Has work taken over your life?
The day I realized it had gone too far, I woke up at 5:00 am to go from dreaming about work to doing it. As I slid out of bed, I glanced at my sleeping husband and felt a pang of guilt. I had fallen asleep the night before in the middle of our first real conversation that day.
“I’ll make it up to him,” I thought, dragging myself into the kitchen for coffee, then to my office for a half-asleep run on the elliptical while I caught up on emails. After a few minutes, I gave up on the running to give the emails my full attention.
“There is so much to do, I’ll never get caught up at this rate.”
I glanced at the Bible devotional siting on my desk but pushed it aside in order to retrieve the documents my printer was spitting out.
“I’ll get to it, maybe tomorrow.” Even as I muttered the words to myself, I knew they were false. I’d been reaching past the devotional for too many days in a row.
It was May of 2013, and at that point I was working as the part-time Chief Strategy Officer of a large commercial real estate firm, serving on six separate corporate and nonprofit boards, and handling the day-to-day management of a rapidly expanding 4word. I felt like my mind was moving a million miles a minute. In a constant scramble to stay ahead of the next thing, I was working myself to the bone. And the more I threw myself into work, the further behind I felt.
My big moment of clarity came with tears.
In an airport.
I don’t remember what exactly went wrong that set my phone buzzing and the emails piling up, but I remember feeling thoroughly defeated and overwhelmed. Work was consuming every part of me. I closed my eyes to hold back tears and cried out to God:
I can’t do this. I can’t keep up. Please help me.
Something about that moment flipped a switch for me. That night I slept well, and I woke up with a sense of peace. From there, I set a new path. I couldn’t see how it would all work out, but I stepped forward in faith, confident that God could repair what I couldn’t.
Are you out of balance? Here are some early warning signs that you may need to correct course:
- You leave your everyday routine of prayer time, Bible study, exercise, good sleep, and eating well behind.
- You can’t leave your electronic devices in the evening or for a day on a weekend.
- You focus on how many emails you have to return.
- You feel uncomfortable taking time to just take time holding your spouse and/or your children for a long period of time.
- You can’t focus on your spouse or children when they are speaking with you, because you are distracted by work needs.
- You don’t have time to serve others.
What is it about work that draws you in?
When you find yourself working too hard, its tempting to blame the office culture, your boss’s unreasonable expectations, or any number of other things beyond your control. And some of these things certainly do contribute. Even so, work can’t take over if you don’t help it.
That’s the deep down truth that’s uncomfortable to admit: sometimes, we’d simply rather be working.
In that truth, there is also hope. When work is consuming me, I’m not merely a victim. I’m a participant, and that means that I have the power to make changes.
I love that feeling of working full-out for something, don’t you? I know and appreciate that this is part of the way God made me, and I’m grateful for it. But I also recognize its dangers.
Work has a special kind of allure. At work, you are needed and valuable. You have defined goals and objectives. Your efforts yield tangible results and generate feedback.
The rest of life, by contrast, can feel terribly messy and confusing. Relationships are complicated, efforts and sacrifices for family too often go unrecognized, and there’s not even a yearly employee review to let you know how you’re doing!
Sometimes we turn to work as a way of avoiding the messier parts of life, and that’s a problem.
All work and no play is no good.
Relationships tend to suffer the first casualties, followed by physical and emotional health. As you tip further and further out of balance, eventually these problems will work their way back to where they started, crippling even your ability to work well.
There is certainly value in working hard, but the big lessons in life are almost always learned outside of the office. All that challenging messiness—that’s where God is working on your heart the most. Furthermore, as good managers know, taking time away from work actually makes you a better worker.
The very best workers take time to be filled and encouraged by the people and things that they enjoy. They exercise, they stimulate their brains with new experiences and connections. They live vibrant lives outside of the office.
Re-balancing can start with some simple repair work.
Make it a priority to repair the relationships that have suffered. There’s a lot of healing that can happen in a relationship with a simple apology: “I’m sorry. Work has been taking up too much of me and I know it has hurt you. Please forgive me.” An apology like this can’t heal every wound, but humbling yourself in that way and acknowledging the other person’s hurt is a critical step for you and for them.
Make positive changes.
Don’t waste time punishing yourself over past mistakes. Accept whatever culpability you may have, ask forgiveness where necessary, and then move forward. Guilt and shame are poor motivators. To break unhealthy habits around work, you need to give yourself positive goals and boundaries.
I’ve set a positive goal for myself to spend significant time each week connecting with my husband Chris over something that he enjoys. So when my smartphone buzzes at 9:30 pm just as we’re sitting down together on the couch to watch clips from the Tour de France, I can leave the phone untouched, knowing that I am fulfilling a valid and important goal. Without that goal in place, I would be reaching for the phone in an instant, unable to resist the lure of relative productivity.
You can devote less time to work than you think you can.
Have you ever noticed how, no matter what size purse you are carrying, it’s always full? We tend to make use of what we’re given. The same goes for work, if you allow it to take up your full day, it will. But if you build firm boundaries around it, you’ll be surprised at what you accomplish in a shorter amount of time.
Accept that others may not share your boundaries around work, and you can’t control how they respond. You can and should impose limits in a respectful way while continuing to do high quality work.
Major changes in your work pattern may necessitate careful communication with your boss and coworkers. If you’re working closely with people on a project, let them know specifically if and when you will be available outside the office. By managing expectations in this way, you can help to avoid misunderstandings.
No one gets this stuff right all the time. My tearful realization in the airport wasn’t the first time my life got out of balance, and it probably won’t be the last. I’m committed to do the best that I can, learning and making adjustments as I go along, and trusting that God is working in it all.
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