How to Be a Functional Workaholic

Realistic ways to not let the hustle destroy you.

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Dec 7 2017, 6:28am

Photo by Ewan Robertson

This article originally appeared on Tonic. On Edge is a series about stress in 2017.

I’m usually blogging before I get out of bed in the morning.

As a full-time alt weekly food editor and part-time freelancer, I’m on all the time. Every day at 6:30, when my iPhone starts screaming at me to rouse me from sleep (love you, Marimba), I roll over, check my emails, and sign into our CMS, getting a post (or two) up as the coffee pot timer kicks in. I’m simultaneously scrolling through Twitter to see what industry news broke while I slept or—god forbid—what news from the prior day missed my radar. All day, as I bike to the office and back, attend restaurant previews, and hit the bar with coworkers, I’m fielding press releases and responding to tips from readers.

Are you a millennial? Then there’s a good chance you’re like me. Ours is a generation of literal workaholics; we’re far more likely than other demographic groups to see ourselves as “work martyrs” and much more likely to forfeit unused vacation days. We earn about 20 percent less than boomers did at our age, which is probably why so goddamn many of us—close to 30 percent—are schlepping folks around for Uber, walking dogs, freelancing, or otherwise holding down some kind of side hustle. And then, since we’re an entrepreneurial bunch, there’s the all-too-common challenge of balancing our day job with our creative endeavors: our improv shows or Great American Novels or vegan podcasts.

To be clear: I love my job(s). I’m not about to stop doing what I do, and being on my beat means being on my beat, in my inbox, and up to date on Slack/Gchat/Twitter notifications. All those articles about how no one should check their work email after six? They’re unrealistic bordering on utter bullshit. But workaholism is linked to anxiety, depression, weight gain—all kinds of fun stuff. It strains marriages (not that we’re strolling down the aisle any time soon, am I right, 20-somethings?). Some experts even think it’s a mental illness all its own.

So, what can we do—I mean, realistically—to not fall sick from this glorious worship of the hustle? Because we can’t stop / won’t stop.

First things first: Cut it out with the multitasking. “One of the issues with being overworked that many millennials have is multitasking. Since stressful jobs often require people to be handling many different things at any one point in time, people develop a habit of ruminating, or going over and over in their minds plans, obligations, or tasks that they have on their roster in the near or distant future,” says associate psychiatrist Ashwini Nadkarni, director of digital integrated care in the department of psychiatry at Brigham & Women's Hospital.

Nadkarni says this makes us less productive, counterintuitively keeping most workaholics from focusing their minds on the job at hand or being able to relax in their rare spare moments. If you’re writing a grant proposal but getting pinged on Google Hangouts at the same time, that work will suffer, so you have to be strategic in turning off the push notifications that distract you from what you’re working on.

If you’re an always-on-the-go over-scheduler, one thing that helps is to pencil in fun breaks—even if they’re short—in that schedule. Yes, planning out your fun sounds lame. But: “Having something to look forward to will boost your mood and your productivity,” says Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and the author of the international bestselling book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do. “Schedule time to chat with your best friend or set aside time to read your favorite book. A quick stress reliever can go a long way toward helping you return to your work refreshed and re-energized.” We’re not talking an all out lunch break here, heaven forbid. Think, a quick text exchange or a few pages of that book.

Morin also recommends spending some time in nature—taking a walk outside for even a couple of minutes—citing studies that show green spaces boost mental strength. And while it might not be realistic to unplug for hours at a time, she says you should make a point to do so once in awhile—even if that breather is as short as leaving your phone in the car while you grocery shop or taking it off the table while you're eating dinner. One screen is enough and Netflix has some bangers this month.

Can’t ditch the phone entirely? Silence Slack notifications for a bit, or close that Gmail tab. “A quick break from your technology can be good for your brain,” Morin says. And Nadkarni adds that one of the easiest ways to stay sane while overworked is to make the most of those spare moments you do have to yourself.

“While most workaholics will say they don’t have a spare moment in their day, that’s because they have a different definition of what constitutes a spare moment,” she notes. “Stress reduction doesn’t have to involve taking an hour of your day to work out at the gym or go to a yoga class. And it doesn’t mean taking off the morning to get a massage. Stress reduction can happen while you’re commuting to work, eating lunch, or even going to the bathroom.”

How? Nadkarni says this is where practicing mindfulness comes in. Simply put, mindfulness is engaging in a focused, conscious awareness of anything we're doing, which can both help us to turn off our mind's "autopilot" and enable us to be more present-focused. So pee blissfully—weirdly, there’s can be a serene stillness when you have 30 seconds to not really think about anything important.

There’s nothing wrong with blogging first thing in the morning; but you should (try to) avoid letting thoughts of good ledes and clever one-liners rule your entire day. Instead, take five to focus on just the experience at hand—your morning cup, in many instances—on the smell and taste of the coffee in your mouth. Commuting to work? Put away your phone ever so briefly and take in the smells and sounds of the subway (unpleasant as they may be—hey, this is Nadkarni’s advice), and absorb the entirety of the subterranean ride. “Through the use of mindfulness, you can learn to cultivate an enhanced awareness of the experience of what you might be working on,” she says.

And hey, remember to take care of yourself when it comes to the non-work-related stuff—treating your body poorly will make work harder in the long run.

“Skimping on sleep, putting off exercise, and letting your healthy diet go out the window will wreak havoc on your health and slow down your productivity—and then you might be tempted to work longer hours to get your work done,” Morin adds. “It can be a vicious [circle]. So no matter how busy you are or how much you have to do, take care of your body.”

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