It sometimes feels like there are not enough hours in the day to live our best lives. Especially when it comes to our careers and our work. How do we stop working so much more than we really want and let go of our tendencies to overwork ourselves? In today’s episode, we’ll cover why we overwork and how to actually cut back.
We overwork for a myriad of reasons.
There’s a fine line between pushing yourself and dedicating time and effort to achieve a goal, to working to the point of burnout. Many times, we don’t know where this line actually exists. We create this illusion of thinking that the only way to get through this pile of work is to work non-stop until it goes away. What we forget is that it doesn’t go away. It hasn’t truly ever gone away. Why is this?
Our overworking and burnout comes from the idea that situations (fact) leads to a thoughts, thoughts lead to feelings or emotions, feelings or emotions leads to an actions, and actions lead to results. This pattern of situation, thoughts, feelings, actions, and results are happening multiple times a day. While the situations will always be present, recognizing that the thoughts you have are leading to the emotions that create an urge to work can help you identify how to stop these patterns from happening.
We will always have the ability to do another project and take on more work. We will always have the thought of “it’s not good enough” or “I want to be a superhero”. When we satisfy these urges, however, by taking an action like working, we end with a result that we don’t want. This result is overworking.
Let’s walk through an example. The situation is that you get asked for a status on how your business is performing. You then begin to think “Why is this person asking me? Is there a problem?”. This leads to the feeling “I’m not doing enough. I’m not doing as well as I should.” This feeling of insecurity leads to an action of finding additional work or moving timelines up. You work a lot more to satisfy the urge of wanting to look like you’re doing well. You want to send a status of “hey look at all the amazing things I’ve done and I’m doing.” As you start working, you get the dopamine hit of achievement because you think “they can’t possibly ask for more” or “I’m worthy because I’m good at my job”. The result is a work life filled to the brimm with projects and work you are finding difficult to complete and a frazzled, tired, frustrated you. You think to yourself, I really want to stop overworking and I am burning out, but I don’t feel like I can.
If this sounds familiar, know that you’re completely normal. Our habits of over-working, overdrinking, overeating, over-anything come from a place of normal brain function and psychology. The prefrontal cortex and the primitive brain. The prefrontal cortex is the executive function of the brain. It’s the decision-maker, strategizer, and planner. The primitive brain is the pleasure seeker and pain avoider. It’s responsible for our survival because pleasure was associated with things good for our survival like food and sex. It provides rewards for behaviors that avoid pain and produce pleasure.
When we work more than necessary and are rewarded for it by external validation, we receive this hit and high of achievement. When we work a lot and avoid a painful interaction from someone who we think questions our ability, we find relief. Each time we experience a trigger thought or situation and we end up working and feeling the hit or relief of achievement it perpetuates this neural pathway of urge and reward through working. The way to manage this seemingly out of control behavior is to use the prefrontal cortex in two ways.
The first is to use your thinking and discernment abilities by being the gentle observer of your thoughts. Observe with curiosity and without judgement the trigger thoughts and situations that create an urge to work. You can even write them down. Journaling helps me identify the thoughts and stories I have on replay. Ask “why do I feel this way”? “Why do I work” “What am I masking through overworking?” Overworking can mask uncomfortable thoughts like “we can’t do it all”, or override feelings that we truly are vulnerable. We overwork because we think our life needs more meaning, juice, excitement or glory.
The second is to use the strategizing abilities of your prefrontal cortex by planning. Can you do one thing that can help you cut down on overworking? Never work without planning for it at least 24 hours in advance. Never take on an additional workload without planning for it by understanding why you want to do it and listing out what the consequences would be. If you feel the strong urge to work at an unplanned time, delay it for at least 24 hours. Your prefrontal cortex will do what is best for you. By actively and consciously deciding how much and when you are going to work, you will activate all the decision-making abilities that allow you to weigh consequences prior to the event occurring.
Triggers are what cause us to start going down this pathway so it’s important for us to understand what triggers us into overworking – or any behavior where we’re overdoing anything? When we can recognize these triggers, we have a fighting chance. Once you’re presented with the trigger, you have a few choices. The first thing you can do is to succumb to the trigger. You end up working later than you want and more than you desired. The second thing you can do is fight against it using your willpower. Willpower, however, is a finite resource. You know this because when you see that piece of cake sitting in the fridge 4 times a day, you’ll end up eating it. The third thing you can do when you’re presented with a trigger is to allow it to be there. To be the gentle observer. To not respond to it but just to see that you want to work again.
If you’re able to witness the feelings and desires of engaging in the behavior you don’t want, you are able to create a new neural pathway. One that associates the trigger with a different set of learned behaviors – not responding to it. You can see now how this ability to manage our unwanted behaviors is so powerful because we can do this in many areas of our lives. Areas where we over do anything so that we can feel an emotion or not feel an emotion. This allows us to live a life where instead of skirting around all the issues using food, alcohol, work, shopping, etc – we are facing our fears head on. This is not easy, but it’s the work of engaging with our lives fully. It’s using the energy that we’ve been using to create distractions and harnessing it towards solving the problem at its core. Whether it’s the belief that we’re not worthy, fun or deserving of the good life without certain kinds of behavior – these are the ways we’ll challenge ourselves to grow.
There’s a freedom that is created when you begin to master yourself. The ability to master your thoughts, emotions, physiology and actions in your life so that you can literally create the results you want to see in your life. This is powerful – so powerful that we often self-sabotage ourselves when we are moving in this direction. We are uncomfortable with who this new person is becoming that we move back into our old habits. This is where we have to ask ourselves how much freedom do we want to have in our lives? If we want ultimate freedom, mastery over our thoughts, physiology and habits are a must. Overdoing anything, including overworking isn’t the problem – it’s that we don’t investigate whether or not these patterns are serving us.
Work in and of itself, is not a bad thing – but it’s up to us to know the difference and choose how we spend our precious time and resources consciously.
If you want help designing your life and tapping into that next level of you, you’ll want to join my free Design Your Day workshop. RSVP now to get a spot and I’ll share with you the strategies and tools I use daily to shift my mindset, change careers and improve my health. Together, we’ll start the process of designing a magical life. Go to https://mayempson.com/designyourday to sign up.
I’m also opening enrollment into the Intuitive Leadership Coaching Group Experience – months of focus, accountability and consistent support to heal, grow, and expand. We’ll take your goal and do it the Intuitive Leader way, with spirituality, achievement, earth energy and harmony taken into account. If you feel that this resonates, check it out here at https://mayempson.com/intuitiveleadership.