My name is Mike and I’m a Workaholic. And… I am not alone.
A wise former manager of mine once gave me a valuable piece of advice, one which I initially ignored but have since leveraged and repeated countless times over the years. He told me to “Beware the Adrenaline Addiction!” Essentially, when work gets to a frantic level of stress, speed, and excitement, then we learn to survive… and even to thrive, on the adrenaline rush that comes with it. This “drugged up” state becomes the norm, and we can become an “adrenaline junkie”. Even though we know that it is self destructive, it has become a habit… and one that is hard to break. Eventually, though, something has to give, and we find ourselves needing to slow down. Whether it is because health issues start to arise, work performance starts to suffer, or family life begins to erode, we find a need to take a step back- to get our priorities in order and get work back under control.
And while, on the surface, this sounds like a very straightforward decision to make, it does not account for the powerful and lingering effects of the adrenaline addiction. There will be a period of “withdrawal” that occurs, and even as we consciously want to slow down, we find ourselves looking for a “quick fix”- a crisis or late-night presentation that we can throw ourselves into so as to get the rush to which we have become so accustomed. And this effect is not exclusive to individuals. Whole organizations can get so accustomed to operating in an almost out-of-control crisis mode that when it is rightfully time to pull out of the crisis, it is extremely difficult to do so. Organizations often continue running in a frenetic, tactical pace long after the crisis has passed, because slowing down and becoming strategic is unnatural and even painful. This “adrenaline effect” is very real, and the accompanying “withdrawal” needs to be expected and overcome.
The first several years of my career were spent in a fast-paced “downstream” innovation environment, littered with one crisis after another, and largely focused on “fire-fighting”. It was a whirlwind, high pressure role that was entirely unpredictable and dynamic. It was extremely intense and highly stressful… and, if I am completely honest with myself, it was a lot of fun. As fun as it was though, after several years I started to burn out. While I know that I am built more as a “sprinter” than a “marathoner” when it comes to work style, it became clear that in trying to “sprint the career marathon” I was going to run out of gas before the finish line. I was working far too many hours, not leaving myself time for hobbies and activities I loved, and, most importantly, not investing as much time in the central relationships in my life.
Something had to give… so after a lot of debate, I decided to pursue a much more upstream innovation role in the hopes of not only growing my skills and experiences, but to hopefully “catch my breath” as well. That is not to say that upstream work is easier, less challenging, or less important… in reality, this new role was far more technically complex, creative, and critical to the long-term success of the business. The main difference was that this role was now proactive rather than reactive as I was focused on building the future rather than on keeping the present from burning down.
As I prepared to start this upstream work, I was excited to take on the new challenge and particularly to now have more time to think, to be strategic, and to create a vision. As I asked my wise manager for advice, he did not talk to me about best practices, technology approaches, or strategic thinking… what he instead cautioned was to “Prepare for the withdrawal effects… they are going to be your biggest challenge.” He insisted again and again that this would be a big hurdle, and that I needed to be prepared for it and to resist the urge to “relapse”. And while I listened intently, I truthfully thought that he was crazy. The thought of slowing down and growing in depth rather than breadth was exactly what I wanted, and I wasn’t expecting a case of withdrawal but rather was anticipating a sense of relief!
Well… I couldn’t have been more wrong. When the constant flux of requests, accomplishments, and crises were removed from my life, I felt anxious, worthless, and even depressed. The adrenaline rush that had been my constant companion for so many years was now gone, and the sense of withdrawal had a significant impact on my performance (at least my perceived performance), my efficiency, and my overall job satisfaction. While I now had more time to think, plan, and design, both the quality and quantity of my work felt to be decreasing rather than increasing. Adrenaline had been my “performance-enhancing” drug, and it was clear that I had developed an unhealthy addiction to get me through my job. I was an “addict” and I needed to break the habit.
Ultimately, I did learn to overcome this (although I am not immune from an occasional relapse!), and as a leader I have tried to help coach and guide my organizations to be aware of the signs of “adrenaline addiction” and the “withdrawal effects” that can ensue.
Common Signs and Symptoms of Workaholism resulting from Adrenaline Addiction
1) You have built up an “overworking” tolerance- it takes more and more time, contributions, and commitments to experience the effect of “job satisfaction”.
2) You work harder and longer to avoid or relieve “withdrawal” symptoms. If you experience a “lull” or go too long without experiencing the “thrill” of an urgent deadline, excessive “overtime”, or being stretched beyond capacity then you experience symptoms such as guilt, boredom, or restlessness.
3) You’ve lost control over your workaholism. You often work excessively even though you have promised yourself or your significant others that you wouldn’t. You may want to stop over-working, but it is compulsive and you feel powerless.
4) Your life revolves around your work addiction.
5) You spend your waking hours alternating between obsessing about work and recovering from the toll your addiction takes on you.
6) You have abandoned activities that you used to enjoy, such as hobbies, sports, and socializing, because of your work-aholism.
7) You continue to over-work, despite the major problems it causes, such as sleep deprivation, relationship struggles, health concerns, or even depression.
5 Step Program to Overcome the “Addiction”
1) Admit You Have a Problem… and that You Want to Fix It. Like any form of addiction, until you acknowledge that you have a problem and that you want, or even need, to fix it then no change can be initiated. If the symptoms above resonate strongly with you, then you must actively decide that this is a problem that you want to fix.
2) Get Clear and Deliberate on the 3-5 Things that You Will Actively Do. Look at all the priorities and activities in your job and declare the top 3-5 in which you will invest your time. Be specific. Imagine yourself a year into the future and looking backwards… what are the areas in which you will be proud and in which will most impact the business. Resist the urge to cram several sub-points into your top points (i.e. don’t have 3 to 5 priorities each with 3 to 5 more hidden sub-priorities!). You should be able to rattle them off quickly in an elevator speech if needed.
3) Be even more deliberate on 1-2 Things that You Will Actively NOT Do. This step should be painful. In some ways, it is easy to declare what you will do. It is, however, far more difficult to declare what you will stop doing. Write them down, share them, and keep yourself honest.
4) Take control of your calendar. Schedule Thinking Time, Talking Time, and Downtime for yourself and block it off on the calendar. Treat this time as if you would any other meeting and stick to it. Not only will this “slow you down”, this time will actually make the rest of the day far more effective and efficient.
5) It Takes 2 Weeks to Change a Habit. Don’t expect an overnight miracle. Commit to making the change and force yourself to tow the line for at least two full weeks. Ideally, find someone else to hold you accountable and help you “get back on the wagon” if you stumble.
Once free from the grips of addiction, you will find that you can start doing “Less with More” rather than “More with Less”. Your work will become more instrumental and not just incremental. Your teams and your organization will become stronger as you can further invest in building relationships and making connections. You will find that investing more in yourself and less in your job will actually increase your impact at the office. And, most importantly, your health, relationships, and overall well-being will increase.
I would love to say that I have completely overcome this addiction and that I have mastered a “drug free” life. Unfortunately, I relapse more often than I would like. This “adrenaline effect” is real and the accompanying withdrawal is significant. The trick is in being aware of the signs and taking action to turn things around before it is too late. I now am much faster to recognize the problem and to catch myself before I go through too long of a self-destructive period. It isn’t easy, but is critical in leading a fulfilled and happy life… both at work and at home.