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Guest contributor Kirby Israelson of LAX Coworking shares her tips for keeping up a healthy work/life balance when you’re a workaholic.

Growing up, my parents instilled family maxims into my mind. Some were fun (“When in doubt, roll with it”), others practical (“Get a college degree”), and a select few held such great power that I hear them in my head to this day, namely “Work before play.”

My interpretation of this maxim has fluctuated throughout my life. As a child, it was harsh – chores needed to be finished before I could watch TV and homework needed to be done before I could play outside. Work before play was the proverbial bane of my childhood existence. As I grew older, however, I noticed it began to imbue me with a sense of freedom. Finishing your responsibilities meant you were free to enjoy the weekend without a sense of dread looming over your head. I slept better, I played harder, and I relaxed more completely.

Maturing from student to professional, I saw that work before play came with a downside. My strong work ethic, sense of perfectionism, and a small dash of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder combined to create my new adult identity as a “workaholic.” With symptoms ranging from answering work calls during date night to responding to emails from bed, the source is still one and the same: I suffer from workaholic tendencies.

And of course, if you’re reading this, chances are you might, too. Your chosen profession does nothing to curb these impulses. Freelancers, entrepreneurs, and small business owners – also known as the members and managers of coworking spaces – are some of the most common sufferers of this affliction. The adrenaline and passion that fueled you to start your own business, paired with working your own schedule and the ease of 24/7 coworking access, often prove to be a diabolical combination. If you’re in a flow state, what does it matter that it’s already 3 a.m.? What reasons are there really to stop working?

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Well… There are a lot of them, actually.

Studies show that working longer doesn’t make you work better. In fact, the Long Working Hours and Cognitive Function study discovered working in excess of 40 hours a week was associated with both lower cognitive test scores and a decline in overall performance. Furthermore, the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center recently discovered that during sleep, the brain removes necessary cellular waste. When you don’t get the necessary amount of sleep each night, this neural chaff can lead to the development of Alzheimer’s Disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. That’s right. Working too much and not sleeping enough can kill you. Quite literally.

As a fellow workaholic, I am well aware that working overtime strains personal relationships and destroys any semblance of a social life—wait, who am I kidding, I didn’t have enough free time to start one of those in the first place—and even though I was exhausted and running on coffee fumes from too many nights of only four hours of sleep, I kept working. I wore it like a badge of honor. So while some prefer the term “workaphile” in order to steer clear of any references to addiction, I politely disagree. In fact, I believe workaholism is perhaps one of the strongest addictions in its subtlety, which makes living with it no easy feat. But have no fear, my friend. You are not alone. In fact, if you hadn’t already guessed, you and I are cut from the same cloth.

“Hello, my name is Kirby and I’m a workaholic.”

I, like many workaholics who’ve come before me, have worked hard to channel my seemingly endless amounts of caffeine-fueled energy to discover ways to finally sit back and relax. I am here to tell you there’s hope yet for our kind. So, what can you do to keep your workaholic tendencies in check?

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Put a little fun in your schedule

This is not a euphemism. Put it in your schedule. Why shouldn’t your calendar be a mixture of “have-tos” and “want-tos,” rather than strictly work-related responsibilities? It’s time to schedule fun back into your life. For every five business meetings you have, add one Happy Hour. Make Mondays better by taking a personal lunch break on the patio of your favorite restaurant. Jumpstart your weekend by seeing a concert or watching a play.

When extracurricular activities are planned, it immediately makes your limited working hours more efficient (because you have a deadline you need to meet). Furthermore, it helps to satisfy the workaholic part of your brain that is attracted to tasks and project management. Plus, who doesn’t like the reward system? You can’t have “work before play” without, you know, actually having some play.

Pro tip: Finding it hard to follow through on a fun schedule because it is just oh so easy to flake out on your own plans when you’re a workaholic? Put down a deposit. Once you’ve invested money into your plans—such as buying movie tickets ahead of time—you’ll find it harder to bail out. Plus you’ll now have a concrete reason to leave work. (Nobody likes to waste money, right?)

