!).
Here’s the irony: Compulsion over productivity can do more harm than good, leading to workaholism and even burnout. 
So, what causes workaholism? Addiction to productivity.
Addiction to productivity is a real thing — similar to a dependence on a substance or food that leads to maladaptive behavior. Clinically speaking, addiction occurs when someone engages in something that’s pleasurable, but the continued use or act becomes compulsive to the point of interfering with normal life responsibilities (work, relationships, or health). To make matters worse, an addict may not be aware that their behavior is out of control.
Is workaholic a disease? In the sense that addiction is real, yes. 

What are the signs of a workaholic?

If you think you’re sliding into workaholic territory, here are six signs to look out for.

1. Are you acutely aware of when you are “wasting” time? Do you beat yourself up for it?

2. Do you feel guilty when you only cross one item off your to-do list or find you’re kept awake at night by work stress?

3. Is your no. 1 topic of conversation how “crazy busy” you are? Do you think “hustling” sounds impressive, while “doing less” sounds lazy?

4. Are you a always in your email inbox? Compulsively checking it or feeling like your phone is an extension of your arm?

5. Are you reliant on technology to optimize your time management?

6. Have you ever rolled your eyes when your friend says she’ll finally get started on that side project she’s been talking about for months, yet you do exactly the same and rationalize it by thinking you’re too swamped?

Recognizing your preoccupation with productivity is the first step in refreshing your approach to it. If you answered “yes” to any of the questions above, that’s a good gauge that you’d do well to take your foot off the gas in your quest for powerhouse status.

How do you deal with a workaholic, especially if that workaholic is you?

Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

1. Rewire negative self-talk.

“You’ve got work to get done — of course you shouldn’t go out tonight!” Sound familiar? How about: “You’re not making this time useful — that’s why you haven’t been promoted yet.” The next time your inner critic slams you for not being good enough or working hard enough, talk back. Don’t let any thoughts run through your brain that you wouldn’t say out loud to your best friend.

2. Say no.

Stop stuffing your to-do list out of guilt or a desire to please. Say no to any new responsibility that doesn’t benefit your professional or personal growth or that you truly don’t have time for.

3. Stop talking big game and actually take action.

It’s one thing to indulge in listicle after listicle of productivity tips or talk about the ambitious plans you have for your business, but at the end of the day, taking action is what counts. This also means resisting the urge to complain (or brag) about how slammed you are, no matter if it’s over Bloody Marys at brunch or in 140 characters on Twitter. Being productive in a healthy way means not needing validation for it.

4. Accept downtime as recharging time.

Although you may feel like you’re wasting time if you’re not scratching something off your to-do list, the opposite is often true. Your most meaningful ideas may come in that one moment when you’re not distracted or triaging emails. Let your brain relax to refuel your attention and focus. When evaluating how to form healthy habits in her life, “The Happiness Project” author Gretchen Rubin made a commitment to never look at her smartphone whenever she’s walking somewhere in order to let herself free-think. Try it!

5. Embrace “just in time” learning.

Consume only the information you need to accomplish the task at hand, which is known as “just in time learning.” This approach encourages you to collect information only as you need it, rather than hoarding it and trying to learn a huge variety of things in-depth. If you’re working on launching your side hustle, that might mean focusing solely on learning sales skills to get your first paying client rather than diving into learning how to code an entire website and marketing funnel from scratch. There will come a time for that. But it’s not right now.
Of course, enjoying the feeling of being productive is not inherently shameful. Yet there’s so much pressure all around us to be doing more, striving for more, offering more, and doing it all faster. We feel like if we’re not up to snuff, then we’ll fall behind and never be able to catch up.
But what is it all for in the end?
Don’t lose sight of the truly important things in life. Relish peaceful moments in your day — from the smell of a freshly brewed mug of coffee to the warm sunlight that shines on your morning commute. As I like to say, don’t put off your life for work that can be done tomorrow.
A version of this article appeared on Forbes.
Melody Wilding helps ambitious women and female entrepreneurs master their inner psychology for success and happiness. She teaches human behavior at The City University of New York and is a nationally recognized Master Coach who distills psychological insights into actionable career advice. Learn more at melodywilding.com. 

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