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Why you think workaholics are sexy (and why you’re denying it)

Why you think workaholics are sexy (and why you’re denying it)

When I discovered the blogosphere, I was blown away by the holistic philosophy of many online experts. The 4 Hour Work Week, Zen Habits and pretty much every other blogger preached a laid back, chilled-out vision of business success.

Sign me up!

I’ve spent my career helping entrepreneurs find more wealth, freedom and sanity so holistic work/life balance is one of my hot topics! If you’re reading this, I’d bet you’re a big believer too.

However, deep down, you think workaholics are awesome.

Don’t deny it. You know that workaholic, that person you look up to because they get so much stuff done?

They’re busy, they’re important, they’re walking around taking calls on their iPhone, tweeting, checking email and being an all round badass.

Our society has glorified workaholics, to the extent that people look up to them and all hope that one day, they’ll be busy, important, overworked, stressed and an inch away from a nervous breakdown.

We look up to workaholics as movers and shakers. Someone who has a lot going on is living on the edge. A workaholic has a cellphone that rings & pings constantly, a twitter stream that’s updated every few minutes and a schedule like a rockstar on tour.

This, along with a sharp suit, a convertible and a downtown apartment – is the modern definition of success.

But we claim it isn’t! We’re holistic right? We want a 4 hour work week, we want to do yoga and work from our laptop in the tropics. Workaholism is sooo 1995!

These days, we really look down, scathingly, on workaholics because:

  • They have no work life balance. Their family and health suffer while they kick ass at work.
  • They’re stressed out all the time and everyone knows that stress is horrible and evil.
  • Deep down, we know that workaholics aren’t achieving significant stuff, since the stress and workaholic-ness gets in the way of working effectively.

Okay. So it sounds like people are pretty confused about workaholics. Do you love them? Do you hate them?

To make things clear, you’re going to have to look deep into the mirror of your unconscious. Cue dramatic, soul searching music.

We idolize workaholics, but only when we are one.

For most smart folks (like the good looking people who read this blog), we don’t look up to other workaholics for the shiny car or busy schedule.

We look down on them. We criticize their bad balance. We stare into the mirror that our unconscious mind is holding in front of us and we don’t like what we see.

Workaholics are crazy, deluded try-hards on the road to a heart-attack.

On the other hand, you know that when it comes to your life…

  • Being really busy sends a message that you’re important, doing important stuff and worth looking up to.
  • Being stressed out means that family and friends had better treat you nicely or you might flip out, crash and burn.
  • Working all hours of the day shows everyone that you’re operating at optimum awesomeness, being all you can be and harvesting every scrap of your potential.

Ah, it all makes sense now.

When we see someone else stressing with no balance, working hard but achieving nothing… they’re a workaholic and it ain’t cool.

When it’s you, it’s a whole other story.

Truth is, workaholism sucks. There are countless psychological studies indicating that beyond about 6 hours of work per day, us humans get damn useless. Most people know this and yet still work themselves crazy.

Why do we still think workaholism is a good thing?

The answer lies in what behavioral psychologists call “Secondary Gain” – the positive benefits of being a workaholic.

What would happen if everyone in your life (people that count) believed that:

  • You’re important and, also, you’re doing important work.
  • You should be treated nicely and with respect, irregardless.

  • You’re fulfilling your potential.

These perceptions, from your loved ones and/or colleagues are your Secondary Gain. When you act like a workaholic, people tend to believe those things about you.

The real question?

What would happen if people believed that good stuff about you, regardless of how many hours you worked? Without even knowing how busy you are?

How would you feel about yourself then?

Individuals driven to workaholism are doing it to achieve Secondary Gain – to improve their perceived value in the eyes of the people they care about.

But really, as I’m sure you’re guessing, it’s not about what other people think.

The hard questions

When did you decide your self worth had something to do with how many hours you put in, or how busy or stressed you are?

What if you could simply do important work and be all you can be – without busyness and workaholism?

Next time you see a workaholic on the street (or in the mirror) ask yourself: “Does this person need to be that busy? Do they merely want to be recognized and respected?”

Behind every negative behavior, even workaholism, is a positive intention. If you know a workaholic (perhaps really well), then you know what they’re really looking for.

More work is not the answer.

Have you ever caught yourself being a workaholic for Secondary Gain?


