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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

5 Ways to Tell Whether You're a High Performer or a Workaholic

Productive and busy, we all know, are two fundamentally different things. The trouble is they can sometimes look a lot like each other, at least on the surface. That makes it easy for entrepreneurs to mistake their own packed schedules—or those of their employees—for evidence of exceptional achievement.

What’s needed is a gut check—a quick list of questions to help you determine if a person is a genuine high performer, working hard in a sustainable way toward well-defined and important goals, or a workaholic, who is burning himself out running around endlessly without a clear focus.

Jullien Gordon, founding partner of consultancy New Higher, thinks he has developed just such a test. In a LinkedIn Influencer column recently, he shared a list of questions you can use to tell if all that frantic activity you or your staff is engaged in is a sign of actual business progress or simply the byproduct of workaholism.

Here are five of them:

1. What’s Your Goal?

High performers work plenty of insane days, but they always have specific reasons for doing it. It’s not simply the status quo. If there’s nothing that can get done at the moment, a high performer won’t manufacture busy work for herself. A workaholic will.

“A high performer’s number one goal is to do business. The only thing that matters to them are results. If they can’t see a way to create value in the moment, they facilitate or strategize instead. They know that like the economy, business comes in waves, therefore, they get ready during the dips so they can capitalize during the upswings,” writes Gordon. On the other hand, “a workaholic’s number one goal is to be busy. Workaholics fill any space in time with busy work because they feel insecure doing nothing.”

2. Is There an End Line?

Are you the type who sets a goal, attains it, and then realizes that whatever you’ve accomplished isn’t quite enough? Be warned, you might be a workaholic. These workers are often guilty of moving the goalposts on themselves to ensure they’re always, always running.

“A workaholic doesn’t know what enough is. I’m not good enough. This isn’t good enough. I don’t have enough time. I don’t have enough support. They are always focused on more and seeking to maximize everything because they don’t really know what success means to them,” Gordon explains. High performers, on the other hand, know success when they see it and know to savor it.

3. Do You Ever Turn it Down?

Nothing is ever constant in this world. Your energy, your to-do list, the importance of the task at hand all vary. So high performers also vary their level of effort depending on these and other factors. Workaholics are the exception to this rule of nature—they’re always running at maximum capacity (until they inevitably flame out, of course).

4. Are You Proactive or Reactive?

A high performer is proactive about their time and work. They design their day and anchor the most meaningful and important things in time first, and then they allow fires and other unplanned events to fill in the rest of their day. They don’t allow distractions to deter their strategy,” Gordon asserts. “A workaholic is reactive about their time and work. They allow other people to choose how their time gets spent working by reacting to emails, fires, unplanned events, and other distractions that arise throughout the day.”

5. Who Sets Your Value?

This might be the most fundamental difference between high performers and workaholics. The latter types look for validation outside themselves; the former types knows their own worth and don’t need to constantly prove it to others. High performers, therefore, have a sense of interior calm and “create their own feedback loops,” while workaholics live with the nagging fear of failure or disappointment that comes from constantly seeking validation from others.

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