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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.