Vivek Haldar

Addicted to work

Erin Callan, the former CFO of Lehman Brothers, writes about her all-consuming workaholism in the New York Times:

I didn’t start out with the goal of devoting all of myself to my job. It crept in over time. Each year that went by, slight modifications became the new normal. First I spent a half-hour on Sunday organizing my e-mail, to-do list and calendar to make Monday morning easier. Then I was working a few hours on Sunday, then all day. My boundaries slipped away until work was all that was left.

Workaholism is the perfect term for this, because, like alcoholism, it connotes addiction. Nobody starts out wanting to become an alcoholic, or a workaholic. But you start down a path, and one fine day you wake up with a dry mouth and a splitting headache with no memory of the night before, or realize that you haven’t seen family or friends in days or weeks. You think you are in control of it, but eventually it is in control of you.

It happens through a series of small choices, each one seemingly inconsequential. And it is a choice, because I’ve rarely seen a workaholic creative professional doing 80-hour weeks because their boss was tightening the screws on them. They did it to themselves.

But why did they choose this? Not for the money. Workaholics are usually already well-paid, and hardly ever enjoy that money anyway.

What is the hook? Where is the high? It is the need for cognition, a trait that compels one to “understand and make reasonable the experiential world”. Every problem solved, every little checkbox marked off, every little question answered, every gap covered–these are all highs. And when the pile of work is infinite, and usually self-created, you can string together a series of such highs into a sixteen hour workday.

But just like addiction, workaholism is an easy way out. An easy way to ignore the work and time and compromise required for cultivating relationships. An easy way to pretend that there’s simply no time to step back and distinguish the urgent from the important. An easy way to distrust colleagues and do it all yourself. An easy way to deal with the stream of work as it arises, flowing in it, rather than putting in the time and deep thought required to prioritize and tackle items with potentially high impact.