Spend some time at business conferences or gatherings of entrepreneurs and you’ll soon hear people saying "I’m a workaholic," "I’m married to my work," or "the only time I’m not focusing on my work are the five hours I sleep each night." The thing is, these declarations are virtually always boasts instead of quiet admissions of desperation for a more balanced life. Being a "workaholic" has become a badge of honor—a title signifying you are more dedicated to your startup or idea or project than the next guy.
But research has shown that being a workaholic is not only detrimental to your own health, but harmful to your relationships and your work. Besides damaging your personal relationships—because you aren’t there to nurture them—activities related to workaholism (having obsessive thoughts about your business, eating at your desk, not getting enough sleep) can lead to physical health effects, including increased risk of experiencing heart attacks and strokes, anxiety attacks, ulcers, burnout, depression, weight gain, and increased smoking or alcohol consumption. And if those health effects weren’t bad enough, studies have shown being a workaholic actually eventually makes you less productive than if you weren’t one.
Yet despite the drawbacks, our society is one that celebrates obsessive work ethics. Lucy Kirkness is a self-confessed former workaholic who founded her own SEO and digital marketing consultancy called Little Digitalist. She says that after founding the company she became a workaholic because of unreasonable fears that pervade the entrepreneur and business worlds. "One of which was definitely that you had to work all day and all night to succeed," says Kirkness. "There’s so much out there about how startup founders get up at four or five in the morning and work until evening, seven days a week. It almost seemed impressive, something I wanted to do. I soon found out that this kind of working life wasn’t the only way to succeed."
Indeed, Kirkness and three other entrepreneurs I talked to have said they’ve left their workaholic lives behind and still thrived in their professional lives in spite of—or even because of—setting work/life boundaries. Here is their advice on how to stop being a workaholic and still get ahead.
"When I started out I would take on every lead that came through, pursue almost every idea that I had for a side project, and generally do as much as I could physically manage," says Kirkness. "My to-do lists were as long as I am tall. It got to a point where I had taken so much on, and had such a huge to-do list that it was just too overwhelming, nothing got done."
After seven months of mental and physical exhaustion of taking on every project she began telling clients "no"—something she says is vital for workaholics to learn to do. "I have really tried to be a bit more cutthroat about the projects I take on, so that I have the time, energy, and focus to make a real success out of them, rather than spreading myself too thin. Since then, I’ve been able to take on fewer, but bigger and better clients, doing projects that utilize my best skills, and that at the end of the day, I enjoy the most."
The ability to say "no" means Kirkness has "managed to focus on the right clients, and the right projects, which has done wonders for my cashflow and overall revenue."
Juliet Francis started her own PR agency in her early 30s and soon found that she never really switched off when it came to business. "I was a slave to my desk dealing with every request and item on my to-do list whether or not it could wait. It was never ending," she says. Even her leisure time was spent discussing work—something she concedes contributed heavily to the breakdown of her marriage. Since then, she’s learned to take some time to switch off completely.
"The working culture favors the idea of being constantly busy, constantly ‘on’," she says, "but I’ve discovered that I am actually more productive with a healthier work/life balance, giving myself the time and space to be creative." For Francis that means leaving her devices behind and going to yoga classes three times a week and also taking walks in nature.
"If I had understood that taking a step back frequently and really switching off was so vital, I feel the company would have achieved more sooner," she says, noting that you need to learn to trust your instinct that shutting off now will lead to greater gains down the road. "Culturally, we are programmed to feel guilty about not ‘doing’ as much as we possibly can. If you remove this guilt and have trust that what your way is more efficient, you can achieve results that would otherwise be impossible."
Case in point: Trusting her inspiration to shut off from work regularly has led to results that she hadn’t anticipated. "Just the startup phase in my current company outstripped the peak success of my previous business. It has led me to trust the process and trust myself—something that is vital when you are running your own company."
Scott Woodley is a former primary school teacher who turned entrepreneur when he founded Tutora, an online marketplace for students and parents to find expert, local tutors for private one-to-one lessons in their own homes. Woodley says he had workaholic tendencies as a teacher but they became even more pronounced after he founded his own company.
"When faced with the choice between working or doing something for myself, not working felt selfish, so I started to work longer and longer days, until I eventually knew that I wouldn't be able to continue," Woodley says. "I was shattered and all of my hobbies were rapidly being replaced with work. I found I had little else to talk about other than how the company was doing." So why continue down this route if it was so damaging?
"I always felt that my own personal worth was wrapped up in how successful the business was," he says. "This drove me to work harder and harder, and I felt that working less hours than I knew was physically possible would somehow jeopardize our chances of success."
Yet today, Woodley says he is no longer a workaholic ,thanks to doing one important thing: talking to his friends and family about his feelings regarding work.
"For me, I'd entwined feelings of my own self-worth so tightly with the success of our business, I'd lost all sense of perspective," he says. "When I spoke to friends and family about this, they gave me a clearer perspective and allowed me to start viewing work as work. They reminded me that we'd been friends before the business, and they didn't really care how it went, as long as I was happy."
And those simple talks exploring his feelings have allowed him to thrive professionally.
"Since putting more solid restrictions on my work, I've had a better work-life balance and now go to work feeling happy. I now want to work, but not in a mad panic," Woodley says. "Instead, I now have a much more focused, strategic manner. This has helped me to make better decisions, prioritizing important tasks and delegating others."
"I generally get through nearly as much work as I did previously. Forcing myself to make time for other activities gives me a better perspective when working, and stepping back from the day-to-day work allows me to think more carefully about the longer-term aims of the company, which will help to better scale."
Three years ago Tom Bourlet was working full time as a digital marketer, had five freelance clients, and also ran seven blogs. Although admitting to being exhausted at times, Bourlet said he was happily balancing everything—until a bad month of work at his previous full-time job. "The stress all piled up at once" and so much so, Bourlet says, that he needed to cut himself off from everything to recover. He hopped on a plane and spent three months in South America.
"When I returned, I promised myself to work smarter rather than harder, to take on some of the unfinished challenges, but always ensure it never took over my life," he says. "I also cut all the freelance work from my life and I decided to work in-house rather than at an agency, as the stress levels are much lower and I’m much happier in my role."
Bourlet is now a senior digital marketer for The Stag Company and he says coming to the realization that you can’t learn every aspect of a role is one of the key steps workaholics need to make to get back their work/life balance.
"I believed as a digital marketer I had to learn how to code the site, make the page designs, PPC, SEO, social media, email marketing, affiliate management, content creation and strategizing, branding and community management, app development, video editing, e-commerce and CRM," he says. "It took me a few years to realize you simply cannot be an expert in every potential area of your role and what could take you a week to do, someone else could complete in just an hour." That’s when Bourlet realized he needed to learn to delegate tasks to others. "You have to accept your limitations and focus on what will benefit you and your business the most, rather than taking on every task yourself."
Bourlet says delegating tasks to others had two benefits. "First, it meant I could focus on the most important tasks. For example, by cutting the number of websites I was running, I could focus more of my time on my travel blog. The second benefit from cutting back on the number of tasks also meant I didn’t suffer burnout. I was previously feeling drained and I would get really bad headaches, which would actually lower my work rate, therefore by controlling stress levels and not pushing myself beyond my limits meant I was a happy worker and remained motivated."