How to Set Boundaries: 14 Proven Practices

Many people struggle with setting and enforcing boundaries. It requires knowing their preferences and breaking points. It means being willing to assert their desires and needs. This is hard for many people, either due to their upbringing or personality—or both.

There are many advantages that come with getting good at this. For example, it can help us protect our emotional wellbeing, grow as a person, develop greater self-respect and confidence, protect our time and energy, avoid burnout, earn respect from others, and prevent unnecessary relationship conflicts.

When we set boundaries, we’re helping others interact more effectively with us. Sometimes we’re setting lines for ourselves that we resolve not to cross. We’re getting clear on what we’ll accept or tolerate.

Boundaries help us function effectively. They allow us to enjoy our life and work while also giving us a sense of control over our lives.

When we don’t set and enforce boundaries properly and consistently, we’re more prone to anxiety, frustration, and resentment. We get overcommitted, perhaps falling into overwork, workaholism, exhaustion, or burnout.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Get Better at Setting Boundaries: 14 Proven Practices

Thankfully, there are many things we can do to get better at this. Here are 14 proven practices for setting and enforcing boundaries:

1. Recognize that setting and maintaining boundaries can benefit our lives greatly, including our work and our leadership. Given all the benefits, it’s well worth the effort. Also, it gets easier over time.

2. Realize that setting and enforcing boundaries is not just good for us but for everyone involved. Why? Because it creates clarity and generates mutual respect.

3. Avoid falling into the trap of overestimating the resistance that will come from setting boundaries. Our brains are good at generating fear and anticipating worst-case scenarios. Often, the reality is not nearly as bad as we fear when we get into worrying mode.

4. Stay focused on the higher purpose of setting boundaries instead of the down-side of the temporary awkwardness. When we set boundaries, it’s usually for a good and important reason such as protecting our wellbeing or reserving our time for our top priorities. In this light, it’s well worth a little temporary pain or awkwardness.

5. Evaluate our current boundaries to identify areas that need improvement. In particular, look for situations that often result in discomfort or resentment.

6. Take an inventory of boundary crossings that have happened. Thinking about these instances, focus especially on the people, the situations, and how they make us feel.

7. Determine new boundaries that we want to set and recommit to or update old boundaries. Our core values and current goals and priorities should inform these decisions. If we’re new to setting boundaries or have struggled with it in the past, we’re wise to start small and build out from there.

8. Communicate boundaries clearly. Sometimes, the problem is that we’re expecting people to read our minds and just know our boundaries. It’s a recipe for frustration and failure. Sometimes, we may want to explain our rationale so the person has context (e.g., “I’m fully booked now so I can’t help with that”). In other cases, we can leave it with a declaratory statement (“I can’t take that on”) or even just a simple “No.”

“No is a complete sentence.”
-Anne Lamott, writer

9. Be consistent in communicating and enforcing boundaries. This is key. It’s where the rubber meets the road. Without consistency, others are likely to get confused or forget, and that may take us back to square one. Better to do the hard work upfront and in the early stages until things start to take on a life of their own.

10. Develop our assertiveness, including getting better at saying “no” and saying it more often. We can focus on saying no to requests and opportunities that don’t align with our values or advance our priorities. We can avoid spending time with negative people who drag us down with their criticism, complaints, neediness, or narcissism. And we can decline opportunities or requests, so we don’t end up doing all the work ourselves (versus delegating things to others).

“The difference between successful people and really successful people
is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
-Warren Buffett, chair and CEO, Berkshire Hathaway

11. Be kind but firm. Ideally, we come across as thoughtful and considerate while still assertive and clear. Sometimes, a little humor helps.

12. Get clear about who we are, what we value, and how we work best. When we’ve done this inner work, it allows us to set and enforce boundaries.

13. Set boundaries on our work time. For example, we can set a maximum number of hours we’ll work each week. We can limit email to certain hours, with rare exceptions only as needed. It helps to plan ahead—and be sure to identify and focus on our most important tasks.

14. Place boundaries around our emotional commitment to others. Boundaries aren’t just about our time. They’re also about the focus of our attention and emotions. It’s a trap to feel responsible for other people’s choices or their happiness or outcomes.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Conclusion

Of course, setting and enforcing boundaries isn’t a one-and-done deal. It’s an ongoing process that requires reflection and course corrections. As we proceed with it, we must keep making judgments about when to be strict and when to make exceptions based on new information.

As we choose our boundaries, we should bear in mind that other people will make different choices about their boundaries. What works for us may not work for others. So, we should respect other people’s boundaries even as we fight for our own.

Also, it’s a mistake to think about boundaries only in the negative—only as things that we and others can’t do. Why? Because when we get good at setting and enforcing boundaries, it sets us up for all the positive things we actually want to do and experience. By setting limits, we gain freedom. We free up our time and energy to live life on our terms.

“Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how you use it.
You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.”

-Anna Taylor, author

 

Tools for You

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Related Traps

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Boundaries

  • “Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” -Josh Billings, American humorist
  • “Givers need to set limits because takers rarely do.” -Rachel Wolchin, author

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Power of Relationships in Our Lives

Article Summary: 

On the costs of social isolation and loneliness, the benefits of close relationships on our health, wellbeing, and happiness, and how to develop and maintain close relationships.

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Loneliness and disconnection are big problems these days for many. This year, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on the “public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection.” He noted, “Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness.” According to a Guardian article, about 20 percent of people report that loneliness is a “major source of unhappiness in their lives.”

“Loneliness hangs over our culture today like a thick smog.”
-Johann Hari, Lost Connections

Workaholism and the dramatic increase of screen time in our lives both aggravate the problem. Average daily digital content consumption is now just under seven hours, according to a recent Forbes report.

If we want to address the issues, first we need to understand them clearly, so let’s begin by defining the relevant phenomena.

 

Defining the Problem(s)

There are several factors at work, from loneliness and social isolation to solitude.

In his book, Together: Why Social Connection Holds the Key to Better Health, Higher Performance, and Greater Happiness, Dr. Murthy defines loneliness as “the subjective feeling that you’re lacking the social connections you need.” He explains:

“It can feel like being stranded, abandoned, or cut off from the people with whom you belong—even if you’re surrounded by other people. What’s missing when you’re lonely is the feeling of closeness, trust, and the affection of genuine friends, loved ones, and community.”

Loneliness is a normal human emotion. We all experience it, but it can become problematic when we feel it too often. Researchers have identified several types of loneliness, including:

  1. intimate loneliness: when we feel we don’t have trust and a mutual bond with an intimate partner or close confidante.
  2. relational loneliness: when we feel we don’t have quality friendships and social support.
  3. collective loneliness: when we feel we don’t have a network or community of people who share our interests and values.
“These three dimensions together reflect the full range of high-quality social connections that humans need in order to thrive. The lack of relationships in any of these dimensions can make us lonely, which helps to explain why we may have a supportive marriage yet still feel lonely for friends and community.”
-Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and his book, Together

Loneliness isn’t the same as social isolation. Researchers define social isolation as a lack of relationships with others and little to no social contact or support. Obviously, such social isolation often leads to feelings of loneliness.

Another related phenomenon is solitude. Some people conflate it with loneliness, but that’s a mistake. Researchers define solitude as a state of being alone and note that it can be voluntary or involuntary.

