Work Less. Live More: How to Stop Working So Much in 2021
Workaholism and the burn-out it often brings can undermine even the strongest leader's mental health and well-being. That trapped-on-a-treadmill feeling can rob you of so many things that mean so much – time with your family, a chance to pursue a favorite hobby or simply an opportunity to adequately rest and recharge.
Considering the unprecedented amount of change and uncertainty 2020 has brought, this threat looms even larger for leaders today.
You're not alone if you struggle with overworking. I've had many discussions with leaders, especially recently, about their desire to find a more sustainable and rewarding approach to life and leadership.
If you're ready to add "Work less. Live more." to your 2021 new year's resolutions, I hope you'll take a few minutes to read through this post. You'll come away with:
- A better understanding of why you might be working so much;
- A list of questions you can ask yourself to help you determine whether you're just working hard or if you are consistently overworking; and
- Practical strategies to help you better manage your work so you can make more room for your life.
Why we work so much
Let's start by thinking about what it is that drives us to overwork. Technically speaking, workaholism is the compulsion or uncontrollable need to work incessantly. It's a term that was coined in the 1970s to describe a tendency that has plagued countless leaders in their professional and personal lives. There are many reasons for it: perfectionism, Imposter Syndrome, and a fear of losing control to name just a few.
To be clear, it's not a bad thing to work hard – quite the opposite. Most successful leaders love their work and feel called to pursue it. They are ambitious and results-oriented, leaning into opportunity and willing to go the extra mile to achieve their goals. This is often what sets leaders apart from their peers.
But being driven can quickly become a weakness when it's taken to an extreme. Worse yet, this shift from hard worker to over-worker often happens without you're realizing it, and it occurs quite frequently during times of uncertainty.
Why? When we sense things shifting under our feet, we no longer have clarity about our situation or feel in control. What's our response? Work harder and longer. Run faster. And ask everyone else to pick up the pace, too.
The price you pay
Throughout the pandemic, working long hours has been the norm for many of us. But there is a difference between working hard for short periods of time when it's needed and working constantly with no letup or downtime at all.
While it's okay to go all-in on work for a while, you can't sprint through an entire marathon. You must learn to pace yourself and allow others to catch a breather every now and then too. If you don't, you stand to lose a lot:
- Talented employees may begin to leave in search of a more balanced work environment.
- Your physical health will begin to diminish.
- Your mental and spiritual health will fade.
- Relationships with those you love the most will suffer.
- You'll wake up one morning and realize you've lost the joy in the journey.
I know how bad this can be because I struggled with overworking myself. As an entrepreneur, I logged long hours nearly every single day for years on end, never finding the "off switch." All I thought about was building my company, reaching our goals and setting new ones in a never-ending cycle. My relationships suffered, I ignored my physical, mental and spiritual health, and believed I didn't have time for hobbies.
I loved my work, but I wasn't living and leading in a sustainable way. Something had to change.
Questions to ask yourself
Stop for a moment and think about your own work patterns. If you've been working all hours of the day and night, weekends and holidays, consider whether this is less about the actual demands of your work and more about your desire to cope with the anxiety that uncertainty can produce. Or perhaps it's unrealistically high expectations you can't let go of, an addiction to the high of achievement, or a fear of being discovered as a fraud that drives you to work incessantly.
Whatever the cause, the result is an unhealthy and unsustainable pace that will eventually exact a heavy toll. If you're not sure whether you're just working hard or consistently overworking, here are a few questions you can ask yourself that might help you discover some deeper insights.
- Why do I work so much?
- What am I afraid might happen if I don't work this hard?
- Who could I check in with to see if these concerns are reasonable or realistic?
- Do I find myself thinking about work all the time?
- Have my relationships with friends and family suffered because of my work?
- Have my physical, mental or spiritual health steadily declined because I am working so much?
- Do I believe it's okay to work all the time if I really love what I do?
- Do I enjoy work more than anything else?
Practical strategies to stop overworking
There is good news: You can change. I found a better approach that allowed me to balance my driven nature with a desire to live a whole life. By shifting my mindset about how and why I work, and making different choices about my time, I became what I think of as a "destination leader with a journey mindset." This is someone who is still focused on reaching goals, but who has also learned to enjoy the ride with those they love most.
