How can I deal with workaholism?

Some people fall into the "all work, all the time" pattern and find it hard to get out. Without close family ties or friends to draw them away from their work lives, they may become so consumed that they never develop outside lives. Their work becomes a crutch, one that isn't very sturdy given the precariousness of the job market.

If someone has become such a workaholic that he or she no longer has any other outside interests, then he or she should consider the need for counseling.

But sometimes what seems like workaholism is something entirely different. The individual may be consumed with one assignment after another, but he or she may have other interests. It is simply that the individual doesn't know how to say no—whether it's to his or her manager, peers, or employees—when the person is asked to take on a new task.

There are individuals who have interests outside of work and would like to pursue them but worry about alienating the person asking for help. If this is your problem, consider the response: "I'd like to help if I can fit it into my schedule." You can then go on to explain that you have other tasks that have to take priority. This way, you aren't rejecting either the person or his or her request— you are simply telling the truth.

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If it's just a matter of time—and you don't have it now but you might have it later—and you would like to help your colleague, offer to help if the person can wait a few days. But if that isn't acceptable, then be firm in refusing. Don't equivocate. If you say you might be able to help and then fail to come through as promised, you can ruin your reputation as someone who can be depended on.

If the request comes from your manager, then the burden is on him or her to decide whether this request takes precedence over those priorities you have agreed on earlier. If our manager is willing to give you more time to complete your current work to free you to handle this new priority, then say yes to the assignment. But most frequently, your manager will reconsider the request, freeing you to finish what you were already doing.

I seem to work from crisis to crisis. What am I doing wrong?

You may have to look at the assignments more closely. A lot of managers carry such heavy workloads that they habitually plunge into one assignment after another without any thought as to how the tasks should best be handled or what work they should do immediately (think "urgent") and what work can wait. They are working harder and faster than ever before but not necessarily more productively because they spend too little time in thinking through each task first.

A multitude of tasks may pile up, and they all seem to be labeled "urgent." The end result for you is that you are spending too much time putting out fires instead of preventing them. Strategic time management can go a long way toward preventing the forest fires. By "strategic time management," I mean looking at each task from the perspective of its importance to your department's plans and mission.

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Proceed methodically. Giving a little thought to a situation may enable you to identify a smarter way to handle a problem or situation. More work or longer hours aren't the solutions to every operational problem. When faced with a last-minute task, pause for a moment. Count to ten before acting. Taking a breath or two may be sufficient to prevent needless wheel spinning and unnecessary pressure. You will have time to consider how the task can be done more efficiently or more effectively, or both. Maybe the work can be outsourced? Perhaps there is another, less expensive way to accomplish the objective? If time is the scarce resource, then there may be a firm that can make up lost time in delivery to your customer?

Stopping to catch your breath will also enable you to determine whether what you have in front of you is a real crisis. Determine what warrants a frantic pace and what can be done in due time, and respond accordingly. Certainly, don't allow someone who is insecure about your ability to complete a task on time to throw your own priorities out of whack. A realistic view of what is a crisis allows you to make decisions about how to spend your time.

 
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