Solitude, it’s worth noting, can be positive. For example, it can help us have more time to reflect (a valuable thing when many of us lack margin in our lives) and lead to greater self-awareness. Also, solitude can help us develop authenticity and become more familiar with and comfortable being ourselves. Dr. Murthy points out that, perhaps surprisingly, solitude can help protect against loneliness.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Costs of Loneliness and Disconnection

Loneliness and social isolation can have adverse consequences in our lives. According to a large meta-analytic review of the research literature over more than 30 years by Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues, “Actual and perceived social isolation” (i.e., living alone, having infrequent social contact, or having few ties with a social network) “are both associated with increased risk for early mortality.” (1)

According to researchers, loneliness and disconnection are associated with:

  1. a rise in cortisol (a stress hormone)
  2. increased blood pressure
  3. elevated blood sugar levels
  4. inflammation
  5. worse immune functioning
  6. poorer health behaviors (such as physical inactivity, worse sleep, and smoking)
  7. faster aging
  8. higher risk of heart disease, stroke, and dementia
  9. greater likelihood of premature mortality (1)

According to the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, poor or insufficient connection come with a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease, 32 percent increased risk of stroke, and 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia among older adults. Also, lacking social connection can increase risk of premature death by more than 60 percent. (2) It can be just as deadly as certain diseases, according to researchers.

As if the physical health effects weren’t bad enough, loneliness and isolation often contribute to mental health challenges as well. For example, the risk of developing depression among adults who report feeling lonely often is more than double the risk among people who report feeing lonely rarely or never. When it comes to children, loneliness and social isolation elevate the risk of anxiety and depression both immediately and far into the future.

“Today it’s widely understood that one of the most important factors
in preventing and addressing toxic stress in children is healthy social connection.”
-Vivek H. Murthy, Together

Isolation can become a downward spiral, fostering discontent and shame, leading to further isolation. Many people have a tendency to go it alone through hard times and transitions, perhaps from their personality or upbringing. Unfortunately, that’s a recipe for more hardship.

“Protracted loneliness causes you to shut down socially, and to be more suspicious of any social contact…. You become hypervigilant. You start to be more likely to take offense where none was intended, and to be afraid of strangers. You start to be afraid of the very thing you need most…. disconnection spirals into more disconnection…. many depressed and anxious people receive less love, as they become harder to be around. Indeed, they receive judgment, and criticism, and this accelerates their retreat from the world. They snowball into an ever colder place.”
-Johann Hari, Lost Connections

 

The Benefits of Relationships

Forming and maintaining relationships, by contrast, comes with many benefits, according to researchers. British-Swiss journalist and author Johann Hari notes that just as bees evolved to be part of a hive, so we humans evolved to be part of a tribe. It stands to reason that there’s an evolutionary basis behind our urge to connect with others and form social bonds. Doing so helps us survive and reproduce, and it helps us access support in times of danger, distress, or trauma.

“…like food and air, we seem to need social relationships to thrive.”
-Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener,
Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth

Social bonds are not just about surviving but also about belonging and thriving. Enter what psychologists call the “belongingness hypothesis”: that we have a “pervasive drive to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal relationships.” (3) In a major review of the research literature on interpersonal attachments, researchers Roy F. Baumeister and Mark R. Leary found that our need to belong has two main features:

  • first, we need frequent interactions with others that are positive or pleasant (or at least mostly free from conflict)
  • second, we want interpersonal bonds that are stable and continuing and marked by genuine concern (and, ideally, mutual concern)

According to researchers, social relationships benefit our immune system as well as our cardiovascular and endocrine (hormone regulation) functions. (4)

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Relationships and Happiness

Researchers have long tied the quality of our relationships to our wellbeing, happiness, and sense of fulfillment. The connection also shows up in surveys. According to a large 2023 Pew Research Center study, 61 percent of U.S. adults say that having close friends is extremely or very important in order for people to live a fulfilling life. (5)

The research on the link between social connections and happiness is extensive and powerful. (See the Appendix.)

“The centrality of social connections to our health and well-being cannot be overstated…. One of the strongest findings in the literature on happiness is that happy people have better relationships than do their less happy peers. It’s no surprise, then, that investing in social relationships is a potent strategy on the path to becoming happier…. people with strong social support are healthier and live longer.”
-Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness

According to Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at University of California Riverside, “The causal relationship between social relationships and happiness is clearly bidirectional.” In other words, when we improve our relationships, we’re likely to experience positive emotions. Then, our enhanced feelings of those positive emotions are likely to help us attract more relationships (and ones that are of high quality). That, in turn, will help make us even happier. She calls it “a continuous positive feedback loop” and “an upward spiral.”

 

The Dark Side of Relationships

Though the benefits are clear, we should also note that not all relationships are positive or beneficial. Far from it.

Many people are in relationships that are poor, manipulative, abusive, or even toxic. And good people sometimes have profound flaws that not only get themselves into trouble but also hurt others. Of course, all relationships go through ups and downs, and it’s not realistic to assume that they’ll induce happiness all the time. In fact, many people get themselves into trouble by expecting too much from their relationships, as opposed to doing the inner work of intentional improvement. Researchers have noted that relationships can be extremely stressful. (6)

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

How to Maintain Close Connections and Relationships

Since relationships are so important to physical and mental health and happiness, we’re wise to reflect on what we can do to nurture them. Here are things we can do to develop and maintain our relationships:

  1. Make time for important people in our lives and avoid the traps of perpetual busyness and workaholism that pull us away from them. Stop neglecting people and start cherishing them, starting with attention and quality time.
  2. Be honest, trustworthy, and reliable.
  3. Show interest in them.
  4. Open up and share our inner life, including our hopes, challenges, and fears, with close family and friends we trust.
  5. Demonstrate loyalty and commitment to family and friends.
  6. Support family, friends, and colleagues during their times of need.
  7. Show them we care with our actions as well as our words.
  8. Show them appreciation often.
  9. Express affection (e.g., holding hands, hugging, cuddling, massage). We humans are wired to need physical contact, and researchers have found a link between touch deprivation and many negative health outcomes, including anxiety, depression, and immune system disorders.
  10. Celebrate good news with them.
  11. Be polite and considerate.
  12. Listen more and better.
  13. Be positive—and don’t fall into the traps of complaining/muttering, catastrophizing, or having a victim mentality.
  14. Strive to understand their context, interests, and perspectives.
  15. Seek common ground and mutual interests.
  16. Treat them as they wish to be treated.
  17. Show understanding and empathy.
  18. Stop blaming others so much and take responsibility for our part in things.
  19. Respect their preferences and boundaries.
  20. Manage conflict well, including forthrightly and deftly raising concerns or disagreements instead of letting them fester.
  21. Avoid disrespect and contempt.
  22. Don’t hold grudges.
“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”
-A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

 

Conclusion

Our relationships with others are among the most precious gifts we can have in life. Too many people lose sight of that as they get lost in work, materialism, concerns or the day, or petty grievances.

One of the reasons that connections and relationships are so important in our lives—and such powerful contributors to our happiness—is that they get us out of our egoic shell. They get us to focus on others. It’s through our relationships that we can become better people by developing our empathy and compassion and giving part of ourselves to others.

Connect deeply and often. Do it gladly and urgently. You won’t regret it.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you neglecting any important relationships in your life?
  2. Are you doing enough to develop new relationships?
  3. Are you doing enough to maintain your existing relationships that are important to you?
  4. What else will you do, starting today?

 

Tools for You

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Related Articles

 

Related Books and Podcasts

  • Vivek Murthy, Together: Why Social Connection Holds the Key to Better Health, Higher Performance, and Greater Happiness (Harper, 2020)
  • Johann Hari, Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope (Bloomsbury USA, 2018)
  • The Life-Changing Power of Connecting with Others,” episode 410, December 12, 2023 on the Feel Better Live More podcast with Dr. Rangan Chatterjee

 

Appendix: Research on Connections and Relationships

The research on the centrality of close relationships to our health, wellbeing, happiness, and fulfillment is extensive. Here are some important studies:

 

Harvard Study of Adult Development

The Harvard Study of Adult Development is a massive longitudinal study of hundreds of people for their entire adult lives. The study began in 1938 and is continuing to this day (after having multiple study directors) with its “Second Generation Study.” The study has evaluated mental and physical health and wellbeing, career enjoyment, retirement experience, and marital quality via interviews, questionnaires, medical exams, and psychological tests.

