Escaping Into Work: How We Use Work To Fill Up Our Lives

We’ve all heard the term “workaholic.” The person is who is always “on” when it comes to their work, who can’t slow down and can’t relax. Perhaps we’ve been a workaholic in certain seasons or particular jobs. Maybe you’re one right now. In America, the constant push to work, work, work is a badge of honor. The person who can go months without a break, goes top speed for hours upon hours each day, the person who takes “working vacations”; these are traits commonly associated with the high achievers and the go-getters.

These individuals are setting a course for SUCCESS.

But what’s driving us when we go headlong into our work?

Is it really about getting the work done?

Are we running to something or from something?

Too often, when we spend the majority of our focus on work, we’re compensating for the other areas of our life. Our work becomes more than a productive means to an end; it becomes an escape from the rest of our lives. And this escape comes with a host of pitfalls for pursuing a life well-lived.

Control

Work problems are more attractive than personal issues. When you negotiate a successful deal, mitigate a question, or find an innovative solution at work, there are an immediate feedback loop and a dopamine hit of results and praise. There are high-fives and reporting metrics. Solutions and credit are quickly and widely known. That type of problem-solving environment feels comfortable and controllable.

Our personal problems seem more intractable and difficult to tackle. They follow us no matter where we are or who we are around. Often they are personality flaws (a tendency to quickly anger, a condescending attitude, or a penchant for laziness) which we have lived with for so long that a solution seems unattainable. And the feedback loop is much less defined. No one but you will know if you bite back your harsh words to a co-worker. No one will be overly impressed if you start getting up 30 minutes earlier each day to meditate and work out. The only one who will likely know these changes is you.

And why should you care?

You’ve put up with it for this long, right?

The paradox is that issues with our work environment are often out of our control and our personal problems are entirely within our control, but we focus on the work because it seems more easily attainable in the immediate future.

The god-complex

Escaping into our work can be a symptom of a besetting case of the “god-complex.” The god-complex is defined as some variation of the following:

It all depends on me.

I am responsible for all of this.

If I don’t do it, it won’t get done, and it certainly won’t get done right.

The god-complex is both maddening and unhealthy. It’s maddening because work does not end. Each task or project completed is immediately followed by…more work. To think that the entirety of that work rests squarely on your shoulders will drive you insane with stress and worry. That stress and anxiety has profound health effects and creates deep psychological channels in our modes of thinking that will be hard to reroute and correct in the future. We become creatures of stress and worry because we practice stress and anxiety.

Diligence Not Obsession

We need to be diligent in our work. That’s called stewardship. But there is a difference between being thorough and being obsessed. Workaholics are obsessed with their work. It’s their reason for being, for existing. Being diligent in our labor is about seeing work as a tool, a means to an end.

That end can be monetary, a productive purpose for each day, or (hopefully) ongoing personal interest in the work itself. But a diligent person is not obsessed with work; hardworking individuals know when and how to set work aside and move on to the other essential facets of their life (family, interests, fun)

An observation: many of us become obsessed with work that we are not interested in. We harbor misplaced feelings of responsibility and ownership, sweating over getting things done that are not important, and for which we have little personal interest.

Instead of being concerned with effectiveness and results, we become obsessed with every component of our work, prioritizing them all as “important” and spending far too much time and attention on them. If everything is necessary, nothing is essential. We do not need to be obsessed with our jobs to be good at our jobs.

Boundaries Not Compartments

We cannot compartmentalize our lives; we need to be the same type of person throughout each area of life, regardless of the circumstance or our particular role. To be a loving and gentle parent at home, but a tyrannical and deriding supervisor at work is to be two-faced and living two divergent lives. If someone is escaping into their work, they are avoiding other roles in their life. It could be the role of friend, spouse, parent, mentor; whatever it is, workaholics will always elect to prioritize the role of “worker” over them all.

We need boundaries. There needs to be a clear boundary between work time and personal time, between when our energies and focus are given to work and when they are given to other things. This boundary requires diligence and a network of good habits to enforce, but it is profoundly liberating to daily leave work (both physically and mentally) at the workplace. We’re then free to attempt to be better at other roles and relationships.

What We Give Up

Often in our work, we are prioritizing different tasks, information, and opinions. We rank things that need doing and the importance of the information we have. But we do not apply that same practice of prioritization to our life outside of work. If our lives are illustrated as a pie chart, we often have only two significant sections in the mix: WORK and everything else.

A pie chart of our life should look more similar to a diversified portfolio, where work is one part of overall vitality. Work should be a component of a life well-lived, not an outlet from it. It’s a matter of time and energy, and everything has an opportunity cost.

By escaping wholly into our work, we give up growth in other areas. There’s the sacrifice of our mental and physical energy solely to our work. When it comes time to work on relationships, personal growth, health, or fitness, we are already running a deficient in our ability to invest in those areas.

Value and Worth

Escaping into our work misses the boat when we think of value and worth. Our value and quality must be indifferent to the work we do. If we derive our self-worth and value, only concerning the work which we accomplish, it can all be taken away from us by one conversation with someone in charge.

We are not our work. Our children, family, and friends will not care if any of us holds the position of CEO or janitor. The value we give in the other areas of our lives and respect that others have for us is unrelated to our work. People are interested in each other as people, not as job descriptions and To-Do lists.

Instead of escaping from our lives into our work, we should be moving towards a holistic experience where work plays a part but is not the end goal. There is so much more to be engaged in, let’s not limit ourselves with an obsessed view towards our labor. Each of us have other important things that deserve our attention.

Moving Forward

Do you often find yourself prioritizing work over your personal life?

Have you developed any methods or tactics for resisting the siren call of “escaping into work”?

Originally published at https://fjwriting.com on September 4, 2019.

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Frederick Johnston

Frederick Johnston

Lifelong writer and researcher, often can be found at FJWriting.com, pursuing a life well lived