Breaking up the Workday– Overcoming the Workaholic Syndrome

workaholicHi, my name’s Dan Wahlin and I’m a workaholic – I admit it. It’s good from the standpoint that I get a lot done but it also has a lot of cons associated with it as well that I’m not proud of. I literally can’t watch TV without feeling like I should be doing something more productive (although I have no problem going to see movies at a theater or watching sporting events – that’s my escape I guess). On vacation it’s sometimes difficult the first few days to just “let go” of work and enjoy the time with my family. I always feel like I should be checking email and following up with different business projects. Fortunately, my wife knows me really well after 17 years of marriage and “gently” restricts my usage of laptops and other gadgets while we’re out. She also reminds me that constantly burying my face in gadgets just isn’t cool and shows a distinct lack of self control.

On a given day I typically put in between 12 (at a minimum) up to 16-18 hours working on projects. My company does .NET consulting (ASP.NET/jQuery, SharePoint and Silverlight) but we also do a lot in the training space so there’s always a client project, some new courseware or some other deliverable that has to be worked on. My normal process for handling that is to just work my butt off and see how much I can get done. That process has worked well for a long time but when you start realizing that your happiness comes from how much work you accomplished that day then you have a problem. That’s especially true if you have kids (which I do….two awesome boys). It’s almost as if working more hours feels like I’m more successful or something which is of course ridiculous. It may actually mean that I’m too distracted or disorganized.

Lately I’ve realized that while I’m still productive and always meet my deadlines, I’m really burnt out by the afternoon and have lost some of the excitement I used to have. Part of that’s normal I think given that I’ve been doing this for close to 15 years now, but in thinking through it more I realized that I just need to get away from the desk and take a break. By far, the happiest time of my life was my childhood. Part of that was due to having awesome parents, having far less responsibility (a big factor I suspect), being able to hang-out with friends at school, playing sports, games, etc. but I think a big part of the overall happiness came from being outside a lot. I lived on my bike as a little kid and as I grew up I shared time between riding an ATV all over the place, shooting hoops on the basketball court, playing golf and working on a golf course (all outside work of course).  Being a software developer and trainer I generally spend 95% or more of my day indoors and only see the sun when driving from place to place or by looking out the window (that’s sad because I live in a suburb of Phoenix, AZ where it’s nearly always sunny). I haven’t looked into any scientific studies on the matter, but I’d be willing to bet there’s a direct correlation between overall productivity/happiness and being outside some throughout the day (sunny or not). But, I wasn’t sure what to do about it since I do have a lot of deadlines I need to meet after all.

While talking with my wife last night I mentioned how I feel like I’m in a rut and want to get the “fun” back that I used to have. She immediately said that I need to start making time for breaks (a real quick fact – she’s a lot smarter than me and nearly always right). Of course my first thought was that I’d be less productive taking breaks. If I spend 2 hours just relaxing then I’m losing 2 hours of work. But, I thought about it more and realized that I’m probably less productive when I work 10+ hours and only take less than 30 minutes for a lunch break to relax a little. I bet my brain is screaming, “Please let me relax a little so I can figure out these problems you’re trying to resolve!”. So, starting today I’m going to try to break the workaholic habit and spend time outside of the office. That could mean sitting around outside, working out, golfing, or whatever. I’ve decided that no gadgets are allowed during that time and that I shouldn’t work for more than 4 hours straight without taking a break.

I have no idea how my little “break the workaholic syndrome” experiment will go or how long it will last, but I’d be very interested in hearing from others on how they keep fresh and focused without working yourself to death. If you have any specific ideas, techniques or practices you follow please share them. There’s a lot more to life than work and some of us (and I’m thinking of myself specifically) need to take a long, hard look at what kind of balance we currently have. I’d hate to look back at my life when I’m 80 years old and say, “The only thing I did was work – I missed out on life!”.

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  • You should really check out the Pomodoro Technique

  • Ken: Thanks for the suggestion. I've heard about that but never looked into it.


  • Ken: After reading the description that looks like a great book so it's on the way. Thanks again for the suggestion.

  • Hi Dan,

    The root cause is the amount of work you have on your plate. As you can see, it is not a simple fix, because as a consultant you need to have work in your pipeline. However, it is something worth thinking about. At what point do you knock back work?