When asked what he’s learned from the study, Professor George Vaillant (a psychiatrist who led the study for decades) wrote: “Warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.’… (We now have) 70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people… matter more than anything else in the world…. Happiness is love. Full stop.”

 

Study of the Happiest People

In a study of 222 undergraduates, screened for high happiness using multiple confirming assessment filters, researchers sought to identify the characteristics of the happiest 10 percent of people among us. They found that the main distinguishing characteristic of the happiest people was the strength of their social relationships. (7)

“Here’s the most fundamental finding of happiness economics: the factors that most determine our happiness are social, not material…. social connectedness is the most important of all the variables which contribute to a sense of wellbeing in life.
And that is true at any age…. We are each other’s safety nets.”
-Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

 

World Values Survey

According to researchers who evaluated data from the World Values Survey, which surveyed people in more than 150 countries about their life satisfaction, the top factors that account for about three-fourths of reported well-being are: social support, generosity, trust, freedom, income per capita, and healthy life expectancy. (Note how many of these factors are social.)

 

The Blue Zones

Dan Buettner, explorer, author, and American National Geographic Fellow, has written extensively about the “blue zones”: regions in the world where people live, or have recently lived, much longer than average, including many centenarians. The blue zones identified are: Okinawa Prefecture, Japan; Nuoro Province, Sardinia, Italy; the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California, U.S.

According to Buettner, there are common patterns of behavior across the blue zones, several of which concern relationships:

  • Belong”: belonging to and participating in a faith-based or spiritual community and attending services regularly.
  • Loved Ones First”: putting their families first, committing to a life partner, investing in their children with time and love, establishing and maintaining family and social rituals, and keeping aging parents and grandparents nearby or in the home
  • “Right Tribe”: surrounding themselves with a tribe of people that they interact act with often and over their lifetimes (e.g., Okinawans created ”moais”–groups of five friends that committed to each other for life).
“The most successful centenarians we met in the Blue Zones put their families first. They tend to marry, have children, and build their lives around that core. Their lives were imbued with familial duty, ritual, and a certain emphasis on togetherness.”
-Dan Buettner, The Blue Zones

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Relationships and Connections

  • “Union gives strength.” -Aesop, “The Bundle of Sticks,” 550 B.C.
  • “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” -Ecclesiastes 4:9–12 (English Standard Version)
  • “The better part of one’s life consists of his friendships.” -Abraham Lincoln, lawyer, statesman, and U.S. president
  • “Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.” -Erich Fromm, German-American social psychologist, psychoanalyst, and sociologist
  • “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one. You need one because you are human.” -Jane Howard, Families
  • “We all need to know that we matter and that we are loved…. While loneliness engenders despair and ever more isolation, togetherness raises optimism and creativity. When people feel they belong to one another, their lives are stronger, richer, and more joyful.” -Vivek H. Murthy, Together
  • “There are two pillars of happiness… One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.” -George Vaillant, psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School professor, former director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development
  • “Invest in friends. There is no other instrument that pays such high returns…. We need each other, but perversely we neglect each other. Every day we have an opportunity to exercise friendship, to make huge returns on a tiny investment, but foolishly we relapse into sleep and forgetting. Please take my advice to heart—forget bonds, forget stocks, forget gold—invest in friendship.” -Ronald Gottesman, USC professor
  • “What often matters is not the quantity or frequency of social contact but the quality of our connections and how we feel about them.” -Vivek H. Murthy, Together
  • “Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.” -Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined
  • “We believe that the most terrifying and destructive feeling that a person can experience is psychological isolation. This is not the same as being alone. It is a feeling that one is locked out of the possibility of human connection and of being powerless to change the situation. In the extreme, psychological isolation can lead to a sense of hopelessness and desperation. People will do almost anything to escape this combination of condemned isolation and powerlessness.” -Jean Baker Miller and Irene Stiver, Wellesley College
  • “Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight—one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives.” -U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.” -Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (writing about an epiphany he had while in a concentration camp and thinking about his beloved wife, Tilly)

 

References

(1) Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: A meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237.

(2) Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community,” Washington, D.C., 2023.

(3) Baumeister, R.F. & Leary, M.R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.

(4) Umberson, D. & Montez, J.K. (2010). Social relationships and health: A flashpoint for health policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51(Suppl), S54–S66.

(5) Kim Parker and Rachel Minken, “Public Has Mixed Views on the Modern American Family,” Pew Research Center, September 14, 2023.

(6) Walen, Heather R.; Lachman, Margie E. Social Support and Strain from Partner, Family, and Friends: Costs and Benefits for Men and Women in Adulthood. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 2000; 17:5–30.

(7) Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Very Happy People. Psychological Science, 13(1), 81-84.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Setting Boundaries—Why It’s Hard and How to Do It

Article Summary: 

Setting boundaries is one of the hardest things for many people to do but it’s a powerful and empowering personal development practice. And costly if we don’t do it well. This article addresses why it’s hard, its benefits, and how to do it well.

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Boundaries are dividing lines that mark the limits of an area. If we pause to notice, we can see boundaries all around us. The boundary of our body. Our apartment walls or home and property line. State and national borders. The boundaries of sports. In soccer, it’s sidelines, penalty areas, goals, and goal posts. With basketball, it’s sidelines, free-throw lines, three-point lines, and more. In track and field, it’s running lanes. And in many sports, the clock serves as a time boundary, delineating quarters, periods, or halves, and perhaps overtime.

In life, setting boundaries is about identifying ways for others to behave towards us—and also setting lines for ourselves that we resolve not to cross. Our personal boundaries set a limit on what we’ll accept or tolerate.

We need boundaries to function effectively in and enjoy our life and work. They’re there for our protection and wellbeing, and they can give us a sense of control over our lives.

 

The Problem with Not Having Boundaries

Lack of boundaries can lead to many negative consequences, including:

  • negative emotions like anxiety, frustration, resentment
  • overcommitment and a sense of “time poverty” (“the chronic feeling of having too many things to do and not enough time to do them”)
  • overwork or workaholism
  • exhaustion and burnout
  • numbing behaviors (escaping from our thoughts and feelings by doing other things like shopping, eating, binge watching, or doom scrolling)
“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated.”
-Brené Brown, researcher and author

 

Boundary Types and Examples

To understand boundaries, it helps to consider their different types and see examples of them in action. There are many different types of boundaries, including:

  1. Physical boundaries (e.g., whether we hug or shake hands with people we meet, what we do with our bodies, who we allow into our personal space and under what conditions)
  2. Emotional boundaries (e.g., whether we take on other people’s emotional burdens or allow their moods to change ours)
  3. Relationship boundaries (e.g., how we let others talk to or treat us, such as whether we tolerate disrespect, dishonesty, wasting our time, belittling, bullying, etc.)
  4. Privacy boundaries (e.g., deciding what personal information we choose to share and with whom, when, and where)
  5. Conversational boundaries (e.g., whether there are topics—like politics and religion—we choose not to discuss with certain people or in certain circumstances because they may be awkward, painful, volatile, or triggering)
  6. Work boundaries (e.g., whether we allow ourselves to get overcommitted, whether we take on the workloads of colleagues who are slacking, whether we work on weekends or check email on vacation)
  7. Self-care boundaries (e.g., whether we have good sleeping, eating, and exercise habits, whether we check our phones first thing in the morning and/or last thing before bed, how much time we spend on our devices)
  8. Ethical boundaries (e.g., whether we harm, deceive, or manipulate others, whether we look the other way or cover for people when they’re doing bad things)
  9. Financial boundaries (e.g., what to purchase, how much to spend, whether we choose to lend people money and, if so, who, when, how, and how much)
  10. Sexual boundaries (e.g., which kinds of intimate behaviors we’re comfortable with or not)

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Causes of Poor Boundaries

For many, it’s not easy to draw the line, say no, and enforce boundaries. It requires knowing our preferences and breaking points as well as being willing to assert our desires and needs.

