Do You Need a Work Detox?

Several years ago, I was working twelve-hour days as a lawyer, eating processed food on the go, not exercising, and drinking copious amounts of coffee and Diet Coke. As I rushed to catch the last train home after a particularly late night at work, I wondered to myself, “How did I get here?” The answer was something I hadn’t been able to admit before. I was addicted to work. My life, identity, and value had become all about work without me even noticing.

Like a smoker addicted to nicotine, I’d become addicted to the buzz I felt from a well-written legal brief or well-argued motion. It wasn’t the work itself that I was addicted to, but rather the approval and validation I was seeking from my colleagues when they affirmed that I was smart, capable, and worthy. And like a smoker who needs more nicotine to get the same fix, I was never satisfied with the praise that I did get and was always seeking more.

I was in serious need of a work detox. I’m sure you’ve heard of popular detox diets like my favorite, Kris Carr’s Crazy Sexy Diet. They recommend you become more aware of what you eat, stop eating certain foods to cleanse your body of harmful toxins, and break bad eating habits. It’s the same idea for a work detox. You become more aware of your relationship to work, stop working in ways that are toxic to your psyche, and break bad working habits. My work addiction was about seeking approval. What’s your work addiction about?

Signs You May Need A Work Detox

Is any of this sounding familiar? Well here are some signs that you might need to break your dependency on work:

  • You devote most of your time, energy, and thoughts to work.
  • You feel stressed or anxious about work when you’re not working.
  • Your personal relationships have deteriorated or decreased in number.
  • You don’t feel like you have time for hobbies or creative outlets.
  • You don’t allow yourself to laugh, play, or be silly.
  • You’re afraid if you don’t “work hard,” then you’ll be a failure.
  • You’re passive aggressive, resentful, or overly competitive with colleagues.
  • You’re working longer, but not accomplishing more.

Why Go on a Work Detox

Work is the main source of identity in our culture. We want to know what others do for work, and feel compelled to tell them about our own work, even if we have to make it sound better than it is. Sometimes we take it too far and rely on work to determine our self worth.

It’s a losing game, however, to depend on work to determine our identity, value, and significance. We end up limiting our ability to fully express who we are. When we spend all of our time working or obsessively checking our work email, we leave no space for other parts of our identities.

We forget we are not our work. Before my work addiction, I’d been able to see that I was also a supportive sister, loyal friend, committed activist, reluctant runner, water lover, and outdoor adventurer. But I’d neglected these aspects of my identity.

There are lots of reasons we do this. I was seeking validation. Maybe you’re trying to please or impress your parents, your spouse, or a potential mate. You might be trying to fill a hole in your personal life or escape a bad relationship. Perhaps you’re like many and are scared you’re going to lose your job or not be able to make enough money. Whatever your reason, you can benefit from a work detox.

The Benefits of a Work Detox

By owning and cultivating a diverse identity and rich life beyond work, you take yourself out of the losing game of over identifying with work. You’ll start to live with a new set of rules more aligned to your values. From that place, a lasting sense of personal worth is possible.

Time and energy you’ve devoted to work can now be re-focused on activities that you’re internally motivated to do. You’ll begin to break your bad habit and create a new relationship with work that allows you to:

  • Do the things that energize and excite you other than work.
  • Spend more time with friends and family.
  • Improve your personal relationships in and outside of work.
  • Develop or rekindle a hobby or creative outlet.
  • Laugh and be playful.
  • Realize that you are more than your work.
  • Feel more confident in who you are.

How To Start A Work Detox

With awareness, you can begin to change habits, shift perspectives, and explore ways of cultivating your identity outside of work. Here are some starting points:

Consider how you would work differently if you knew you were leaving. Would you feel less attached to the work? Would you limit your work responsibilities and hours? How would you feel going to work? How would your interactions be different? Your answers represent what work would be like when you’re not over identified with it.

Be honest about how much time you actually need to spend working. Are you mismanaging your time? Are you staying late simply to impress others? By working less, we often can actually increase our productivity.

Commit to 2 weeks when you’ll work less and focus on other parts of your identity. Create a schedule and include on your calendar time with the important people in your life and time for you to do things besides work.

Carve out time for what’s joyful and meaningful. Recover a hobby, take a class, or take up a sport. Pick one thing that you can do consistently so that it becomes part of your routine.

