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Confessions of a Workaholic + 2 Tips to Work Smarter

Hello, my name is Meredith Holley, and I am a workaholic.

I love the work I do. I love the people I serve. But, sometimes those are excuses to run myself into the ground with tasks that are not even productive. Sometimes, I am sorry to tell you, I am willing to sit for hours in front of a spreadsheet, changing the names of columns and deciding exactly what colors I want to use for highlighting. Sometimes, I am willing to set up a perfectly fine web page, and then re-do the entire thing the next day without making it any better.

I see this with the other coaches and lawyers I work with, too. Sometimes, being willing to re-create content really focuses it and helps us understand the work we do. We want the jury to understand completely what our client went through, and on the 7th draft of the power point, we get there. Other times, it is just busywork that has no purpose, and on the 7th draft of the power point, we have managed to make things so complicated that no one could possibly understand our message. Creating seven drafts in themselves are not bad or good, but each draft can be either productive or destructive.

So, when are we working out of purpose and when are we working out of a self-destructive addiction?

The key to understanding the difference is to check in with how your body feels at any given point in the process. If you feel excited and open, it is likely that you are creating with purpose. If you feel panicky and stressed, it is likely you are complicating things.

Now, the point is not to judge yourself if you are feeling panicky and stressed. The point is that there are other options. Here are two tips for working smarter if you find yourself feeling panicky about your workload and deadlines:

Feeling Overwhelmed and Stressed Does Not Help You Get More Done.

I’m sorry to break it to you, but you being overwhelmed, stressed, sick, or even unhappy does not help you get more done. We often think that the more a deadline looms or the more tasks we have to check off in a small amount of time, the more motivated we will become to get them done.

Because we practice believing that, we create a ton of evidence that it’s true. We say “yes” to taking on more projects, thinking we’ll just “knock them all out” once we build momentum. We get more overwhelmed, but we still manage to get a lot of work done.

What we don’t see is a control group comparison. What I mean is, it is not possible for us to compare that situation without the overwhelm because we already went through it with the overwhelm.

Here’s the thing: overwhelm is a feeling, and it is created by a thought in our mind. The thought is usually something like, “There’s too much to do,” or “I’ll never get all of this done.” Those thoughts create overwhelm.

Now, picture yourself teaching a little kid how to do the work you’re doing. Would you motivate the kid by telling her, “There’s too much to do! You’ll never get all of this done!”

Right away, you can see that overwhelm is basically the opposite of motivation. Overwhelm is like a giant backpack you can carry around while you do the work you’re doing. Or you can set it down.

Here’s how to set it down: Question the thoughts creating it? Is there really too much to do? Really, the things that need to get done, usually do. Choosing to think they’re too much doesn’t change that.

Completion Satisfaction is Always Available.

The two biggest reasons I’ve noticed that we choose to work all the time are (1) we think people will like us better, and (2) the satisfaction we get from completing tasks. The two are not that different, and so I’m going to talk about them together. The reason they are not different is dopamine.

Dopamine is the chemical that gives our brains a pleasure feeling. We get a hit of dopamine with any intrinsically pleasurable experience – water, food, sex. We also learn to associate pleasure with extrinsic events, and so we learn that when we accomplish a task, we get a reward. We learn that when other people like us, we get a reward.

Then, our brains just start to give us hits of dopamine when people say they like us and when we complete a task. They are like Pavlov’s dogs, who salivated at the sound of a bell, even when Pavlov stopped feeding them after ringing the bell.

The bad news about this is that when we are responding from our unconscious brain, we are like a dog salivating at the sound of a bell. We just keep working and working, hoping for the dopamine hit after we’ve accomplished a task and our boss says “good job.”

The good news is that we are in control of our brains and we can retrain them.

Caryn Gillen, brilliant food coach, wrote this blog to give you more background and information about Completion Dopamine. It got me thinking. I caught myself working until 11 p.m. last week because I wanted to get “just one more thing done.” I unconsciously knew that each time I checked off a task, I would feel satisfaction.

But, why put off satisfaction until I check off a particular task? What I call completing a task is a random definition. I can complete this blog post, but I haven’t completed all of blogging. I may have completed a letter, but not a case. I may have completed a case, but not all of my cases. Each time I check one thing off, there is an infinite list of other tasks to get started. Bleak.

Instead, if I stay with this moment, rather than looking to the infinity of future tasks, I can call this word, this sentence, completion. I have completed this moment, and then this moment. Each moment we live in is its own completion. Now. Now. Now.

Instead of asking ourselves, “What’s my next task?” or telling ourselves, “I just need to get one more thing done before I rest,” we can ask ourselves, “What would make this moment more complete?” or “What would make this moment more satisfying?”

Creating fullness in each moment, rather than more overwhelm, makes your work smarter and each moment more productive.

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