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”
-Brené Brown, researcher and author

Why is it hard? Many reasons, including that we may:

  • find it stressful and draining to have such awkward or difficult conversations, or feel guilty about asking for what we want or need
  • be afraid of harming our relationships
  • suffer from self-doubt or low self-esteem
  • fear of judgment
  • feel undeserving or unworthy
  • focus too much on others’ needs
  • care too much about what others think of us
  • struggle with perfectionism 
  • have people-pleasing tendencies
  • lack clarity about what we want and where we’re going, thus making it difficult to know where to draw the line to protect those priorities
  • not be in touch with our emotions and their causes (that is, not connecting the dots between our anxiety and people making us uncomfortable with certain behaviors)
  • have experienced previous boundary-crossing, betrayal, violence, or trauma, which can damage or destroy our self-esteem and make it harder for us to set boundaries
“People-pleasing is not who we are; we’re living a lie. So, if we don’t say yes authentically, we say it resentfully, fearfully, and avoidantly, and that leads to far more problems than if we’d just said no in the first place. Find your no, find yourself, find your joy.”
-Natalie Lue, author, The Joy of Saying No

 

The Benefits of Boundaries

Getting good at setting and enforcing boundaries can lead to big wins in our life and work, because it can affect so many things. Setting healthy boundaries can help us:

  • protect our personal space, safety, and energy
  • feel less anxiety, anger, frustration, and resentment
  • enhance our mental health and protect our emotional wellbeing
  • build and maintain a strong identity
  • develop greater self-respect and confidence
  • get clear on who we are, what we want, and our core values and belief systems
  • develop independence
  • grow as a person
  • protect our time and energy and thereby avoid burnout
  • manage our life, work, time, and relationships more effectively and with greater ease
  • develop and maintain healthy and positive relationships with mutual trust
  • earn respect from others
  • prevent relationship conflicts
  • positively influence others
“Setting emotional boundaries prevents people from manipulating you, using you, and playing with your feelings.”
-Remez Sasson, author

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

 

How to Get Better at Setting Boundaries

We know it’s hard for many people to set and enforce boundaries. It’s easier said than done! So, how can we get better at it? Here are some effective approaches:

Recognize that setting and keeping boundaries can add great value to our lives. It’s well worth the effort, and it gets easier over time. Note all the benefits above and consider the personal empowerment and freedom they can bring.

Recognize that setting and keeping boundaries is not just good for us but for all involved because it creates clarity and mutual respect. It’s not an unreasonable or selfish endeavor. Far from it.

Evaluate our current boundaries (if we have any), including whether there are situations that often result in discomfort or resentment.

Take an emotional inventory of potential boundary crossings, including the people we’re spending time with, the situations we’re in, and how they’re making us feel. This requires tapping into or further developing our self-awareness and emotional intelligence to help us gauge our comfort level. A little self-reflection goes a long way here.

Determine new boundaries and recommit to or update old boundaries, ideally informed by our core values and current goals and priorities. If we’re new to setting or enforcing boundaries, it may be wise to start small and build from there. The earlier we start, the better, so we can work through conversations and make adjustments before getting too far down the road.

Communicate boundaries clearly. In some cases, we may want to explain our rationale so the person has context (e.g., “I’m fully booked now so I just can’t help with that,” or “I’m exhausted from a bunch of things lately so I can’t get together this week”). In other cases, we can leave it with a simple statement (“I can’t take that on,” “That doesn’t work for me”) or even just a straightforward “No.”

“No is a complete sentence.”
-Anne Lamott, writer

Be as consistent as possible in communicating and enforcing boundaries, lest others get confused or forget.

Work on developing our assertiveness, including self-advocacy and getting better at saying “no”—and saying it more often. For example, we can focus on saying no to:

  • requests and opportunities that don’t align with our values or further our personal or professional priorities
  • spending time with negative people who drag us down with their criticism, complaints, or excessive neediness
  • doing all the work ourselves (versus delegating to others) or overworking, in the process sacrificing our health and important relationships
“The difference between successful people and really successful people
is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
-Warren Buffett, legendary investor

Strike a good balance between being kind but firm. We should work at being thoughtful and understanding while still clear and assertive. Sometimes, a little humor or levity can go a long way in dialing tensions down.

Get as clear as we can about who we are, what we value, and how we work best. Doing that allows us to set and enforce boundaries. Incidentally, if we’re doing a good job of protecting our boundaries, over time we’ll be filling more of our days with productive and enjoyable activities. In essence, we’re crowding out the bad stuff with the good stuff.

Set boundaries around our emotional commitment to others (e.g., avoiding the trap of feeling responsible for their choices or their happiness or outcomes).

Set boundaries on our work time. For example, set a weekly maximum number of hours and limit email to certain hours, with rare exceptions only as needed.* It helps to plan ahead so we can use our time intentionally and effectively. And it helps to remember the “80/20 rule” (a.k.a., “Pareto Principle”), a power law distribution suggesting that about 80% of our results typically come from 20% of our efforts. So, we’re wise to determine and focus on our most productive tasks. (See the Appendix below for tools that support our time boundaries.)

 

Conclusion

Of course, setting and enforcing boundaries is an ongoing process, not a one-and-done deal. As we do it, we must keep making judgments about when to be strict and rigid and when to make exceptions or changes based on new information or factors.

Also, it’s a mistake to think about boundaries only in the negative—only as things that we and others can’t do. Why? Because when we set and enforce boundaries, it sets us up for all the positive things we can experience within those bounds. It helps facilitate all the things we want to do and will allow, without having to worry about the stresses and resentment of being defensive and fighting back against potential incursions.

Having boundaries frees up our time and energy to live the life we want.

As we work through this process, we’re wise to recognize that, since people are so different, they’re likely to make different choices—and sometimes vastly different choices—about their boundaries. What boundaries work for one person may not work at all for others. So, we need to advocate for our own boundaries while also helping people advocate for their own—and respecting their choices even as we fight for ours.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Which boundaries are most important to you, and why?
  2. What boundaries are easier for you to set and enforce?
  3. Which boundaries do you struggle with, and why?
  4. Do those boundary struggles tend to involve certain people and/or certain situations, places, or times?
  5. What more will you do to set and enforce healthy boundaries, starting today?

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Traps

 

Appendix: Tools that Help Protect Our Time

There are many tools that can help us protect our time. Here are several:

  1. Ivy Lee Method: give ourselves no more than six important tasks per day, listed from most important to least important. Then address them in order of priority, only moving to the next task after completing the current one.

  1. Eisenhower Decision Matrix (a.k.a., Urgent-Important Matrix): distinguish between tasks that are urgent (time-sensitive, demanding immediate attention) and important (contributing to our long-term purpose and vision), using a simple matrix.

  1. Warren Buffett’s Two Lists: write down our top 25 goals, then circle our five highest priorities from that longer list. From there, choose only to pursue the top five—“avoiding at all costs,” as Buffett says, working on the other 20.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Boundaries

  • “Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how you use it. You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.” -Anna Taylor, author
  • “Setting boundaries is a way of caring for myself. It doesn’t make me mean, selfish, or uncaring (just) because I don’t do things your way.” -Christine Morgan, psychotherapist
  • “Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” -Josh Billings, American humorist
  • “It’s OK to do what is YOURS to do. Say what’s yours to say. Care about what’s yours to care about.” -Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran minister
  • “Givers need to set limits because takers rarely do.” -Rachel Wolchin, author

* According to a February 2023 Pew Research Center study, workers with postgraduate degrees and higher incomes were most likely to report that they regularly respond to work emails and messages outside of work hours.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Trap of Workaholism–And What to Do About It

Article Summary: 

Everything you need to know about workaholism (work addiction): its prevalence, signs, causes, and costs—and how to overcome it.