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  1. Love this post and have been thinking a lot about this lately. Johnny Truant wrote something on a similar topic that I can’t stop reading and think you might like: He talks about paying the price for success and how being a workaholic totally works, but you have to, you know, be a workaholic 😉

    1. Hey Marian 🙂

      I agree that hard work is important. It’s all about doing it for the right reasons… not just showing the world you’re a crazy-busy. Most workaholics aren’t even doing that much real work. There’s a difference between hard work and workaholic-ing 😉

      Love Johnny’s post – especially delivered in his hard hitting style

  2. Wow, that’s some food for thought.

    I’ve recently started working 10 to 14 hour days several times a week, and I do feel that I’m working to get results and recognition etc, but most of the time, I’m just really having a lot of fun doing what I enjoy. So would that qualify me as a workaholic?

    Disclaimer: I also tend to completely disconnect and slack off for a day if the mood strikes.

    To me, the switch came when I stopped looking at work as being work. I started this new business and while at first it was a bit stressful to get the clients, once I did land jobs, I discovered that it’s so much fun to write and do consulting that it’s not even work anymore.

    Hm. I think I should book an hour with you. I obviously have issues. Better yet, make it a full week 🙂

    1. Hey Martin!

      It’s all about your reasons why – I’ve worked 70+ hour weeks and loved it (or at least, loved the result)… but I don’t run home seeking validation from others. If you’re working to smash your personal targets, you’re doing it right!

      Think we should work together huh? Question is: Can you handle that much progress?

      You know where to find me 😉

  3. Tough question! I think when I was at my most workaholicy I was utilizing the fear of not having enough (money).

    Now I’m doing what I love, so sometimes I can “work” for 8-10 hours, and other days I’ll work for 1 hour. It all depends on my energy, and how many awesome books I have to read. Oh and I guess the sun plays a part in this 😉

  4. Were you looking over my shoulder while I was on holiday? LOL! I only worked two days out of the nine days off (and that was planned) plus a few hours on the other days….

    I’ve done the all day every day thing too, usually because I’ve left something until the last minute or even later….

  5. I worked bloody hard for the past few years. Dawn to dark, daily, 7 days a week, always near a computer, always doing something.

    I get the first two years – I was building a business, and part of what made my success was my response time. I was marketing, planning projects, negotiating, working, doing admin, etc… so that was “normal”.

    But when I hit six figures… it wasn’t normal anymore. I’ve signed up for time tracking a few times to figure out where my hours were going, and when I kept coming up with 11 to 16 hour days, it was a little scary.

    “I’m busy.” Nice excuse. “I’m working hard.” Really? “I HAVE to be there.” Who says? And so on and so on.

    Secondary gain of working? Escapism. Recently, a friend of mine called me up and said, “I’ve just had my kid alone for a week while my husband was gone, and I was working, too. I’m nearly a basketcase. Then it occured to me that you did this for five YEARS…”

    ‘Nother secondary gain? Respect. Admiration. PROOF. “Look! I am a successful businessperson! You can’t deny the facts!”

    ‘Course, then I started working with Peter this spring and life changed. Now I actually work about 5 hours a day, then blow off and live an awesome freelancer lifestyle. Which is WAY cooler to brag about and gets me a lot more envy 😉

    1. I did the 5 year deal, can’t wait for the time management course. I have to break that mindset. I would like to plan time with Peter, I think I’d benefit.

  6. I think nowadays with all the New Age-y BS it’s extremely easy to put the blame on who works too much, too long, too hard or a combination of the three.

    Frankly, I do qualify as a workaholic. I am one and I love it because people bum me out. I find most people to be too touchy feely, not abstract enough or not creative enough and I get bored out of my skull listening to them and their “challenges”.

    To me, the stress and anxiety I derive from work is like the one so many people get out of bungee jumping, parachuting or gliding. I need it to feel alive. I love to challenge myself, learn new stuff, solve new puzzles, create something bright, new and innovative whether somebody is there to acknowledge/witness/enjoy it or not!

    I couldn’t care less about what people think of me… I do care only as far as I can do some marketing about it and get some work – which keeps me happy and challenged.

    As for balance, I can hike for 40+ km if it’s challenging enough, I can read 4 books in a week, learn new languages, cook new dishes, make an entire Thanksgiving meal for 15 people all by myself, take 3 exams in 1 month in graduate school. BUT I still won’t give in to “social dinners”, “social graces” and all that “social grooming” bs, not even under torture.