Be social. Get together with friends for dinner or host a dinner party where no one can talk about work. Repair or renew friendships with people who make you feel good about yourself. Build strong relationships based on who you are and not what you achieve.

In my own work detox, I stopped working so much. At first, I didn’t know what to do with my extra time. I couldn’t find the inspiration for a new hobby so I simply began taking better care of myself. I started going to weekend farmers markets, cooking my own meals, and inviting friends to join me for some of them. I slowly added in new activities, like hiking on the weekends. Over time, I became more efficient at my job as a result of working less. I returned to what inspired me about the work and became more creative and productive. Eventually, I started to recognize that I’m more than just my job.

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About Heather Mills

Heather Mills is a certified coach, personal development teacher, and recovering lawyer who specializes in helping professionals uncover their strengths and passions so that they can do the work they are meant to do. Click here to get her free article, Let the 14-Day Work Detox Begin!  
Joel Steinmetz, philosopher, teacher, writer, and coach, is detoxing from work as we write this piece.

Comments

  1. Dear Heather, thx so much for this excellent article and the perfect timing! I know that I’m in desperate need of a work detox and I’m very happy to just have found the right tools. Thx. Michaela

  2. Some really nice thoughts in here. I think balancing work/play/social is a goal that many people strive for, but very few people succeed in (I’m still trying myself).

    Dave
    @dkragen

  3. Years ago a friend asked me why I started my own business. “To control my destiny and have more time to do the things I like,” I replied. “So what do you do like to do in your free time?” he asked. That stumped me, and I realized I wasn’t doing much of anything aside from work. Later that week I went out and bought a guitar, renewing a passion I hadn’t enjoyed since I was a teenager.

    I am so glad I spotted your post via GigaOM. It’s a wonderful sanity check, and reminded I’m definitely due for a work detox.

  4. Hi Heather, thanks for this great article. I’m in the middle of my recovery (or detox) after leaving an executive job in a big corporate 9 months ago. I’ve learned so much about myself already and know that I have much more to go. This is a great reminder that I’m headed for a much better and balanced life. I now pick up my kids from school three days a week, have learned to sail and regularly workout. I hope you’re article inspires many to re-discover what life is all about.

    • Hi Kelly – It sounds like you’re finding a lot of satisfaction and fulfillment from cultivating your rich identity outside of your work. Isn’t it freeing to do that after spending much time and energy focusing on work?

      A work detox is a fun way to think about who we really are and what that means for how we live our lives. It’s another way to be more deliberate about the choices we’re making.

      It’s funny that work itself can also be a great way to think about who we really are and what that means for how we live our lives. It all depends on our circumstances and what we’re needing.

  5. Hi Heather, I resonates to your article. When I first started my job, I used to work 12 hours per day, 7 days per week due to huge load of work. There’s no ‘life’ during that period. Sometimes I even wondered what am I going to do if I could leave office on time. Although I may win the name of being ‘capable’ but I feel so helpless. Luckily later my company hire another colleague, work is shared and I get to take rest, watch tv and life seems to go as ‘normal’ again. Hence I couldn’t agree more to the importance of work detox. After all, life is not just about work right?

    • Hi Noel – It’s so hard to experience the richness of life with a work schedule like that. Thank goodness you have another colleague to share the workload now.

      Work is an integral part of our lives that helps us express our deepest values. But when work becomes the only way to do that, we feel stunted. We’re complex beings, and yearn to express ourselves and respond to what calls us in many different ways.

  6. Joel Steinmetz says:

    The poet David Whyte wrote, “we look for better work by first looking for a better image of ourselves.” It seems that one way to characterize a work detox is exactly the search for a better image of myself; one that is deeply connected to my own values, desires, and inspiration rather than those that can get foisted on me by a company or colleagues. When I really started to pay attention to the image of myself that was being suggested to me by my work context, I could then decide if that is who I really wanted to be or not. I chose the “or not.”

  7. Heather,
    Great info you’ve shared. It’s interesting that we’ve seen the state of the economy hit people in two very different ways.

    1)People are more on edge and feel pressured to work hard and longer in order to ensure their well-being. They feel tired, overworked, underpaid and depressed. Not fun.