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Many people today struggle with workaholism—being addicted to work and struggling to switch it off or stop thinking about it

Psychologist Wayne Oates coined the term “workaholism” in 1971 in his book, Confessions of a Workaholic: The Facts About Work Addiction. He defined it as “the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly.” In 2014, researchers C.S. Andreassen, J. Hetland, and S. Pallesen defined work addiction as “being overly concerned about work, to be driven by strong and uncontrollable work motivation, and to spend so much energy and effort into work that it impairs private relationships, spare-time activities, and/or health.”

According to researchers, work addiction has both a behavioral component (working long hours consistently) and a psychological component (being obsessed with work). It’s a serious problem for many.

 

A Cautionary Tale About Workaholism

Gerald Chertavian grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Lowell, Massachusetts with a strong work ethic. After business school, he moved to London to be with his fiancée. Following a frustrating first job experience there, he was approached with an opportunity to buy into a technology company on the verge of bankruptcy. They had precious little to go on, but he decided to go for it.

The challenges were fierce, but Gerald was committed. For years, he pushed and pushed, until one day it was too much. As he told us in an interview for LIFE Entrepreneurs:

“I looked over the side of my desk in London. It was 2 a.m. and I couldn’t see the ground. It was just black. I couldn’t even see the rug below me. It was like looking into the abyss.”
-Gerald Chertavian

This talented and vigorous young man early in his career could have worked himself to death. It was a stark wake-up call.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Value of Hard Work

Concerns about workaholism shouldn’t be equated with a critique of hard work. There’s incredible value in hard work (especially in smart hard work), from opportunities for learning and growth to success and wealth creation.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s another problem: sloth. Many people fall into the trap of not working hard enough and later come to regret it.

Aristotle famously wrote about the “golden mean” of virtue between two vices. So, between sloth and overwork, the golden mean is hard work—ideally work with purpose, passion, and impact. But that’s a far cry from work addiction.

Workaholism shouldn’t be conflated with hard work, a strong work ethic, dedication, conscientiousness, loving what we do, or occasionally working extra hard to complete an important task. These are all good. By contrast, workaholism takes us into the territory of preoccupation, compulsion, and addiction, with the associated loss of self-control and continuation of excessive work despite negative consequences.

If we love our work, that doesn’t mean we’re addicted to it. But if we’re a workaholic, it’s easy to convince ourselves that we work so much because we love it or because we need to when we actually don’t.

Workaholism is also not the same as having an overly demanding boss who piles way too much work on our plates—or as the excessive work sometimes demanded by startups, turnarounds, or crises. Work addiction, in short, is not the same as work overload. (That’s a different problem.)

 

The Prevalence of Workaholism

The prevalence of workaholism is hard to pin down because it’s hard to define precisely and even harder to measure. And even when it gets measured, there are challenges with getting nationally representative data sets.

Nonetheless, psychologists estimate that about 10% of Americans struggle with work addiction. Research from a nationally representative random sample in Norway using the Bergen Work Addiction Scale found that 8.3% of the population there struggles with work addiction.

These may not be huge percentages, but they add up to massive numbers of people. According to Zippia Research, 55% of Americans (55%) didn’t use all of their paid time off in 2022.

Researcher Brene Brown jokes that when they start having support meetings for workaholics, they’ll have to rent out football stadiums.

 

Signs of Workaholism

How to know if we struggle with workaholism? It comes with a number of telltale signs, including:

  • feeling preoccupied with work even outside normal working hours (we can’t stop thinking about it)
  • being the first one in the office and the last to leave
  • not taking a lunch break and other breaks
  • working often on weekends*
  • working more than is needed or expected of them
  • having a hard time stopping work
  • feeling physical and emotional distress when we’re not working, much like the withdrawal symptoms from other addictions
  • lacking margin in our lives and suffer from “time poverty” (an acute feeling of having too much to do and not enough time)
  • sacrificing time with our spouse/partner, children, and friends because we’re so consumed with work
  • suffering negative consequences from working so much, whether physically, relationally, or otherwise.

The Bergen Work Addiction Scale is a psychometrically validated assessment instrument developed by testing 12,000 Norwegian workers from 25 different industries. See the image below and consider doing a quick check.

Source: Clockify, https://clockify.me/workaholism-facts

According to the research, workaholics tend to be status-conscious, hyper-competitive, and achievement-oriented. They have high standards (e.g., must be the best) and tend to be self-critical. Often, they have a strong need for success and external validation.

Workaholics may also struggle with close relationships, vulnerability, and intimacy due to a fear of disclosing flaws. And they may neglect their inner life given their focus on external achievements.

Edward Hallowell writes in his book, Crazy Busy, that it can become a habit so entrenched that it makes you “a slave to a lifestyle you don’t like but you can’t escape.” According to Clockify, a company that helps organizations track how much time people spend working on tasks, the top ten traits of workaholics are the following:

Source: Clockify, https://clockify.me/workaholism-facts

Workaholism can show up in different ways. For some, it may be a standard compulsion that’s fairly consistent over time. For others, it gets progressively worse. And for others, it involves binge-working in fits and starts.

Some people are good at hiding their workaholism from others, knowing that it brings conflict or disappointment, so they sneak in work when others can’t see it.

According to researchers, workaholics often make things harder for themselves by placing more pressure on themselves, making their work more complicated than necessary, and hesitating to delegate work when possible or to seek social support when they’re struggling. They may also be attracted to high-pressure jobs with intense demands.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Causes: Where Workaholism Comes From

Where does workaholism come from? Researchers have discovered several sources. Here are the main ones:

Childhood causes. Many workaholics grew up with overly demanding or overly protective parents. This can set up long-term behavioral patterns that can be difficult to escape.

Our identity. Author Stephen R. Covey noted that some people have a work-centered identity. (See my article, “Is Your Identity Wrapped Up Too Much in Your Work?”)

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown notes that some people consider exhaustion a status symbol and view “productivity as self-worth.” Others have an achievement identity. Shirzad Chamine, best-selling author and chairman of the Coaches Training Institute, has identified what he calls a “hyper-achiever” as one of ten “saboteurs” that inhibit our effectiveness and enjoyment:

“The Hyper-Achiever makes you dependent on constant performance and achievement for self-respect and self-validation. It keeps you focused mainly on external success rather than on internal criteria for happiness. It often leads to unsustainable workaholic tendencies and causes you to fall out of touch with deeper emotional and relationship needs. Its lie is that your self-acceptance should be conditional on performance and external validation.”
-Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence

Emotional causes. If we feel guilty or anxious when we’re not working, it’s easy to numb those feelings by working incessantly. Some people suffer from “productivity guilt”—having a constant nagging feeling that we should be doing more.

Personality factors. Many workaholics struggle with perfectionism, neuroticism, or obsessive-compulsive tendencies. They may have a “Type A” personality characterized by ambition, aggressiveness, and intense achievement striving.

Running from pain. At a deeper level, workaholism is sometimes more about running away from something that running toward the glories of work. There may be great emotional pain, discomfort, shame, or trauma driving it.

“…workaholism is a surprisingly effective distraction from emotional and spiritual problems.”
-David Brooks, The Second Mountain

There’s an interesting question about the direction of causality here. It’s clear that workaholism can and often does lead to significant distress in our lives. But researchers have discovered that, for many people, workaholism is also a response to distress in their lives, such as emotional disturbance or anxiety. In other words, it’s caused by distress but also adds to distress, a double whammy.

“We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough,
the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”
-Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

 Fear. Sometimes the compulsion to work and work comes from a place of fear—fear of not being enough or of disappointing people. Seen in this light, work addiction becomes a matter of overdoing things to avoid the things we’re afraid of (but too often doing damage in the process).

Motivational factors. If we’re highly motivated by extrinsic factors like financial or status rewards, we can tell ourselves that working all the time will bring us the satisfaction and happiness we crave. (See “The Most Common Myths About Happiness.”)

Cultural influences. Some organizations and even nations have a culture that lionizes work and achievement over other values. People living in different countries can have widely varying outlooks on the importance of work.

