Most of us scarcely have time to organize our to-do lists. What are we chasing after? And what would it take to make us rest?
There is a colleague I often bump into at the university where I teach, and we exchange a similar greeting every time. "I stayed up past midnight reading application forms for today's meeting," she says. And I answer, "I got up at dawn to prepare for a class." We groan, laugh lightly and rush off to our busy day—until the next morning's story of being too busy.
A friend in Senegal tells me that people there address one another very differently—family to family. "Blessings on your father and mother," one might say upon seeing a friend, "and blessings on your mother's parents, and blessings on your father's parents, and blessings on your children." It is a pleasant greeting, and it takes a while to say it. So why do we Americans greet one another in our grim, rapid-fire way, workload to workload?
Because overworking has become our national way of life. More of us are clocking longer hours, and we seem to be packing our free time with extra activity. According to a report from the International Labour Office, Americans now put in nearly 2,000 hours per year, which comes out to two weeks more than our counterparts in Japan, formerly the long-work-hours capital of the world. The Hilton Time Values Project reports that in a national survey it conducted, 26 percent of respondents agreed with the statement "I consider myself a workaholic."
What drives us to stay so busy? Some of the pressure to overwork comes from the boss and the need to pay rent. But when I asked those I interviewed for my book The Time Bind why they worked long hours, many of them told me, "We do it to ourselves." Indeed, some of the pressure to overwork comes from ourselves. Some may feel addicted to the adrenaline rush of doing too much, and at the last minute; others seek appreciation from a supervisor or co-worker. And still others see work as a measure of their value. They think that if they do more, get better, go faster, stay at the office later, they'll be worth more—and be happier.
But many who struggle still aren't happy. And with every additional task, we become a little less able to tell what it is that we really feel. What emotions would we experience if we weren't working ourselves to death? What wishes drive us? What fantasies hitch themselves to our continual busyness? Only when we step away from our frenzy can we know.
It’s not hard to see some of the reason we’re tempted to stay so busy: Around us the forces of workaholism abound. For one thing, the decline of unions (to whom we owe the very idea of the weekend) and the rise of the $7-an-hour job mean that more of us have to work longer hours. In addition, for the middle class, the emergence of company-engineered office cultures, replete with team-building sessions, makes us want to stick around the office. And both at home and at work, technology has become friend and foe. We think we’re saving time with microwaves, cell phones, beepers, computers and voice mail, but often these things help us create the illusion if getting somewhere—and they foster a chain of constant activity. We’re really just squeezing extra activity into every minute that we gain. Perhaps that’s why such a cheerful, nervous prattle and an unrepentant pride surround the topic of overwork.
Next: Why we become workaholics
Among the nearly 330,000 references to workaholism that came up when I ran an Internet search, I found an organization selling greeting cards for Workaholic Day, July 5. And on another site, the Workaholics International Network (WIN) even calls workaholics “winners” and supports “pride in work ethic.” The site offers a cutesy workaholic test with question like “Are you there to say good-bye to the last person in the office?” and “Have you told yourself at least five times that you need to ‘get a life?’” Those who pass the test are eligible to become WIN members and receive the “critical information for a workaholic” wallet card, meant to help you remember anniversaries, birthdays, important phone numbers—and even “previously used excuses for coming home late.” All of this is meant to make us laugh. But would we laugh in the same way about the plight of an alcoholic?
The culture’s view of overwork aside, what is it inside us that pushes us to stay so busy? Each person’s drive to overwork is unique, and doing too much numbs every workaholics emotions differently. Sometimes overwork numbs depression, sometimes anger, sometimes envy, sometimes sexuality. Or the overworker runs herself ragged in a race for attention. One workaholic woman I talked to recalled that as a child, she had competed fiercely with her gifted sister for the little attention her depressed mother could offer. With her every push to do more, get better, go faster, it was if she were saying, “I will outshine my sister. I will come first. And I will get love.”
For many of us, work is the one place where we feel appreciated. The things that we long to experience at home—pride in our accomplishments, laughter and fun, relationships that aren’t complex—we sometimes experience most often in the office. Bosses applaud us when we do a good job. Co-workers become a kind of family we feel we fit into. Meanwhile, a lot of us are baffled by frictions with loved ones at home, and smoothing out problems with a co-worker is often less complicated than overcoming an impasse with a mate or child. And sadly, it can be rare that you get a “Thank you,” “Congratulations” or “Good job” for being a good parent or keeping tidy at home.
