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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

3 Reasons You Work Too Much—and How to Overcome Each One

Do me a favor and read these questions:

  • Do you frequently opt to work through lunch, declining opportunities to eat with friends?

  • Do you have no idea when you will find the time to do everything that is asked of you (even though you work way more than 40 hours per week)?

  • Do you get a feeling of anxiety in your gut every time your boss swings by to give you another assignment?

Any (or all) of these sound like you? Congratulations, you win! And by win, I mean you officially work too much.

Now, here’s the good news: If you struggle with work-life balance, it means you’re smart, competent, and valued at your company. Indeed, it’s the curse of being good at your job that you’re getting more work thrown at you that you can handle. This happens to the best of them—in fact, it happens most often to the best.

From my experience, there are three primary reasons why people overwork. Here’s an explanation (and a solution!) for each one.

1. Survival

This motivation centers on a fear of loss: loss of a job, loss of a promotion, loss of status or reputation, loss of dignity. You may feel like you’re just “trying to keep your head above water” and believe that the extra hours are the best way to make sure your company never lets you go. So, what if it comes at the expense of your relationships—at least you’ll have your job, right?

How to Overcome It

The first question to ask yourself is whether or not this feeling is being driven by something occurring at your company (think: layoffs, budget cuts, new management). Or, alternatively, if everything is pretty much status quo, but you feel nervous all the time anyhow.

If it’s the former, you’re right to step your game up at work. However, time outside of the office is also important, because you’re going to want to update your resume and reach out to your network in case your job isn’t as secure as you’d hope. (Caveat: If the “threat” is simply a cutthroat workplace culture, question if it’s something you enjoy, or if you’d be happier at a company where your co-workers weren’t waiting to snatch your accounts.)

But what if you’re in the second category? There’s no imminent threat, but you feel nervous anyhow. First, accept that some level of preparing for anything to happen is a good thing, because it motivates you to keep your eyes open and your skills fresh. But then, remember that continuing to fear that no one will think you’re good enough unless you work 80 hours a week is probably adding a lot of stress to your life, and not leaving you very much time for friends, family, and sleep.

So, try this experiment: Next week, try to go home an hour earlier each day. Not only that, but spend that hour exercising, calling a friend, or doing something just for you. After the week is over, see if you still have your job, status, and your dignity. I’ll bet you do—and that you were a lot more pleasant to work with to boot.

2. Personal Gain

As you probably guessed, this motivation centers on money. You have your eye on the financial prize, and if working crazy hours is what it takes to pad your bank account, you’re in. You don’t have time to eat out, shop, or make it to the gym; but hey, you can afford all of the above.

How to Overcome It

There is nothing wrong with getting a piece of the action, but working around the clock just for financial gain can lead to burnout. To increase your salary without increasing your workload, there are two things you can do. The first is to ask for a raise—not a promotion with more responsibility, but a raise. Put together some talking points on why you deserve one based on your skills, your experience, what you’ve accomplished recently, and the competitive marketplace. You might get shut down, but if you don’t, then you will have increased your personal gain without adding more hours to your workday!

The second thing you can do is get really specific about what your financial goals are. Maybe you’re saving up for your wedding, to move to a bigger place, or to go on a trip. Those goal lines can get you through the months of working overtime or doing your side gig all weekend. Just remember that when you meet your goal, you’re allowed to pull back.

Alternatively, if it’s just to have money, take a moment and examine not just what’s coming in, but what’s going out. Yes, you’ve heard this advice before—but that’s because it works. Packing lunch versus buying lunch, eating in instead of out, examining how much you spend on clothes, gifts, gym memberships—whatever it is, see where cutting down on expenses can translate to you being able to work less (or even take a lower-paying job).

3. Passion

If this is your core motivation, you’re one of the lucky ones. You’ve found what you love to do and are doing it every day (OK, and night). Your enthusiasm for your job causes you to get lost in your work such that you lose track of time—and sleep. But who needs sleep anyhow? Answer: You do.

How to Overcome It

Far be it from me to tell you to do less of what you love, but I can share that increasing balance in your life increases passion as well. Seriously, you’ll get some much-needed distance to make sure you’re coming to your work with a fresh—and rested—perspective.

So, branch out a little by experimenting with activities outside of work. For example, you may find that you have a huge passion for developing confidence in kids by coaching an athletic team. Or, you may find meaningful work in volunteering at a homeless shelter. Hey, you may even find a passion for rest and renewal by reading and sleeping more!

Struggling to find the time to do anything after hours? Muse Master Coach Melody Wilding suggests, “…schedule your day creatively by using enjoyable personal or social activities to sandwich your to-do list. For example, make plans to attend an art class or meet a friend after work to put a hard stop on the time you leave the office.”

By introducing variety into your life, you’ll use different parts of your brain and body, which will in turn make you more passionate and productive at work.

Don’t get me wrong, hard work makes the world go ’round. But when you’re at your desk at 8 PM on a Wednesday, you should know why you’re there, and that it’s where you want to be.

Photo of woman working late courtesy of Shutterstock.