“Physician, heal thyself.” The Bible, Luke, 4:23
“How we spend out days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” – Annie Dillard
The first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. So here goes…Hello, my name is Jeri, and I am a workaholic.
I have been a workaholic for many, many years. It has been part of the fabric of who I am; in many ways, it has been the essence of what I have attributed to both my personal and professional success. I’ve always believed that “busy people get more done.” Pile it on, I will meet the challenge. I will deliver, and it will be good – damn good.
When my children were young, they ranked #1 on my list of priorities, with work #2, and sadly, cultivating my marriage and relationships with family and friends, a low #3. My art, my creativity? They didn’t even make the list. My long-suffering husband accepted his low priority status with grace and aplomb. Our shared priority was raising our children and supporting “Team Family”. We were united in this goal. It worked for us.
In 2010, my mother died, after a protracted battle with a debilitating illness. The next year I became a full empty nester when my baby Ben when off to college. Suddenly, there was more free time than I had ever considered. No one at home needed me. There was no one to manage. So what did I do? How did I fill the void? I threw myself into my job. And it worked. For a while, it worked.
It worked, in part, because I jumped into a large project, surrounded by an incredible group of seasoned professionals; professionals who were all tremendously competent, capable, and committed to the same goal. I had found a new team. We worked hard, we had fun, and we kicked some serious ass. It was the best work experience of my life. And then it ended.
So I jumped into another bodacious job. And now, eight months later, I decided to take inventory. And the results weren’t pretty.
- I was working 10-12 hours a day, greeting the cleaning lady at 8pm, leaving the office when the lights in our “green” building shut off, using my phone as a flash light to find my way to the elevator. (That actually happened, more than once.) When I came home, I would plug in my laptop and keep going. Often, potato chips and diet coke were my dinner.
- Nothing I or my team produced seemed to quite meet the standards of excellence of my new masters. Roadblocks and ridiculous requests proliferated my day. And the “to-do” list was never ending. I was doing little that felt proactive – nothing that I would call true “leadership” – to lift the spirits and productivity of myself, my peers, or my team.
- I was falling into bed at 1am, too tired to read more than a few pages of a novel. I ran through several books, putting them aside halfway through, finding none that could really hold my interest.
- I was dragging myself to work in the morning, exhausted and beat down before the day even started, gearing myself up to do it all again for another day. I could feel and see that more hours at the work bench were producing LESS, not more, productivity.
- I was sleeping through half the weekend, my camera gathering dust, my longing for an ‘artist’s date’ with myself barely heard or felt beneath the scream of my aching muscles and the static of my exhausted spirit. When I wasn’t sleeping the weekend away, the mental to-do list was looming over me, crushing any enjoyment of those precious 48 hours of ‘free’ time
Sometimes our unconscious innately knows what we need to heal ourselves, even when our conscious self is unable to articulate a solution. I went to visit a friend of mine, a wonderful lady who does executive coaching, specializing in work-life balance and transitions. I’d been thinking about going to see her for months, and finally made the call.
We talked. Or I talked, and she listened, guiding me with well-placed, deceptively basic questions. The advice she gave me was simple – so simple, it was almost embarrassing. As someone who spent many years in corporate learning and leadership development, I should have known the answers. It was apparent that I was a physician who was unable to heal herself. I asked her to help me put a box around my work life, to help me find my life and some balance, to help me learn another way to BE.
I wanted to dive into a full project plan in typical yeoman fashion. Let’s get this done! But she convinced me, albeit reluctantly, that I had to crawl before I could walk or run. We had to start with the basics – remedial training for this hard core addict. My assignment was to take 20 minutes in the morning and do the following: Assume you ARE REQUIRED to leave work at 6pm. What are the 5-6 priorities you MUST accomplish today? Write them down, and then return to them periodically throughout the day… particularly when you feel the pile growing, your attention splitting. Reorient yourself to those tasks and nothing else. Then go home and do not work. And when the weekend comes, let your desire guide you to do something that warms your spirit. As I said, so simple it is almost embarrassing.
In addition to the above advice, we talked a little about the possible roots of this vicious, self-induced cycle. She reminded me of this powerful truism, Dr. Phil’s Life Law #8 – “We teach people how to treat us.” I keep coming back to this simple message. Dr. Phil’s strategy for this life lesson is simple: Own, rather than complain about, how people treat you. Learn to renegotiate your relationships to have what you want.
So, the very next day, I gave her advice a try. How did I do?
I made the list. It was surprisingly hard to keep focused on it. Fire drill after fire drill reared their ugly head. The list I made was too ambitious, too long. An IM from my boss at 6:30pm presented an urgent problem to solve. I left work at 8pm. But I came home and I did not work. And I felt OK with that. Well, mostly OK with that.
But I am writing again. Progress. Baby steps for this addict. Wish me luck and perseverance. I am going to keep at it. The rest of my life depends on it.