    Furthermore, you have been at this for 15 years like a bullet train, it has built up a fair bit of momentum on its own. So your second question is what are you going to replace any new-found time with? For instance, teaching children is a scalable activity. I don't know how old your kids are, but teaching kids is like programming. It is not too hard to switch into this level of thinking. (Further down the road, you can ease yourself from having to turn every moment into an "educational" moment)

    Thirdly, I have no doubt you enjoy your work. In this sense, you are lucky because your work can be so satisfying. It is hard to keep bees away from honey. Sometimes, an enforced, disciplined approach to set your work aside to relax can work out just as well.

    I'm not an expert on this, still working through my own changes too.

    Good luck!

  • Chui: Thanks for the comment! Great advice and I agree with your root cause. :-) It's a good problem to have but does lead to a lot of work hours. But, I'm trying to balance things a little better and delegate as appropriate to consultants we work with.


  • Go work out at a set time every day. I go at lunch time, but pick a time that's good for you. Go sweat for 45 minutes. I find when I go run at lunch, it gives me time to mull over the problems of the morning and, sometimes, come up with some pretty creative solutions.

  • Thanks Jay...make sense to me.


  • How exactly do you get your wife to put up with it?

  • Good luck Dan. For me it is the 4 hours and then some activity or relax. I generally take 2 hours for lunch with my wife. However, I do also find the downtime productive. I cannot count the problems I have solved while walking during a break. As for TV, forget it, I am in the same boat.

  • Amen to that :) your post can almost be copied directly to my blog.

  • I have been a silent follower of ur blogs for sometime now.. This one was different and nice.. Hope ur new routine works wonders for u.. cheers!

  • On their death bed, I've heard of no one who has whispered "I only wish I had spent more time at the office." Good luck on your journey.

  • re: That could mean sitting around outside, working out, golfing, or whatever

    From one workaholic to another:

    I find best mental satisfaction is when I take a break doing something totally not related to software development, yet feel the activity results in something productive. And preferably an activity I don't have to concentrate a lot. Lawn needs mowed. Now there's an activity that's mindless, productive in I get some excersize, yet I can let my thoughts ponder about a problem while pushing the mower around the yard.

    My other passion is woodwork & home remodeling. Laying gas pipes, installing insulation, drywall, painting. I feel satisfied because I can see the results of something I've worked on (a workaholic's need!) yet those jobs still let me think about design patterns and software architecture while doing something like rolling on the paint.

    ( I do try to pay more attention to the task at hand when operating power tools. Don't want to be the guy who lays a router on the edge of a bench, with the bit not finished spinning, and leans over the bench to pick up something and puts his crotch into the spinning blade. ouch!)

    And if you want your spouse's admiration-- do a deep house cleaning and dusting. :-) The vacuuming, detailed dusting etc. More excersize than watching American Idol, and I feel like something got done which needed done, yet gave me a break from the LCD, while letting me think less focused pace than sitting at the desk.

  • Thanks for all of the feedback and ideas everyone! I appreciate it.

    Pascal: I agree completely. I doubt anyone will ever whisper the words, "I only wish I had spent more time at the office." on their death bed. :-)


  • My husband forwarded this to me after we had had a similar discussion - looking at the root cause of my workaholic susceptibility. Part of it was learned as a kid with the values my parents instilled. Beyond that though, working on projects I feel that agreed timelines is like giving your word. I will do whatever I can to not break my word.

    I have used that same mechanism to leave work. I have scheduled date nights with my husband - just a couple of days in advance - which allows an element of spontaneity while taking into account my workload.

    Thankyou others for your tips too - it is an ongoing fight for balance.

  • Karen:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I completely agree how committing to agreed timelines is like giving your word - I definitely feel the same way. I rarely miss deadlines but when I do I think I'm harder on myself than the actual client. It's definitely a fight for balance though as you mention. That's especially true when the projects are piled on and you know that if you stop working you'll fall behind. It can be tricky to manage.


  • Hello,

    I like your post so much that I used it on my blog and have mentioned that it is from this site.
    Hoping it should be ok with you.

  • Bala: No problem....appreciate it.


  • so nice to share this. I used to suffer a lot from this.
    For the last two years, I've had the chance to not be that far from work, and use public transportation. Then, I took it a little further by biking all the way to work and back :)
    That was my full brake, and exercise for the day :), and also, a way to grab my outside time apart from lunch.
    It's so nice when IT pros we look up to, bring such issues to the surface.

    Best Wishes for finding a good rythm.

  • formationusa: It sounds like you've found a nice balance there. I like the idea of being able to bike to work....built-in exercise. :-) Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Dan, here's the ideal opportunity to commit to hiking on a regular basis. It'll get you away from work, and hiking is highly productive in many respects too. Nothing can be healthier!

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