One woman, a 30-year-old factory worker and mother of two, told me when I interviewed her for my book The Time Blind: “I usually come to work early just to get away from the house. When I get to work, people are there waiting. We sit. We talk. We joke. I let them know what’s going on, what has to be where, what changes I’ve made for the shift that day. We sit there and chitchat for five or ten minutes. There is laughing. There is fun. They aren’t putting me down for any reason. Everything is done in humor and fun from beginning to end.”
But when this mother arrived home late form work, it was a difference scene: “The minute I turn the key in the lock, my oldest daughter is there—granted, she needs somebody to talk to about her day. The baby, who should have been in bed two hours before, is still awake. That upsets me. The oldest comes up to me and complained about everything her father has said or done during the evening. My husband is in the other room, hollering to my daughter, ‘Tracy, I don’t even get a chance to talk to your mother because you’re always monopolizing her time.’ The all come at me at once.”
Another working woman, 38 years old and the mother of two, adds, “I take a lot of overtime. The more I get out of the house, the better I am. It’s a terrible thing to say, but that’s the way I feel!”
It’s not just that we simply work hard ourselves, we also build workaholic systems around us. Parents who overwork often draw their children into dizzying schedules. Partners become workaholics à deux, keeping each other in overdrive. One woman I talked to was not a workaholic herself, but she helped keep her husband frantic. Even though her husband regularly put in 50 to 60 hours a week and traveled a lot—and therefore wanted to relax at home—she complained that he just “lazed around” after work.
“He gets home from a trip, and all he wants to do is lie on the catch and watch videos,” she tell me. “So I’ll say, ‘Have you backed up your computer files? Did you call Harry back? And why don’t you cut the lawn?’”
In truth, his relaxation made her anxious—and this could have been related to what happened in her childhood, she said.
“I came from a poor family, and sometimes my father was out of work,” she explains. “We’ve worked hard. We’ve come this far. There’s no way I’m going back.” When her husband took time off after a long week, she felt as though they were “going back” to that same poverty. So through her remarks, she kept her husband an unhappy prisoner of her anxiety.
Workaholics themselves often assign a magical power to working all the time. Work becomes a wand waved over many dilemmas. If I work nonstop, the workaholic reasons, I’ll finally feel that I deserve that promotion they gave me five years ago. If I work nonstop, it will make up for my poor personality, my bad looks, my mediocre brain. I’ll outdo my favored sibling, ward off criticism, force my mate to meet my needs, become unreproachable. If I work nonstop, I’ll have direction and purpose. I’ll seem important in the eyes of those I love.
Next: Why you need to slow down
Those who keep themselves too busy also surround themselves with mini monuments symbolizing who they would be if they only had time. A few years ago, I talked to a woman named Nancy who imagined herself as a mother who participated fully in her children’s lives but who wasn’t actually doing that. Emblems of her imaginary self, like the maple-syrup equipment she had dreamed of using with her kids, lay unused in the basement of their country home. Another parents I talked to bought an expensive van to take his kids camping in, but it never left the garage.
In the homes of workaholics across America, unplayed guitars sit in attics and unused carpentry tools rust in basements. These objects cost money that workers spend time to earn. But there they sit, symbols of another kind of poverty.
It’s easy to fool ourselves, even when we have a lurking sense that we’re doing so. Why? Perhaps we don’t want to believe our staying too busy might be a cushions that protects us from the two things that scare us: silence and ourselves. But what would happen if we stopped and became a little less fearful of what we’re feeling?
That’s what Nancy, the maple-syrup mom, did. When I ran into her two years after we first talked, she told me she had resigned form her job, gotten some therapy and gone back to school for an advanced degree. She seemed as spunky as I’d remember her, but she was also calmer, more thoughtful, more wise about what lay at the root of her need to do too much. “I was ducking my relationship with my husband,” she told me. “My overwork was a way of telling him, ‘Your needs overwhelm me’ But actually, it was my own needs that overwhelmed me. Once you have a real conversation with yourself and your mate, you don’t need to send indecipherable smoke signals through overwork.”
Whatever our overwork is about at its core—the belief that activity alone can fulfill us, the need to make ourselves feel valuable, the desire to get another’s love—what is clear is that when we don’t slow down, we stand to lose. Our health may wane. Our best friends may not remember the last time they had a good talk with us. Our ideas of time spent with ourselves becomes five minutes in the shower. So let the holdouts log on after midnight to get their Workaholic Day cards. Let them greet their colleagues with stories of overwork. The rest of us should get to the bottom of what will bring us meaning and get on with our real lives.