“American culture valorizes overwork, which makes it easy to slip into a mindset that can breed success addiction.”
-Arthur Brooks, From Strength to Strength

 

The Problem with Workaholism

Workaholism, like all addictions, can come with a high—sometimes devastating—cost. Here are some of the problems it can cause in different areas of our lives:

Workaholism can contribute to physical health problems, including:

  • cardiovascular disease
  • higher systolic blood pressure
  • insomnia

These are all serious problems. Notably, some languages now have words for “death from overwork” (karoshi in Japanese and guolaosi in Chinese).

It can also contribute to mental health problems, including:

  • higher levels of mental distress and emotional exhaustion
  • chronic stress
  • anxiety
  • depression

Workaholism can lead to relationship problems, including::

  • less time with family and friends
  • more work-family conflicts

Workaholism can have negative effects on our work, including:

  • more job stress
  • greater chance of burnout
  • lower job satisfaction
“Findings suggest that workaholism is related to negative outcomes such as increased job stress, work–life conflict, burnout, decreased job and life satisfaction, and poor physical and emotional/mental health…. workaholism was not related to higher levels of performance or job satisfaction; rather, it was related to many negative outcomes such as burnout, job stress, lower job satisfaction, and poorer emotional/mental and physical well-being.”
-Malissa Clark et al., “All Work and No Play?”

Researchers note that work addiction doesn’t necessarily lead to better performance. That makes sense because we’re all human and have limits. At some point, there are diminishing marginal returns for the extra work put in.

Workaholics may get a short-lived rush from completing an important project, but they quickly turn their attention to the next item on their to-do list, placing them squarely on the hedonic treadmill.

Workaholism also leads to lower life satisfaction and more life regrets. In her work as a palliative nurse, Bronnie Ware noted the top regrets of people who were in the process of dying. The second most common regret among her patients was this:

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

Her point here isn’t that hard work is bad in and of itself.

The problem is when we let our work crowd out so many other important things such as our health and close relationships with family and friends. By working too much, we’re optimizing for one aspect of our lives (our work) while harming other important aspects.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

The Secondary Effects of Workaholism

Unfortunately, the negative effects don’t stop there. There are also secondary effects of work addiction that spill over into other domains.

For starters, workaholism can lead to secondary addictions (e.g., to alcohol, drugs, pornography, etc.).

According to empirical research, work addiction is also related to poor family relationships, family dysfunction, and marital dissatisfaction. Writer John Eldredge likened it to having an affair with his work.

It can lead to neglecting children or missing family events and milestones (e.g., the birth of a child, sports tournaments, dance recitals, graduations). (See my article, “Five Words that Changed Me as a Parent.”)

Work addiction in parents can lead to problems with their children’s mental health. According to a 2022 study of 527 Lithuanian workers, “perceived work addiction of both mother and father was related to higher levels of work addiction of their adult child.”

And what are the opportunity costs of all these extra hours spent working instead of engaging in other worthy endeavors? For example, how can we take care of our aging parents and grandparents or struggling relatives if we’re so consumed with our work?

Also, our communities and nations suffer when many people are addicted to work. How can people find time to build community and participate actively as citizens when they’re working so much?

The physical exhaustion associated with work addiction can also lead to ethical lapses. According to former President Bill Clinton, “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.”

What’s more, workaholism may be contagious in some workplaces. According to researcher G. Spruell, “Workaholism practiced by even just one member of a work group can suck the spirit right out of the team” and can cause “destructive competitiveness among coworkers.” Overly demanding leaders can create a toxic culture of workaholism in their organization, leading to dissatisfaction, resentment, burnout, absenteeism, high turnover, lower performance, and great personal damage and regret among workers.

 

What to Do About Workaholism

Addressing the problem is difficult because many workaholics are in denial about their addiction (see “Self-Deception: Why We Do It and How to Stop It”)—and because many workplaces reward people for workaholic behavior.

“…work 16 hours a day, and you’ll probably get a promotion.”
-Arthur Brooks, “The Hidden Link between Workaholism and Mental Health”

Thankfully, there are many things we can do to address work addiction:

Track our time. Carefully log how we spend time for several days (or a week). Then go back and review which activities give us energy and a sense of meaning, versus which ones drain us or seem pointless. Consider whether the amount of time we’re spending working versus addressing other important priorities accurately reflects our core values.

Be brutally honest with ourselves. Stop avoiding and pretending. Decide to push past self-denial and face the reality and implications of our choices.

Ask those who know us best. Sometimes, it’s hard for us to see or admit but all too clear to others.

Set boundaries on our work time. Set a weekly maximum number of hours and limit email to certain hours, except under extraordinary circumstances. According to a February 2023 Pew Research Center study, workers with higher incomes and postgraduate degrees were most likely to say they regularly respond to work emails and messages outside of work hours. Though many people are rightly concerned about the exploitation of lower-income workers, it seems that many upper-income workers and managers are exploiting themselves.

Focus on only a few key priorities each day. Avoid the trap of being overly ambitious with expected accomplishments each day. That can set us up for a cycle of stress and overwork. Being realistic about daily and weekly accomplishments can help a lot. (Consider using the Ivy Lee Method: give ourselves no more than six important tasks per day, listed from most important to least important. Then address them in order of priority, and without moving to the next task until the current one is complete.)

Schedule important, non-work priorities. This can help make sure that other important priorities don’t get crowded out of our busy schedules.

Be intentional about time away from work. When we’re used to working hard, it can be easy to become unintentional and passive when we have free time. There’s nothing wrong with chilling out, but if we let it turn into mindless numbing with too much binge-watching or doom-scrolling, it will only make us more anxious and tired. Meanwhile, we’ll have lost important opportunities to connect with family and friends and to do fun things.

“Unless a person takes charge of them, both work and free time are likely to be disappointing.”
-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist and author

Think about who we’re giving so much of our lives away to—and whether they’re worth it. In her article, “The Wages of Overwork,” writer and journalist Ann Helen Petersen writes, “Leaders are more than happy to exploit workers’ most anxious or engrained inclinations towards overwork.”

Make sure we’re giving enough time to the important people in our lives. According to research, our close relationships are the most important contributors to our happiness and quality of life.

Address the underlying issues that cause us to seek refuge in overwork. Do the inner work of discovering what’s causing us to engage in overwork and what we’re running from. These insights can give us clarity about the problem(s) we must address.

Be clear about our purpose and values. This helps us focus on what’s most important in our lives.

Develop good habits of recovery, renewal, and self-care such as:

Shift our focus from ego and personal achievement to connection with and service to others. Work addiction is often a selfish and lonely way of life. When we stay focused on connection and service, we can avoid getting trapped by our ego.

Remember our mortality. We will all die, and we don’t know when. Remembering this can help us determine what’s important in our lives right now.

Work with a therapist or join a support group (e.g., Workaholics Anonymous).

Regularly review how we’re doing in all the important areas of our lives. (See my Quality of Life Assessment—which you can set up for regular reminders.) By reviewing each area (e.g., family, health, friends, education, work, service, activities, finance), we can see which ones are neglected and problematic—and then take appropriate action.

