I watch my colleagues at work, says Dee, a Corporate Communications expert. Every day they walk up to the buffet, and they eat absolutely everything.
Dee is on a 1-year temporary assignment at a fast-paced biotech firm. She describes the dynamic of coworkers getting involved in, well, seemingly everything.
They don’t pick and choose, Dee explains. They eat it all.
Ouch. If we stick with that metaphor, my stomach starts to hurt. Real fast.
Too much. Too much. Too much.
I think of a paper I read the other day about the causes of workaholism: “Advancing Workaholism Research,” in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health/December 2020. The interest in studying what drives us to overwork has increased dramatically in recent years. Authors Cristian Balducci, Paola Spagnoli and Malissa Clark found over 240 studies from 2018-2020 that examined the dynamics of workaholism or work addiction.
The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.”
Why do we overwork? There are the externals – we may be working in an environment that is under-resourced. That, however, is not what my friend Dee is referring to. She has a sense that her colleagues choose to over-invest in what is in front of them at work.
Dee’s observation matches the thrust of current workaholism – increasingly called work addiction by some scholars – research.
Scholars are converging on the notion that workaholism is a significant psychological dysfunction characterized by an irresistible preoccupation for work (i.e., a true obsession) and an uncontrollable internal urge to invest heavily (i.e., time and effort) in work activities. Such work investment is well beyond what is required to meet organizational demands or reach financial security.
In other words, overwork is an inside job.
Standard advice #1, #2 and #3 – Delegate more, prioritize and get more resources – will not fix this drive. This drive is about you, and your inability to stop. No amount of delegation or resources will cure your inner drive to over-engage.
Let’s take a look at the internal reasons why we overwork. Because we can’t fix the HOW if we don’t understand the WHY.
5 Reasons Why We Overwork
You really CAN’T help it. It’s a chemical thing. You’re driven to work hard, to dig deep into the weeds, deeper than others, and to not ever quit. They have praised you for this drive you have. They have rewarded you for it. It has served you really well – until you started to wear them out. Until you exhausted your colleagues. Became “too much.”
Notice when you cross the line. The colleagues at Dee’s place of work are perpetually exhausting each other. Not a pretty or sustainable thing. Don’t become the one who exhausts them. Don’t cross that line. Don’t eat the entire buffet. Manage your instincts. Notice when you have stepped over the line – and step back.
No product, no document, no output is ever good enough. We keep tinkering with the tiniest aspects of our output to make it infinitesimally better. We do so, we tell ourselves, because we care. Because perfection is a beautiful thing.
The Pulitzer-Prize-winning American cartoonist Garry Trudeau is out promoting a mega coffee-table-book that celebrates 50 years of his Doonesbury cartoons. A staggering accomplishment. He tells MSNBC anchor Ari Melber about the experience of putting out a cartoon, week after week. What deadline-driven magazine work has taught me, Trudeau says, is that my job is not to aim for great. I aim for good enough. Because good enough is good enough. Nice. And oh so wise.
Yes, you know that they can solve a problem without you. You know that some of them have good ideas. But you are absolutely certain that if you were at that meeting, the outcome would be better. Because you DO have more experience than they do. You DO have a broader perspective. You DO problem-analysis better than any of the bunch.
So yeah, they can figure this out without you. But the quality of whatever they will decide will suffer in your absence. And you won’t let that happen. You make sure to attend that meeting. And all the others. Because you’re certain that your brilliance will make all the difference. (Let us be honest. Many of us have followed this line of thought)
Addiction to the High
You pride yourself on your passion for the work. You’re addicted to the Work High of full-throttle engagement, fierce debate, iterative exploration, ceaseless possibilities. You love the passion of the process. You thrive on the adrenaline-high of a group on fire. And you do whatever you can to prolong this adrenaline ride. That sweet state of flow and abandon. Don’t want it to end.
Even when the others are done with the process. When they are ready to move on. You will do everything you can to stay in that state of high collective engagement. Because returning to individual task execution is such a bore.
You will not admit this to others, of course, and likely not even to yourself. There is that place, deep down, where you feel just a little flawed and not quite smart enough, skilled enough, good enough. You have masked this deep, dark place with a persona of high competence. And just to make sure that no one ever sees this deep, dark place, you go to great lengths to involve yourself in lots and lots of activities at work. You insert yourself wherever you can. To add value. To prove your competence, again and again. So no one will ever know.
Dee calls herself out at the end of our conversation.
Funny thing is, she says to me. I am only there for a year. I am not a full-timer. And I still want them to tell me what a great job I am doing. I still wait for my boss to validate me. Even when it doesn’t really matter.
We all long to be loved. We all want to be appreciated. Any many of us go to great lengths for that validation. We don’t know when to quit.
It’s an inside job. It nearly always is, Dee,