While I encourage you to take some time to go deeper on how and why you tend to work so much, here are a few practical strategies that can help you get some immediate relief.
Minimize the distractions
Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy. We allow ourselves to become easily distracted during normal working hours. As a result, we're not as efficient as we could be, and we believe our only choice is to work more.
The key is to learn how to minimize distractions so you can get more done in the same amount of time. Here are some tips.
- Block your calendar – Schedule blocks of time on your weekly calendar when you can focus without distractions. Pick a time of day when you are at your best – perhaps start your workday an hour early twice a week. Use this time for strategic thinking or to tackle more complex tasks.
- Mute the alerts – Whenever possible, disable desktop alerts and put your phone on silent so you are not as tempted to check on email or Slack while you are working. Instead, schedule times throughout the day when you can check-in and respond as needed. This means also resisting the urge to check social media or news apps unless it's on a break or at the end of the workday.
- One thing at a time – Don't switch back and forth. Multi-tasking or frequent stopping/starting requires more ramp-up time for your brain and makes you much less efficient and productive. Your best ideas will come when you can focus on one thing at a time.
- Clear the space – Make your workspace as neat as possible. This will help you avoid visual distractions that can pull you away from the task at hand. If you've allowed paperwork to pile up, grab a few file folders to get things organized. Then tuck it all safely away until you need it again.
- Inspire your space – While tidying up, be sure to include something on your desk that will put you in a positive frame of mind. A bouquet of flowers, a favorite photo, or a candle can put a smile on your face even during crunch time and inspire you to get a project across the finish line in time for dinner with your family.
Organize your to-do list by due date
Many times we work furiously because we feel overwhelmed by the number of things we have to get done and we don't have a clear sense of what is actually due by when. You can minimize anxiety and maximize productivity by organizing your to-do list by due date. This will give you a clearer picture of the order and importance of each deadline and allow you to prioritize the work accordingly. Try this two-step process:
- Write it down – To start, don't waste another minute trying to remember what you need to do. Your short-term memory can only hold between five and seven items (at the most) at any given moment. Instead, get everything out of your head and into ONE LIST -- on a single piece of paper, in Evernotes or the Notes function on your phone. This will eliminate your fear of forgetting something important and keep all your to-do's in one place.
- Organize it by due date – Next, prioritize the list by deadline. What needs to be done today is what you focus on first. Then move to the next item as it is due. You can jot due dates down in the margin beside each item, or try a color-coding approach. Whatever works. Just create a method for recognizing deadlines to help you know what needs to be done by when.
While there are many other criteria you can consider when setting your priorities, I have found using a due-date filter to be one of the best ways for me to keep constantly changing demands, unexpected requests and quick-turn projects in check.
Once you tackle your current to-do list, you can begin doing this on a weekly or monthly basis. This will allow you take even greater control over your calendar and build more time into planning around deadlines, especially crucial for more complex and long-lead projects.
Become a better delegator
Most leaders are guilty of holding things too tightly – they think they are the only ones who can or should tackle an assignment. You will make your life easier and allow others to grow and learn new skills if you will learn to delegate effectively.
This means you can't "dump and run" whenever you want to hand over an assignment to a teammate. You must be thoughtful about who you ask to do what and when. Then do your part to provide context, share resources, teach as needed and coach for the win – especially when you're tempted to take things back.
Here are a few simple steps to improve your delegation effectiveness:
- Make a list of responsibilities others could handle besides you.
- Consider who could have time and interest to tackle these things in the future. Also, consider what might be a stretch opportunity for someone on your team.
- Approach them to see what would work for them.
- Make the match, setting a timetable for transition and a strategy for the hand-off.
- Delegate with a share/teach/coach approach for the win, staying close enough to ensure the hand-off is successful without taking the project back at the first stumble.
If you want to go deeper on the art of delegation, you can find more tips here.
There are many other ways of combatting workaholic tendencies, such as saying "no" more often, renegotiating deadlines or simply showing self-compassion. As you closeout 2020 and prepare for the year ahead, my hope is that you'll give a gift to yourself and those you love this holiday season by learning how to step off the treadmill and step into a more balanced life in 2021.
If you're interested in learning more about delegation, organization and building a better team, take a look at my six-week virtual leadership experience, Rising to the Challenge Leadership Academy.