Working too much? Here’s what you can do about it.
Maybe your social life feels non-existent. Maybe you’re regularly in a bad mood and you can never entirely switch out of work mode. Or, maybe you’re just exhausted. Sick. Tired. Over it.
While the COVID pandemic brought a different set of challenges, another epidemic—which has been around for years—and is escalating right under our noses: Overworking. If you have the symptoms listed in the paragraph above, chances are you’ve got it. No need to get tested. Just read the advice below to get a few ideas to help you get better soon.
What you need to know first
None of the suggestions for overcoming overworking will succeed if you don’t do the following:
Stop glamorizing workaholism
Even if you’ve never heard terms like “hustle culture”, “performative workaholism”, or “presenteeism,” it’s no secret that “working hard” is a culturally embedded American value. We’re taught things like “the harder you work, the luckier you get” and “busy means successful”. But, in today’s culture, the romanticizing of hard work can go too far. When overworking jeopardizes your health, family life, or productivity, it’s not cool anymore.
Stop assuming overworking is beneficial to your career
Despite everything we’ve been told, sustained overworking doesn’t get you ahead:
- Stanford research (and several other studies) show that overworking decreases productivity.1
- A Boston University study showed managers couldn’t tell the difference between employees who worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to.2
- A 2019 study in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology found a clear association between workaholism and poorer quality of life.3
Examine why you’re working too much
Knowing what’s fueling your workaholic tendencies can help you decide how to stop them. Ask yourself:
- How does your work environment contribute to unhealthy work habits? Is your department understaffed? Is your boss a taskmaster? Does working at home/remotely add to your stress? Are you in over your head? Do you feel like overworking is necessary to keep your job or get promoted? Is it just the company culture?
- What drives you, personally, to work so much? Does working make you feel necessary? Is it important for you to impress others? Is work a critical part of your identity? Are you worried about financial security? Do you like to do things perfectly every time? Were your parents, mentors, or idols workaholics, too?
15 ways to stop overworking
Remember, this is not a checklist, you don’t have to do them all. Just pick 1-3 to start with and commit to making progress. (Yes, it IS possible work too hard on trying to stop overworking!)
1-4: Define your overall life priorities
Spend some time thinking about how you want to spend your life.
- Identify what’s most important to you. Set your work goals around your life priorities—not the other way around. If friends, family, health, or other interests are more important than work, plan accordingly.
- Adjust expectations. Maybe you’ll never win a Nobel Prize, but that’s ok if you have a life you love. And, try to leave your perfectionism behind—not every email or report has to be a masterpiece.
- Stop comparing yourself to others. Just focus on your own goals. Other people are likely suffering from overworking, too. You do you.
- Tell your friends. Keep yourself accountable by telling your family, friends, and colleagues about your goals and priorities. Ask them to point out when you’re going down the overworking rabbit hole.
5-11: Make changes at work
To proactively advocate for your wellbeing at work, you can:
- Talk to your boss. Propose ideas that help you scale back your hours without sacrificing productivity.
- Ask for help. Whether you need to redistribute your workload or brush up on some skills, your coworkers might be the answer.
- Prioritize your projects. Get clear on what’s most important to achieve each day and focus your efforts there.
- Say “no” or negotiate. If you know you won’t be able to complete a task without working overtime, negotiate a smaller scope of work, propose a more reasonable timeline, or don’t take it on at all.
- Define your hours of availability. Let your coworkers know when you’re working, when you’ll take calls, and when you’re off-limits.
- Overestimate (on purpose) how long tasks take. Add a little buffer time when estimating how long a project will take—so instead of going over on hours, you come in right on time.
- Take your talents elsewhere. If the culture at your organization is all about working round-the-clock—and it’s not going to change—consider looking for a new role someplace else.
12. Use your calendar as a work-life integration tool
Scheduling time on your calendar for non-work activities makes them more official—especially if that calendar is shared with coworkers or family members who can support you. Create calendar entries (designated as “busy”) for:
- Family time
- Vacation days
- Lunch breaks
- Distraction-free worktime
13-15. Cultivate good reasons to stop working
Look for things you like to do so much, that you’ll actually stop work to do them. For example:
- Plan social meetups at the end of the workday forcing you to leave work on time (yes, your kid’s soccer game counts).
- Dig into a hobby (extra points if it’s a social activity where people will know if you’re gone).
- Schedule events that start at specific times—plan virtual conversations with your friends, make reservations to pick up food at your favorite restaurant, or commit to live online exercise classes—so you have no choice but to quit working at a certain time.
The key to overcoming overworking is defining your priorities and creating a structure that helps you break habits and achieve your goals. Just trying one or two of the tips above can make a big difference. Breaking the cycle of workaholism isn’t easy, but creating a healthier (and more productive) lifestyle is worth the effort.
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1. Stanford University and IZA, The productivity of working hours
2. Harvard Business Review, Why some men pretend to work 80-hour weeks
3. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, Work addiction is associated with increased stress and reduced quality of life