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Overworking is reacting to an urge.

Most of us who are overworking are doing so because we have established a habit of rewarding the urge to work.  Our habit of overworking is self-created by both classical conditioning, and operant conditioning:  Both are concepts in studies of psychology.  I am not a trained psychologist so will not try to explain the concepts deeply, but instead will reference them in terms of how they impact our habit of overworking.

Creating the urge to work:

At the most basic level, we are conditioned to overwork, because the behavior of overworking is rewarded.  When we are rewarded, it causes us to want to repeat the behavior that resulted in the reward.  Our minds then develop an association between whatever stimulus started the work.  Then those stimuli end up creating an urge to work, all on their own.  

This sequence of events is repeated over and over again.  

  • We get a phone call, text message, email, or are part of a meeting that creates a request to do work.  
  • We do the work.
  • We are rewarded for doing the work with a paycheck and sometimes with praise. 

AND – we observe someone else’s experience too

  • We observe a phone call, text message, email, or are part of a meeting that creates a request to do work.  
  • A colleague does the work.  
  • A customer offers glowing praise for the colleague.
  • We want to receive similar praise.

The stimuli tend to be similar for most of us.  A phone call, text message, email, or discussion in a meeting result in work being requested and rewards when the work is done.  

Afterhours and weekend work often result in bigger rewards and create a stronger urge to work

With the technology available to us now, requests happen both during the normal work day and after hours and on weekends.  The rewards we experience for working after hours and on weekends are often bigger than the rewards during the normal work day.

You have seen it happen.  When a team works through the weekend to solve a problem, there is often a lot of extra thanks for going “above and beyond”.  It is a stronger reward than we get for working during the normal day.  This bigger reward creates additional desire to work.

The urge to work becomes automatic

We are rewarded so often that at some point our minds begin to associate the original stimulus with a desire to do work.  The simple presence of a phone that might ring or receive a text message – or the availability of a smartphone or a laptop will create a desire to do work all on its own. (classical conditioning).  Our minds associate the presence of those items with the rewards.

All of this results in a constant relentless urge to work.

We see the thing that causes us to think about work and think thoughts like. 

  • “I should check to see if I got a response to the email I sent”
  • “I should be doing work right now”
  • “I’m bored.  I should work.”
  • “I need to get that task done.”
  • “I want my boss/co-worker/customer to be happy with my work”
  • “I am really far behind and need to catch up on my work”

Those thoughts create the urge to work.  And we react to the urge and reinforce it.  It feels urgent and important even if it truly isn’t.

This is so common that the result is a team, all in the habit of reacting to the urge to work, and working nights and weekends and rewarding each other for doing so.

Listen:  At work, we always have something we could be doing.  The reason we are employed is because there is work to be done. 

The trick to stopping our overworking habit is to re-train ourselves to stop reacting to the urge to work.  

How?  Two simple steps.

  1. Decide ahead of time when you are going to do work.  During that time:  Work hard.  Do the best work you can.  Always work when you plan to.  Work because you have scheduled yourself to work, not because of an urge.  Your great work will result in being rewarded for working when you plan to work.
  2. Allow your urges to work to pass un-answered.  Try to notice that you have an urge to work as often as possible.  It can help to try to keep count of how often it comes up.  Then – Don’t respond to the urge.  Don’t reward the urge to work. It will be hard, but it’s important not to work. You are re-training your brain that you don’t respond to urges and it will get easier.

The steps are very simple.  But.  They are not easy.  

When you feel an urge to work, you are going to feel like you might die if you don’t respond to it.   The urge will feel very urgent, and it will feel like you HAVE to respond to it.  Remind yourself that it is only because you have been in the habit of responding every time for a long time.  That neural-pathway is deeply embedded in your brain.   You are working on retraining it. So.

  • Notice the urge.  
  • Count it.
  • Sit with it and notice how it feels. Is it heavy?  Is it fast or slow?  Does it have a color?  
  • Don’t respond to it.  Allow it to be there.  It’s just an urge.  It can’t hurt you.
  • Do this for at least 100 urges.

What will happen?  

Once you have allowed a lot of urges to work without reacting to them, you will begin to notice that they happen less often.  You will be getting a ton of work done during the hours you have scheduled.  The work will be high quality, and when you are not working you will be thinking about work less often.  You won’t be checking your email as often.  You won’t worry about work as much.

And not only that.

You won’t be sending things to your teammates off hours, so they won’t have as much to react to either, and they might end up benefiting from your discipline too.

This is a practice.  It takes focus, and commitment, but it is 100% worth the effort. 

Overworking is reacting to an urge. You can retrain this habit and it takes less time than you think.

Let me know how it goes. 

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