    Some people are just pioneers… it’s a good thing, in this world of wishy-washy “balance” that so many claim to be able to achieve running away from extremes (btw the laws of physics SHOW beyond any reasonable doubt that it is unfeasible!).

    1. You know Rosanna, I want to agree with you. I think people who work had to make the kind of impact that could be defined as “pioneering” are awesome!

      That said, I do believe in the significant body of evidence that suggests that quality R&R is essential for keeping humans performing at their peak…. and feeling good while they do it!

  7. Hi Peter,

    Workaholism — one of my fav topics! From what I’ve observed workaholics often hide from life. It’s easy to throw yourself into work because it’s pretty much the default on the US side of the Pond. It’s much harder to carve a real life made up of play and work and civic duty and love and nature. In my twenties, I did the work thang and then the shopping thang to make myself feel better about the work thang and of course the TV thang at night because the work and play thang turned me into a semi-zombie that could only stare forward and mumble.

    It never occurred to me to do that play thang or the civic thang. And we’re now doing that to little kids earlier and earlier, telling them with forked tongues that work is the key to a life you’ll love and nothing else matters.

    When are we going to come clean with ourselves? G.

    1. Hey Giulietta – goooood point! I never really thought about this, but I think that most kids these days are aggressively sold on this particular image of “success”… I thought it was bad in the nineties, but it’s really still happening now, via the mainstream media.

  8. I think workaholism is good in the creative arts. I can become absorbed in working with paint and actually become less stressed the more I work. Painting 12 hours in a day is energizing.
    I may spend 3 hours online marketing, then change totally and completely over to working in my studio.
    Variety of tasks is key to reducing stress. I also work outdoors under covered work areas–roofed but w/no walls, so there is plenty of fresh air and natural light.

      1. Hi Peter
        Yes, 7 days per week. I probably work more like 18 hours per day. Starting at dawn daily. I get up a dawn every day without fail to feed my pet ducks and then get to work. But I also watch movies on DVDs, which I consider research in many ways–so I sit down too.

  9. Peter, great post and one we in the online space need to discuss.
    Here in the US workaholism (easy for me to say) is the holy grail of “success.”

    Being busy, being connected and making tons of cash are the yardsticks by which we measure our worth.

    Secondary gain is important to consider, but when a culture doesn’t recognize the laid back approach, it takes a lot of internal self awareness and confidence to walk that talk.

    1. Hi Susan, thanks for joining the discussion. I think you’re spot on about the self-awareness – many folks don’t have the internal rapport to have a clue what they’re doing to themselves or *why*… the secondary gain is deeply unconscious.

  10. Back when I broke the Google code (2004-2005), I would work perhaps one hour a day (building all the sites that automatically broke into the top 10 of SERPs). Ah, those were glorious times indeed.

    Since then, I’ve been bouncing between zero working and working insane hours – I’ve found that it pays to listen to when inspiration strikes. I can get a months’ work done in 3 days, and then rest big-time for weeks afterwards.

    However, I’ve decided the very best balance for ME personally is when I can take off time with the husband, time with the kids, and CHOOSE when to put the pedal to the metal, so to say. Sometimes hacking for hours on end is rather rewarding in of by itself (it emphasizes to me my extraordinary abilities and lets me pat meself on me back). Other times…it’s just a pain in the earlobe.

    So working for work’s sake? Not for me. Working for tangible benefits – DEFINITELY for me. And knowing when to outsource? It’s sanity-saving it is!

  11. I thought the idea of the secondary rewards was interesting.
    • You’re important and, also, you’re doing important work.
    • You should be treated nicely and with respect, irregardless.
    • You’re fulfilling your potential.

    When you spend your life doing volunteer work, there are no primary rewards and it is the secondary rewards that matter. I’m not sure the people making the primary rewards know that. Maybe your post will help them understand.

  12. I think there’s another reason why self-employed professionals are confused about workaholism. They may think they need to work more in order to earn enough. What I see happening is that people who aren’t business oriented invest in a marketing program here and a sales program there and keep themselves quite busy thinking about what they should be doing. The problem is that they don’t actually do the things. It’s amazing how busy people can keep themselves while they avoid the simple (if not thrilling) daily actions that will result in more business.

