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We Asked Former Workaholics How They Became Fun Again

Why risk reaching burnout when you can go live near the beach and paint for a living?
Nick Dolding/Getty Images

Millennials get a bad rap for being flaky, yet somehow America's youngest working professionals rarely disconnect from their work lives. One recent survey showed that a quarter of men and women between the ages of 18 and 25 don't take any of their vacation days. Another found that nearly half of millennials actually say they want to be seen as "work martyrs"—willing and eager to give up time off to impress higher-ups. That kind of mentality, of course, takes a mental and physical toll. The American Psychiatric Association, for instance, has found that "workaholism" is often tied to problems like depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. A Norwegian study of more than 16,000 adults found that rates of anxiety among workaholics were nearly triple that of people who maintained a more normal schedule. Finding balance when you've been working yourself to death isn't easy—but it's  doable, if you're willing to put in the effort. We talked to seven people who pulled it off.


Ximena, 29, Publicist, Chicago, IL

Photo credit: Roger Morales

How consuming was your job at its peak?
I was working 11 to 12 hour days on average, Monday through Sunday.

What was your turning point?
I was laid off—and I was devastated. Work is important and can provide satisfaction, but there is more to life than working and putting so much trust in your employer. You ultimately set yourself up to fail. As I cleaned out my desk, I remember thinking how silly it was that I had been worried that my boss would be mad about me living my life when they were about to let me go.  Did your life improve?
As a direct result of that experience, I created my own company. Now I run a small PR team focused on brand building and reputation management. I see more of my ideas come to life. Before this, an employer had to green-light all of my ideas. The ones that didn't get approved simply shoved in the corner and turned to dust. Now the work flows and feels like a natural extension of who I am. If you're a workaholic, I don't think you can completely turn off—but you can find ways to channel your energy into a more productive, healthy relationship.

Jeremy, 28, Entrepreneur, Walnut Creek, CA

Tell me what a typical day used to look like.

From 2013 to 2015, I ran a network of children's programs while also working as a consultant. At the height of summer, my normal work hours were 6:30 am to midnight. When things were slower, it was still maybe 70 hours a week combined that I spent working.


When did you realize that your life needed to change?
I hit total burnout. It was my second time, but this time was different. It wasn't a speed bump—it was a pit. My willpower no longer moved mountains; it barely got me out of bed. I felt impotent, spent, and broken. I wound up writing a suicide letter as a way of processing the feelings.

Would you say things are better now?
I'd love to say things changed overnight. They never do. Recovery can't be rushed. I'm walking the path with newfound energy, honesty, and humility. I'm still as ambitious as ever—my new startup is trying to rethink dating. But this time I've given myself permission to detach when I need to.

Beth, 32, Life Coach, McKinney, Texas

How intense did your work life used to be?
I was an analyst at a tech startup, and ninety-hour weeks were very frequent. I was always the first one in and the last to leave.

When did you get fed up with it?
The moment came when I was promised the fourth promotion by just as many managers and it never came. I was running the rat race in place with no chance of getting to the finish line.

What did it take to leave that lifestyle behind? 
I started to build a life coaching business, do real estate investing, and began making leather goods and furniture in my spare time. Now I have multiple streams of income—with the goal of replacing my salary entirely by the end of this year. These pursuits allowed me to finally channel my creativity and true passions, which were stagnating in the corporate world.


Ayo, 36, Psychiatrist, Atlanta, GA

How much of a grind did your life used to be?
You don't survive medical school and residency without having a high tolerance for sleep deprivation and a stellar work ethic. So after completing my residency, it didn't seem strange to continue the schedule of an 80-hour workweek. Long days as the staff physician at a juvenile detention center in addition to overnight call and weekend shifts at two inpatient facilities was the norm for me for the next three years.   What was your wake-up call?
It was Christmas Day 2013, and I was handing out gifts to the youth at the detention facility. One of the detainees asked, "Dr. A, why aren't you at home celebrating with your husband and family? You're always working. If I could be with the people I loved I would so be there." At that moment, I vowed to adjust my lifestyle. How's your life improved since then?
I got a new job with more reasonable hours that helps underserved people on a larger scale.  Six months later, I met my future husband and we were engaged five months after that.

Shane, 36, Chief Digital Officer, Santa Monica, CA

What was an average day like for you?

I spent years taking great pride in being the first to arrive and the last to leave. This meant no less than a fourteen-hour work day, in addition to the dreaded hour-plus commute each way from the New York City to Long Island. Then I went to work for a nonprofit consulting group while also launching a startup. That meant traveling all the time, working all the time, and barely seeing my wife or kids. On top of that, I'd sleep no more than few hours at a time, and eat whatever I could find. It took a big toll on my wellbeing.


When did you finally realize it was a problem?
My wife took a picture of me holding my son for the first time. My left hand is holding him, and my right hand is on my computer. That picture is a constant reminder to always maintain balance and perspective. I said it then: I'll never make that mistake again. Since then, I've taken a militant stance on the lines between work and family—and while I work hard, I've made sure that I love even harder.

How did you change your life to tackle these problems head on?
I gave up life on the road and working all day everyday to join a new company. I moved to Santa Monica, a few blocks from the beach and less than one mile from my office. My wife and kids are also always within two or three miles. I start my days at Gold's Gym every morning, and I've developed the same discipline in caring for my family as I do my health.

Borbay, 36, Artist, Victor, Idaho

What kind of work used to be keeping you up all night? 
I've done it all: I bounced from shitty reality TV to stand-up comedy to The Trump Organization to creative recruiting to digital advertising to full-time artist. The whole time, I was averaging 50 to 80 hour weeks. I was burnt. So what changed?
Last May, I landed a two-month artist residency in Exuma. The Bahamian sun, the rum, the shrubbery and the culture completely shifted my perspective. I was a 35-year-old father of two, paying $3500 a month for a one bedroom apartment on East 20th in Manhattan, sleeping in the living room next to an infant and sharing a studio with a two-year-old. It was time for me to go nomadic, leave the city, and discover a better life. And now?
Now we live in a giant 4-bedroom home in Teton Springs, Idaho. I work less, play more hockey, go cross-country skiing, enjoy quality time with the family, and even managed to knock up my wife again. Since our move in March, sales of my paintings have been insane. In 2017, they'll obliterate my former earnings as a wannabe Don Draper.


CJ, 33, CEO, Los Angeles, CA

How crazy did your life used to be? 
For a few years I was a project manager at a digital agency, and I worked nonstop—seven days a week, with very little downtime for my family and rest. It was a Catch-22. I was becoming more successful and making more money, but my personal time was almost non-existent. I would answer emails immediately, text at 11:00 PM with clients, and spend my weekend nights drafting plans for the upcoming week.

What shook you out of that routine?
One morning, I got my daughter—who was two at the time—ready to go out to get breakfast. Within minutes, I was back on my computer, checking emails, breezing through documents. I heard her sigh and then she said, "Daddy's going back to work." Her words hit me hard. Enough was enough.

How were you able to escape it? 
I partnered up with a colleague of mine and, eventually, we grew our own team. With each new hire, I became less hands-on. I learned I was a bit of a control freak. I shifted my work hours and was much more strict with my clients about only contacting me during business hours. I also shifted my priorities. Now my happiness and my health comes first, then my family and my friends, and then work.  Why do you come first? 
Simple. When you find real happiness, your attitude is infectious.