Enlist others to hold you accountable

I try to set deadlines for myself so I know when to stop working, I really do. But the thing about keeping things to yourself is that it’s pretty easy to rationalize your way into pulling yet another all-nighter.

It’s time to call in outside help. Whether it’s your significant other, roommate, coworker, or parent, give them your deadline and urge them to make you stick to it. (Hey Mom, can you call me at 11 p.m. and tell me to shut off my computer? No, don’t ask questions. Can you please just do it?) That way, if you’re in the zone and oblivious to how long you’ve been working, a scheduled interruption will remind you that you’ve done enough and it’s time for a break.

Pro tip: Discover your preferred enforcement method. Do you respond best to negative reinforcement, needing someone yelling at you to stop? Or perhaps you prefer positive reinforcement, such as your boyfriend enticing you away from the computer with a hot cup of tea? Do you require bribes, with a coworker saying they’ll buy you dinner if you walk away from your desk right this minute? Each workaholic is wired differently. Find out what works for you, then use it.

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Take a breath of fresh air

I don’t need to go into the health benefits of exercise; we all know about it, and yet so many of us workaholics still spend our days chained to our desk. Go outside, for exercise, or simply eating lunch on the patio, is not only good for your health—and a great excuse to step away from your wifi—it also helps reduce stress and enhance creativity and concentration, making you a more efficient worker (thus reducing the amount of time you need to be at work). Even something as simple as a walk around the block can increase memory and restore mental energy.

Pro tip: Need an excuse to head outside? Move your meeting. From taking advantage of outdoor seating to starting a net-walking movement (think networking meets exercise), there are plenty of creative ways to do business outdoors for those who just can’t seem to rationalize heading outdoors for its own sake.

Build your boundaries (and actually stick to them)

Personally, I feel this tip is the hardest. If you’re like me and have worked with your clients and coworkers long enough to get to know them as people, not just professionals, establishing and sticking to your personal boundaries is often difficult. Oh, lovely client of mine, you’re stressed and frantically trying to meet a deadline by tomorrow afternoon? Of course I will work around the clock to help you, even if it’s to the detriment of my own health and sleep and sanity! Or, look at that, an email just woke me up at 4 a.m. when I was trying to sleep. But hey, look who it’s from! I like them so it’s okay to wipe the sleep from my eyes and help them with whatever it is they need at this ungodly hour.

But actually, it’s not okay. As a workaholic, it’s extremely important to set boundaries for yourself and those you work with. Stop telling yourself that everyday habits are the exception. The truth is, if you’re not taking proper care of yourself, you’ll be of no help to anyone else.

Pro tip: If you find it hard to enforce professional boundaries, remember that everyone you work with is human, just like you, and they probably deserve more credit. Your client won’t fire you if you tell them that you are unplugging for the weekend. Your coworker will still be your friend if you ask them to kindly not call about anything work related after 9 p.m. They work too, so they have probably had the same issues in the past and will understand where you’re coming from. In fact, they might even respect you more for standing up for yourself (and maybe you’ll inspire them to take better care of themselves, as well!).

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Fellow workaholics, I wish you luck on your journey toward mastering your work week. When you feel as if you need a little push to infuse some play back into your day, I hope you come back to this blog. Remind yourself that you deserve to live long and prosper, and that you will make a larger difference in this world if you take care of yourself first, and your career second. Yes, you are the parent in those flight safety videos making sure you have oxygen before your child does. (Because, at times, isn’t that just what your business feels like? Your child?) The reality is: you can’t help anyone if you’re suffocating. So sit back, close your eyes, and take a deep breath. Just because you’re great at what you do doesn’t mean you need to do it all the time and all by yourself.


About the author

Kirby Israelson is the Manager for LAX Coworking, your unpretentious coworking space built with the modern business owner in mind. Between working as the Creative Director for LAX Coworking’s parent company the LAX Coastal Chamber of Commerce, running her own freelance art business Just Kirby, and moonlighting as a Krav Maga instructor, she is still working to manage her workaholism (but has yet to give up the fight).