    Perhaps what I’m describing is not so much workaholism as busy-ism. In any event, I see it a lot and would love to see people slowing down and implementing a few of the things they learn.

    1. Spot on Molly… I think this is a fairly pervasive phenomenon among newbie entrepreneurs. The secret is to do *work that counts* and then let the details take care of themselves.

  13. I’ve always enjoyed hard work because I’ve been addicted to results. Exam grades, rpesentations, pitches, proposals.

    This made me miserable because I thought if I was good at something I should definitely pursue it and aim for the best result. Which meant I was flat out trying to be brilliant at absolutely everything. (Which I of course wasn’t)

    I’m better now in that I don’t want to be brilliant at everything, but I do want my business to succeed, and working hard at it shows me I respect it. I have endless admiration for James Chartrand, because that kind of long term vision is what I hope to achieve for my business one day. Though, I’m happy James now takes time off 🙂

    At the moment, I’ll find myself working for days straight and then doing nothing for a few days. My next step is to get into a bit of a more regular rhythmn.

    I’m still envious of people who can work on the go though. Any kind of travel just makes me sleepy and I’m rubbish doing proper work away from my desk and routine.

    1. Hey Amy,

      I believe that leverage is important – some of the *really* successful entrepreneurs (your Richard Branson types) manage to have an enormous impact in a severely short time frame.

      Equating long hours with brilliance works in school… but it’s a slippery slope for a business owner concerned with freedom as well as financial results.

      PS The secret to productive-travelling is to get over the novelty of it and realise you’re not on a holiday (if you aren’t)…. then create the same routine you had at home. Hotel rooms have desks for a reason 😉

  14. What an excellent subject, and well written argument for life balance.

    The workaholics I know, and have worked with are either dead, functioning with one lung, were publicly outed for misconduct, did jail time or lost children.

    I once believed all of the above, I know from experience and personal heartache, workaholism will kill you.

    My life is now lived with balance, with as little stress as possible, and time for reflection and contemplation.

    I know we can’t outsmart a day of reckoning, it comes to us all.

    While I no longer work the grueling hours of my former high powered years, I’m actually now create more worth than I ever imagined possible.

  15. “What would happen if everyone in your life (people that count) believed that:
    * You’re important and, also, you’re doing important work.
    * You should be treated nicely and with respect, irregardless.
    * You’re fulfilling your potential.”

    Had to think about this post some. You see, I really have been in that position (precisely once) in my work life.

    Everyone who counted was impressed with my title, my income, my authority (the man in my life was so impressed, I felt him leave the moment he heard I got the job). I believed that I was important, doing important work, deserved respect and was fulfilling my potential more than I’d been able to do in previous roles. I worked long hours, but that was mostly easy, and I did some great work. Unfortunately, I learned things about the ethics of the organization that weren’t tolerable for me, and I wouldn’t play along and couldn’t change them, so I quit.

    I don’t think anyone in my life really “gets” why I quit, or that integrity had to matter more. It was rather crushing to give up that “secondary good”, since I’ve rarely overcome wanting parental approval I lacked. However, I wouldn’t say it hurt as much as giving up the satisfaction of nurturing my team or solving problems of that magnitude, or making life-changing experiences possible for hundreds of people.

    So here I sit, asking myself Peter’s other question:

    “What if you could simply do important work and be all you can be?”

    I get glimpses now and then, and I think I’m moving (sometimes crawling) in the right general direction. It’s just really hard to shake off all the reasons I’ve been given for decades about why not, and just shine. Especially solo – where there’s no deflecting the judgment of others, or myself.

    1. Hi Karilee – thanks for this candid and significant comment 🙂

      Part of the secret here is to act “as if”…. almost by pretending that you don’t really care for the validation of others. Act as if that were true for long enough and pretty soon you’ll produce the kind of results that’ll blow people away anyway.

      … BUT, by that point, it won’t matter what they think 😉

  16. Okay, this post was great! I really resonate with it. It reminds me of my own internal conflict with wanting to work A LOT (to impress others in a superficial “I work hard!” kind of way) instead of working meaningfully (in a way according to my values and beliefs).

    Slowly it is becoming easier for me to adopt a more genuine work ethic, and look passed all the bullshit.

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