    2) Some people have realized through losing their jobs or finally breaking the stress cycle and quitting their jobs, that life is just too short. Live a little.

    I’ve fallen into the second group by realizing that my family and friends are equally as important as my professional success. Balance is the key and is your detox.

    Look forward to some more great tips.

  8. Hi Heather,
    Recovering Lawyer, love it. :)
    It seems that many of us fall into the trap of working too much and not getting back enough value in return.

    I work to become more of who I am. To express myself, to learn, to share with others. If I didn’t have to work, I would be very bored, so i do actually enjoy it.

    • Joel Steinmetz says:

      Justin, very well said. Thomas Moore put it something like this, “work is the medium through which you become a person.” I suppose the caveat is that work can also be the medium through which we lose ourselves. In any event, it’s not really work per se that is problematic, it’s more the tendency or pressure to have our identity wrapped up in it in a particularly unhealthy way, or so it seems to have been in my experience so far. It sounds like you have found the sweet spot with work as authentic self expression, which is great to hear and I’m sure satisfying to experience.

      • Joel’s name appears second as a co-author but he’s actually the great mind behind this article.

        Joel – great to hear your voice in this dialogue! You were the one who introduced me to the idea of a work detox and Thomas Moore and and I thank you for both.

        Justin – What you’re saying is fantastic; I really identify with it. I believe that the work I’m doing now as a coach allows me to become the person I’m meant to be (a la Thomas Moore). I work to help my clients achieve that for themselves and truly believe that the world would be a better place if we could all have that.

  9. How great your thouhts are!Thank you so much.

  10. Hi
    your article has really opened my eyes i received my termination letter from my current job recently.Am serving the last month in the organisation,this has given me time to decide on my next move,this being my first job i have learnt alot about myself,am looking forward to be a more efficient person and to work on my social life that was gradually dying.I have related to your circumstance and i will borrow a leaf from you.thanks and keep up the good work

    • Hi Mary – I’m really sorry to hear about your current job. You have a great attitude about learning and moving on. Most people look back and see that their relationships were the most important things in their lives, not the hours they spent working. You’re wise in wanting to nourish and enjoy your relationships. Wishing you all the best in the work you choose to do next.

      Warmly,
      Heather

    • Joel Steinmetz says:

      Hi Mary,

      I also wanted to say that I am very sorry to hear about your job situation, being terminated is unsettling to say the least as I have come to find out for myself as well. So I can identify with your circumstances to some degree. I know for me not having work or struggling to find work really highlights this topic of identity and work. I mean, who am I supposed to be apart from what I do? Well it turns out there are many aspects of myself that I had neglected in an attempt to solely identify with what I could produce. I was so wrapped up in what others thought of me. So recently I started to shift my perspective on termination/rejection letters and see them as invitations to explore in deeper ways who I want to be, what I want to pursue, and who gets to decide my value. It seems like it is a continual shift away from production as the defining feature of my existence and towards wholeness or balance. In many ways what I want is, and continues to be, just out of my comfort zone.

      Thanks for sharing your story and I hope you discover what brings deep satisfaction to your life as you move in the direction of a new job. It’s an exciting journey.

      Joel

  11. Must admit it’s just a little scary seeing how many of those examples on your list I qualify for … in spades. For better or worse, at the moment I don’t have the luxury of taking a break or even slowing down … but I am aware of the need to take care of myself. It would be a real bummer to finally escape the corporate world to do my own thing, only to be found one day by my landlord dead slumped over my laptop and covered with cobwebs. Seriously, I think about things like that!

    • Hi Marquita – You are too funny. And wise…that awareness and desire to take care of yourself is where it all starts.

      Being passionate about our businesses can lead us to work even more than we did in the corporate world. Sometimes it helps to step back and get some perspective by asking how your current work fits in with the big picture of your life 5, 10, 15 years from now. From that perspective you can advise yourself on how to balance what’s important now.

      I hope you can carve out a little time for yourself to take a quick walk, eat a healthy meal, or call a friend. Sending you good wishes for success and slowing down soon :)

      Warmly,
      Heather

  12. Hi Haruki – I’m sorry to hear that you’re struggling right now. I can hear in your comments that you feel very stuck.

