Career

Is Being A Workaholic Actually Terrible For Your Career?

If you work in the 21st Century, you are no stranger to pressure. Another day, another app launched to help us get more done. But as we get more done, it seems the list of things to be done grows longer and longer.

“I’m super busy,” people love to tell us over drinks and dinner. Busy is good, it seems: a badge of honour that implies success, importance and meaning to one’s life.

Sure, it requires a mental slog and many sedentary hours behind a screen. It means being too shattered to make that morning training session. It means a 3pm lunch again and too many restless nights’ sleep. It means last minute scrambles to make the birthdays of, oh, only the most important people in your life.

But at least you’ll be in line for the next promotion, right? Right?

I was busy once.

Not only did I hate it, I didn’t really experience any career advantages. The more I seemed to do, the less it seemed to be worth. I didn’t stop being busy for my career’s sake. I did it for my life, but I’ve noticed a funny thing. The more I say no to the pressures heaped on me by others, the better the work opportunities that come my way.

If everyone worked in this way – doing what they want – perhaps the world would be on the edge of ruin, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s some wisdom in this “not doing” business.

So I looked to the experts to ask: Is being a workaholic bad for your career?

Being a workaholic is an addiction like any other

Woman is sitting on the floor by her laptop.

Can’t stop, won’t stop.

The first step is recognising that you have a problem. If you are truly in the grip of workaholism, you will feel guilty and anxious if not working, or promoting your work.

Remembering that our culture values productivity, it can be difficult to step off the treadmill and evaluate what’s really happening.

Creativity expert and author of The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron, calls this out as “the virtue trap.” The trap of doing something because we want to be helpful or unselfish and in the process ignoring our own needs.

“We want to be generous, of service, of the world. But what we really want is to be left alone. When we can’t get others to leave us alone, we eventually abandon ourselves. To others, we may look like we’re there. We may act like we’re there. But our true self has gone to ground.”

It can make you a bad employee

This is not to say we can’t help others or be good workers. In fact, many people feel their most motivated and fulfilled when working in a team, taking leadership from a visionary.

But if your genuine ambition is to be a trusty and reliable employee, then remember that overworking can jeopardise that. A burnt out employee is a sick employee is a bad employee.

“If you say no sometimes, people have to start thinking about what you might want before they make their offer.”

“The same parts of the brain that control the stress response… play an important role in susceptibility and resistance to inflammatory diseases such as arthritis,” says Dr. Esther Sternberg, of the science of emotions, burnout and disease. “Many of the nerve pathways and molecules underlying both psychological responses and inflammatory disease are the same, making predisposition to one set of illnesses likely to go along with predisposition to the other.”

Plus a willingness to take on absolutely everything means your peers can give little thought to your own goals and career path. YouTube entrepreneur of the (two million subscribers and counting) Vlog Brothers, Hank Green, offers this advice:

“If you say yes to everything, then people don’t have to consider your needs to get you on board. If you say no sometimes, people have to start thinking about what you might want before they make their offer.”

Idleness is essential to the brain

creatiivity unsplash

The mind’s reprieve.

Creativity – one of the most highly valued traits among CEOs – is directly linked to play, boredom and a good night’s sleep.

“The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken,” says popular BrainPickings blogger, Maria Popova, who regularly covers literature on creativity and productivity. It’s why you have all your best ideas in the shower.

Busy-ness keeps you disconnected

Many people work at an insane pace in an effort to prove they are of value.

Seeking success makes it hard for you to have perspective on your own path. If you are constantly looking for external reinforcement you become disconnected from your own internal guide. That’s bad for your clarity, goal setting, as well as disrupting your innovative and creative thinking process.

Y-Combinator founder and Silicon Valley mega-influencer Paul Graham observed that: “Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.”

Saying no allows you to say yes

tree no

The writing’s on the tree.

When I suggest people opt out of busy-ness there is palpable concern. One person said it might trigger our economy to be engulfed by China’s; another said it was selfish to even think of changing careers (he was thinking of his responsibility to the children he hasn’t had yet).

But it’s this kind of fear-driven thinking that limits the potential of what we can actually achieve. Some people might find they never want to work another day in their life (and who are we to stop them if they don’t and find the means to do it?).

But in my experience, the quiet that comes from opting out of busy-ness creates amazing space for quality work, thoughtful decisions and meaningful designs; and a gathering momentum that propels you forward effortlessly, joyfully on the path to a meaningful career you can love.

When the nature of work is to expand to fill available hours, an intentional way of working only serves to make it clear what you want to work on, how you want to work on it – and put you in a killer position when the right opportunities come up.

It’s as simple as saying ‘yes’ when you want to, and knowing when (and that it’s ok) to say ‘no’.


Johanna Scott is from Make Do Co., an organisation reconnecting business to people and purpose through workplace programs and retreats. She regularly interviews people about their work, and what makes it meaningful. You can learn more at Make Do Co.