Trapped in a Hamster Wheel of Overwork? 4 Ways to Break the Cycle

We now live in a world where it is possible to work every waking minute. Technology has blurred the edges of the workday, and companies increasingly require workers to be available around the clock. This is particularly true among the global executives I coach, who do business across time zones.

Trapped in a Hamster Wheel of Overwork? 4 Ways to Break the Cycle

We all know constant work is bad for us, and yet it can be hard to break the habit. Reclaiming your time and your life is simpler than you might think.

By Maya Hu-Chan
Leadership expert and executive coach@mayahuchan

We now live in a world where it is possible to work every waking minute. Technology has blurred the edges of the workday, and companies increasingly require workers to be available around the clock. This is particularly true among the global executives I coach, who do business across time zones.

Many clients tell me they struggle to get off the hamster wheel of incessant work. Trying to get ahead, they routinely push past their limits, believing they can’t take a break until they’re completely caught up. Over time, this tendency hardens into a habit. Burnout is inevitable – and the costs are high, personally and professionally.

The silver lining in this cloud is that breaking the addiction of overwork is relatively straightforward. A few simple steps really do make a world of difference, if you commit to them. That isn’t always easy, of course. But stepping away from work to care for your health and well-being is rarely the disaster my clients fear it will be. Instead, it helps them become not only happier and healthier but also much more productive.

1. Take time for rest and recovery.

Research has shown that our brains need to shift out of a state of high alert to recover properly. Only then can we work productively. If you think you can’t afford to take even a small break, consider what happened to a global executive I know. Every day, Martha (the names in this column have been changed to protect confidentiality) woke up at 5 a.m., got on conference calls with Europe, and stayed on the phone while getting ready and eating breakfast.

She made it into her office by 8:30 and did U.S. business during regular office hours. From the time she got home at 7 p.m. until 11 or even later, she took more calls with Asia. Sometimes, she even booked two calls at once, which she justified by saying, “I have two ears.”

Over time, of course, this life style wasn’t sustainable. Martha eventually got pneumonia and had to take a month off. Her health, at age 38, was precarious. She ended up leaving her job.

2. Make a plan and stick to it.

The great thing about coaching workaholics is that they will work tirelessly to implement a plan – even if that plan is to relax. A client of mine, Jake, a very successful scientist, was in the habit of using nights and weekends to catch up on emails. He had little life outside work, and neither did his reports, who felt they had to respond to his missives right away.

We made a new plan, in which Jake would stop emailing outside business hours, exercise three times a week and join a hiking and photography club. He also enlisted his assistant to make sure that he remembered to eat a decent lunch.

He took on these changes and the results were dramatic. His work did not suffer – by contrast, he was more energetic, came into work feeling recharged and happier, and was more productive on a daily basis.

3. Shift your mindset.

My mentor, the executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, taught me this exercise, which I do often with my clients. Imagine you are 95 years old, and you’re about to take your last breath. In that moment, you get a magical gift to go back in time and talk to yourself as you are now. What advice would you give yourself? Whatever that advice is, I suggest you take it now – not later, not after you finish six more emails or get that promotion. You have one life to live and one chance to be happy. Do it now.

4. Redefine success.

Success can take many forms. Sometimes it’s not a big office or a pay raise. Next time you are staring into your computer screen at midnight, your eyes blurring from exhaustion, ask yourself what you are achieving by working so hard. If you are risking burnout for money, status or some other conventional marker of achievement, ask yourself, “Is it really worth it?”