    You *do* deserve time to relax and enjoy yourself. We all do. Activities that bring you joy, such as reading a book for fun, can help you feel more like *you* again. When you feel more like your radiant self again, you’ll start to see new possibilities for improving your current work situation or finding work that’s more fulfilling for you.

    Connecting with what you’re grateful through your blog is a wonderful practice. I understand the feeling of being paralyzed when sitting down to write. What works for me is to sit and write whatever comes up, especially how I’m feeling about it. I’d love to read on your blog your experience doing a work detox. Sending you good thoughts.

    Warmly,
    Heather

  13. Hi Heather,
    Your article simply jumps out at me. I started my blog to remind myself to be grateful about the my family and the good things in my life, because I am struggling at work. I have not read a book for leisure for a long, long time. I don’t allow myself to enjoy the other aspects at work such as movie-day at the company, because I feel that I don’t deserve the relaxing time. Sometimes I stare at my blog, paralyzed and unable to write a word because I do not know where to start. Work stress is getting to me, and I will follow your lead of working less, and incorporating more healthy routines into the work week, for a start.

  14. that’s right
    i believe right now i need a work detox
    thank you steven for alerting us :)

  15. Perfect hints, I will use these after I stabilise current project ;)

    • Hi Mark – Good luck with your project. You can implement practices now that don’t take much time and may help you feel more grounded. A practice could be as simple as taking deep breaths while working at your desk. Clint had some great suggestions too such as exercising and getting outside.

      Warmly,
      Heather

  16. It’s all about overall balance. I too have been guilty of putting in too many hours, especially when in the midst of producing a new program or book. This is when I especially have to be committed to breaks of time to do other things like working out, spending time with the dogs, even getting outside for air.

    • Thanks, Clint. Your point is so important. Overall balance in our lives is key because sometimes we’re just going to be really busy and have to work more. During these busy times we have to be vigilant about giving our selves some time and space to breathe and relax. It’s so true – just getting outside for air can be rejuvenating!

      Warmly,
      Heather

  17. Heather Mills says:

    Thanks, Steve. Joel and I are happy to be here. As a CYT reader, I appreciate the work you do and the wonderful community you’ve created.

    What a great thing to love your work and see it as your hobby. I’m passionate about my work as a coach too and find there’s no perfect balance — we’re continually in the process of setting boundaries and carving out time for the people and activities that are important to us.

    I’m looking forward to hearing the reactions and thoughts about detoxing from work.

  18. Yes I do need a work detox! I also am doing some online work outside of my full time job which fulfills me and I want that to be my main income but my ‘day job’ is draining my energy right now making it harder to focus on what I really love.

    Great article that has reminded me that I need to make some long overdue changes. Much of my work overload also has to do with getting others approval and it needs to stop!

    Found a great article last week on work / life balance which stated that it was ‘meaningful daily achievement in each of our four life quadrants: work, family, friends and self’ – definitely time for me to get some balance :)

    • Thanks, Joanne. I’m glad to hear the idea of a work detox resonated with you. I found it was a relief to stop seeking external validation and approval because it’s so time consuming and exhausting.

      I really like your suggestion of thinking of balance in terms of 4 areas: work, family, friends, and self. So many times we forget to carve out time for ourselves. I hope your work detox gives you more time to do what you really love.

      Warmly,
      Heather

  19. Hi Steve & Heather,
    I read – then reread this article Heather. 15 years ago I left my big fat executive career to pursue a more sane life style. I was a workaholic with no life. I can see myself in your description here. I realize from reading your article that I’ve reproduced the same scenario all over again as a blogger. I’m very glad I read this. I can see clearly that my life is out of balance – again.
    Thank you so much for this excellent post.

    • Hi Angela – It’s so cool to hear that you made the leap from being an executive to a blogger. It’s easy to slip back into old habits. Just by bringing awareness to them you’re already preventing yourself from becoming a workaholic. Sending you good wishes for more balance!

      Warmly,
      Heather

  20. agree!like it.

  21. Hi Heather

    Welcome to the CYT authors club :)

    You article is very timely for me. I was speaking to my wife about this last week. I work full time, and also work from home with my online business.

    I think the trouble for me is I don’t see what I am doing online as work, it feels more like a hobby for me, something I totally love to do. however I recognise that I might spend a little too long at it :)

    Thanks for the great article and the techniques.

    Steve

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