“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls… work, family, health, friends, and spirit. Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will never be the same.”
-Brian Dyson, former CEO, Coca-Cola Enterprises

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Coda: The Cautionary Tale

Remember Gerald starting into the abyss at 2 a.m. in his London office after years of overwork? Here’s what happened next:

“Right there, I realized that I wasn’t doing what I needed to do with my life. Then I went home and gave myself grades as a father, husband, friend, community member, and businessperson, and I only got one A—and the A was as a businessperson. I said that’s the last time in my life I’m going to look in the mirror and give myself those grades, period.”
-Gerald Chertavian**

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you suffering from or at risk of work addiction?
  2. How is it affecting your health, relationships, and quality of life?
  3. What will you do about it?
  4. Which of the above practices will you start with?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles & Traps to Workaholism

 

Postscript: Quotations on Workaholism

  • “If you think your busyness is some kind of prestige symbol, think again.” -Chris Brogan
  • “Busyness is not a marker of intelligence, importance, or success. Taken to an extreme, it is much more likely a marker of conformity or powerlessness or fear.” -Christine Carter
  • “You cannot be really first rate at your work if your work is all you are.” -Anna Quindlen
  • “Overwork sucks us into a negative spiral, causing our brains to slow down and compromising our emotional intelligence.” -Annie McKee, author and advisor to top leaders
  • “No matter how much value we produce today—whether it’s measured in dollars or sales or goods or widgets—it’s never enough. We run faster, stretch out our arms further, and stay at work longer and later. We’re so busy trying to keep up that we stop noticing we’re in a Sisyphean race we can never win.” -Tony Schwartz, journalist, author, founder, The Energy Project
  • “My worry was that I would become addicted to success. It’s a delicate and dangerous zone—the interface between success and significance—to get as much success as you can without getting captured by it, becoming its prisoner.” -Bob Buford, Half Time
  • “Every addiction arises from an unconscious refusal to face and move through your own pain. Every addiction starts with pain and ends with pain. That is why… there is so much unhappiness, so much pain… They bring out the pain and unhappiness that is already in you.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
  • “Human beings have always employed an enormous amount of clever devices for running away from themselves, and the modern world is particularly rich in such stratagems. We can keep ourselves busy, fill our lives with so many diversions, stuff our heads with so much knowledge, involve ourselves with so many people, and cover so much ground that we never have time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within. More often than not we don’t want to know ourselves, don’t want to depend on ourselves, don’t want to live with ourselves. By middle life, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” -John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal

 

Sources:

  • Andreassen, C. S., Hetland, J., & Pallesen, S. (2014). Psychometric assessment of workaholism measures. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 29(1), 7–24.
  • Morkeviciute M., Endriulaitiene A. Understanding Work Addiction in Adult Children: The Effect of Addicted Parents and Work Motivation. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Sep 8;19(18):11279.
  • Spruell, G. 1987. Work fever. Training and Development Journal, 41: 41-45.

* We should note that in today’s economy, many people choose to work nontraditional hours, as opposed to the standard Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Of course, choosing to do so isn’t in and of itself a sign of work addiction.

** Gerald Chertavian and his team built that company, Conduit Communications, into one of Britain’s fastest growing companies, eventually having more than 130 workers in several countries and earning more than $18 million in annual revenues. Six years later they sold it for a significant return and made millionaires out of many of their colleagues in the process. He later founded YearUp, a national 501(c)3 workforce development organization committed to ensuring equitable access to economic opportunity, education, and justice for all young adults—no matter their background, income, or ZIP code.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Most Important Contributor to Happiness

In our search for happiness and its close cousins, well-being and life satisfaction, we’ve seen that it’s complex. In a previous post, we noted 20 research-based practices that lead to happiness. What’s the biggest contributor to happiness?

Relationships.

 

Happiness and Relationships

“No man is an island.”
-John Donne

Connecting with others gives us a sense of worth, meaning, and belonging. When we’re in close relationship with others, we’re more likely to receive support when we need it most. And to provide it when others need it.

According to many researchers, strong social relationships are the most important contributor to enduring happiness for most people. Those who are happiest generally devote a great amount of time to their family, friends, and colleagues. They nurture and enjoy those relationships.

In her book, The How of Happiness, professor Sonja Lyubomirsky writes:

“The centrality of social connections to our health and well-being cannot be overstated…. One of the strongest findings in the literature on happiness is that happy people have better relationships than do their less happy peers. It’s no surprise, then, that investing in social relationships is a potent strategy on the path to becoming happier…. Happier people are exceptionally good at their friendships, families, and intimate relationships…. people with strong social support are healthier and live longer.”

What’s going on here? Are people with close relationships happier? Or does being happy make us more likely to have close relationships with lovers, family, friends, and colleagues?

Both, it turns out. “The causal relationship between social relationships and happiness is clearly bidirectional,” Lyubomirsky writes. “If you begin today to improve and cultivate your relationships, you will reap the gift of positive emotions. In turn, the enhanced feelings of happiness will help you attract more and higher-quality relationships, which will make you even happier… a continuous positive feedback loop… an upward spiral.”

There’s more: social relationships give us a positive experience in the moment, but they can also strengthen and deepen relationships over time. That further increases our happiness and sense of life satisfaction.

 

The Happiness of a Lifetime

A remarkable collection of studies of mental and physical well-being has been going on for many decades. These studies track people over their entire adult lives. The Study of Adult Development at Harvard Medical School is a longitudinal study—started more than 80 years ago—of 268 physically and mentally healthy Harvard college sophomores from the classes of 1939–1944. It has run in tandem with a study called the Glueck Study, which included a second cohort of 456 disadvantaged inner-city youths who grew up in Boston neighborhoods between 1940 and 1945.

Writing about the Harvard Study of Adult Development in The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk reported, “The project is one of the longest-running—and probably the most exhaustive—longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history,” including interviews, questionnaires, medical exams, and psychological tests.

The studies included evaluations at least every two years by questionnaires, information from their doctors, and in many cases personal interviews. Researchers gather information about their mental and physical health, marital quality, career enjoyment, retirement experience, and more. The study and its results are described in several books by George Vaillant (a psychiatrist and professor who led the study for decades).

What were the main findings? That the people who were happiest and healthier reported strong interpersonal relationships. When asked what he learned from the study, Vaillant wrote:

“Warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.’… (We now have) “70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people… matter more than anything else in the world…. Happiness is love. Full stop.”

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Learning from the Happiest People

In another study, researchers sought to identify the characteristics of the happiest 10 percent of people among us. This was the first-ever study of the behavioral and personality correlates of high happiness in people. What did they find? Wealth? Beauty? Fame? Health?

No, the main distinguishing characteristic of the happiest 10 percent was the strength of their social relationships. The findings:

“The very happy group differed substantially from the average and the very unhappy groups in their fulsome and satisfying interpersonal lives. The very happy group spent the least time alone and the most time socializing, and was rated highest on good relationships…. All members of the very happy group reported good-quality social relationships…. Our findings suggest that very happy people have rich and satisfying social relationships and spend little time alone relative to average people….
We do not know if rich social lives caused happiness, or if happiness caused rich social lives, or if both were caused by some third variable…. Social relationships form a necessary but not sufficient condition for high happiness—that is, they do not guarantee high happiness, but it does not appear to occur without them…. there appears to be no single key to high happiness that automatically produces this state…. High happiness seems to be like beautiful symphonic music—necessitating many instruments, without any one being sufficient for the beautiful quality.”

 

More Evidence about Happiness and Relationships

In his book, The Happiness Curve, award-winning journalist Jonathan Rauch wrote:

“Here’s the most fundamental finding of happiness economics: the factors that most determine our happiness are social, not material…. social connectedness is the most important of all the variables which contribute to a sense of wellbeing in life…. The truest form of wealth is social, not material.”

The finding that happiness is sweeter when shared isn’t only known by researchers. Many of us have an intuitive sense of this. According to a Charles Schwab 2020 survey of 1,000 Americans aged 21 to 75, Americans indicated that relationships are the most important factor for their overall happiness. According to the survey, 39% of respondents ranked relationships as the top driver of overall happiness, compared to 27% reporting health, 17% saying money, 14% saying lifestyle, and 3% saying career.

This makes sense from a biological perspective. Most scientists who study happiness agree that there’s an evolutionary basis for our desire to form and preserve social connections. Social bonds, of course, help us survive and reproduce.

“…like food and air, we seem to need social relationships to thrive.”
-Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Happiness and Relationships during the Pandemic

Given that we’re now about two years into a global pandemic that has resulted in lockdowns, social distancing, and tectonic changes to our lives at home and work, what do we know about happiness and relationships during the time of covid-19?

The World Happiness Report 2021 included a chapter on “Social Connection and Well-Being during COVID-19,” by Karynna Okabe-Miyamoto and Sonja Lyubomirsky. Highlights from that chapter:

  • “over a century of research has proven how crucial social connection is for well-being.”
  • “…social factors and social behaviors—including the quality and quantity of people’s social relationships—have also been shown to protect well-being during the pandemic.”
  • a 2020 survey in Austria found that those who had larger social networks (more social connections) reported less worry and stress during the pandemic lockdown.
  • the greater perceived threat of the covid-19 virus was linked to greater everyday acts of kindness in response.
  • a 2000 U.K. study of more than 50,000 adults found that having poor social support was associated with severe depressive symptoms.

According to this research, protective factors for psychological well-being included: feelings of connectedness, quality of relationships, positivity resonance (shared feelings of positivity and caring for one another), quantity of relationships, and prosocial (helping) behaviors such as volunteering and charitable giving.

“Happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting a few drops on yourself.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

On the flip side, risk factors for distress and unhappiness included: engaging in distancing, loneliness, poor social support, and abuse.

 

Social Support at Work

Since work comprises a large portion of our waking hours for many of us, what do we know about work and relationships?

In his book, The Happiness Advantage, author and researcher Shawn Achor calls social support “your single greatest asset.” He points to research on more than a thousand highly successful professional people who were interviewed as they approached retirement.

When asked what motivated them the most throughout their careers, the top response was work friendships—above the responses about financial gain and individual status.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Problem with a Lack of Social Connections

A lack of social connections is harmful to our health, can lead to depression, and can be just as deadly as certain diseases, according to researchers. Also, social support has as big an effect on life expectancy as things like smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, and regular physical activity.

And as we look back on our lives, we may come to regret not honoring and valuing our relationships. Three of the top 5 “regrets of the dying” that Australian palliative nurse Bronnie Ware famously identified in her work with people in the final weeks and months of their lives are directly related to social connections:

Regret #2. “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret…. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
Regret #3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others…. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”
Regret #4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying…. It all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.”

“…there is much more to life than your career…. In my experience, high-achievers focus a great deal on becoming the person they want to be at work—and far too little on the person they want to be at home. Investing our time and energy in raising wonderful children or deepening our love with our spouse often doesn’t return clear evidence of success for many years. What this leads to is over-investing in our careers, and under-investing in our families—starving one of the most important parts of our life.” -Clayton Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?

We should also recognize that close relationships can also be a source of great pain in our lives. Pain from hurtful encounters. From broken trust. Pain from disappointment, and from loss.

Sometimes the pain is redeemable and can be folded back into love. Other times not.

But still relationships are a powerful source of meaning, growth, and love for us.

 

The Problem of Loneliness

Loneliness is a big problem these days—and not just in our time of social distancing and remote work.

According to a Guardian article, about 20% of people report that loneliness is a “major source of unhappiness in their lives,” and about a third of Americans 45 and older report being lonely.

The problem is aggravated by workaholism and the increasing prevalence of screen time in our lives, from streaming services to email and social media. The evidence is disturbing. Average daily digital content consumption is now just under seven hours (six hours and 59 minutes), according to a recent Forbes report.

 

Actions for Nurturing Our Relationships

Since relationships are so important, and since loneliness is such a big problem, we’re wise to reflect on what we can do to nurture our relationships at home and work. Here’s a punch list:

  • Making time for relationships and investing in them. Avoiding the traps of perpetual busyness or workaholism that pull us away from family and friends.
  • Being vulnerable and sharing our inner life, including our hopes and fears, with close family and friends we trust.
  • Showing support for our family, friends, and colleagues during their times of need.
  • Being loyal to them.
  • Expressing support and positive emotions, including appreciation, affection, and admiration.
  • Celebrating good news with family, friends, and colleagues.
  • Managing conflict appropriately, including raising important concerns or disagreements (instead of letting them fester) while handling them appropriately (i.e., with empathy, genuine interest in their perspective, and avoiding triggers like contempt and stonewalling).
  • Sharing physical affection, including hugs and pats on the back.

Life and work are all about relationships.

Are you doing enough to maintain your close connections with the people you love, care about, and work with?
What’s the biggest contributor to happiness for you?

 

Tools for You

 

More Articles in this Happiness Series

 

Postscript: Quotations on Relationships and Happiness

  • “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.” -Brene Brown
  • “You can spend a lifetime being curious about the inner world of your partner, and being brave enough to share your own inner world, and never be done discovering all there is to know about each other. It’s exciting.” -John Gottman
  • “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms.” -Dorothy Day
  • “Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls… work, family, health, friends, and spirit. Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will never be the same.”- Brian Dyson
  • “Well, what are you? What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself: your kidneys, your liver, your blood vessels? No. However far you go in your memory it is always some external manifestation of yourself where you came across your identity: in the work of your hands, your family, in other people. And now, listen carefully. You in others—this is what you are, this is what your consciousness has breathed, and lived on, and enjoyed throughout your life, your soul, your immortality—your life in others.” -Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago)
  • “I’ve had a wonderful and successful career. But next to my family, it really hasn’t mattered at all.” -Lee Iacocca
  • “The home is the ultimate career. All other careers exist to support the ultimate career.” -C.S. Lewis
  • “A man travels the world over in search of what he needs, and returns home to find it.” -George Moore
  • “Family is a way of holding hands with forever.” -Noah benShea
  • “Invest in friends. There is no other instrument that pays such high returns…. We need each other, but perversely we neglect each other. Every day we have an opportunity to exercise friendship, to make huge returns on a tiny investment, but foolishly we relapse into sleep and forgetting. Please take my advice to heart—forget bonds, forget stocks, forget gold—invest in friendship.” -Ronald Gottesman
  • “The worst solitude is to be destitute of sincere friendship.” -Sir Francis Bacon
  • “A Friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of Nature.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “The better part of one’s life consists of his friendships.” -Abraham Lincoln
  • “Some friends leave footprints in your heart.” Eleanor Roosevelt
  • “A society of genuine loving friends, set free from the self-seeking struggle for personal prestige and from all unreality, would be something unutterably priceless and powerful. A wise person would travel any distance to join it.” -Elton Trueblood
  • “You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” -Winnie the Pooh
  • “Research has shown that among the benefits that come with being in a relationship or a group, a sense of belonging clocks in as the most important driver of meaning.” -Emily Esfahani Smith, in The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Burnout and the Great Resignation

Burnout has been a big problem for millions of people for a long time now. And it’s getting worse.

Burnout is also affecting more young people. And the pandemic, with all the extra stressors and pressures it’s brought to so many, is aggravating the burnout problem. These are major ingredients of the “great resignation.”

What is burnout? According to the Mayo Clinic, job burnout is “a special type of work-related stress—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”

When we’re burned out, we feel run-down and exhausted or empty. It’s related to overwork (when we work beyond our capacity) and workaholism, a state of addiction to work in which we struggle to switch it off.

 

The Covid Context

The pandemic has added fuel to this fire. Here’s some recent data:

  • 52% of survey respondents reported experiencing burnout in 2021, up from 43% in Indeed’s pre-Covid survey, and 67% say burnout has worsened during the pandemic.
  • According to a 2021 Deloitte survey, 77% of respondents say that’ve experienced burnout at their current job, with more than half noting more than one occurrence.
  • 91% say the quality of their work has been negatively impacted by having an unmanageable amount of stress or frustration.
  • 83% say job burnout can negatively affect their personal relationships.
  • Nearly 70% of professionals feel their employers are not doing enough to prevent or alleviate burnout.

Also, the average share of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety disorder and/or depressive disorder, has increased dramatically, from 11% in January-June 2019 (before the pandemic) to 41% in January 2021 (during the pandemic), according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

 

Effects of Burnout

We know that job burnout can have major negative effects on our health and lives, including:

  • Excessive stress
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Alcohol and substance abuse
  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Weakened immune system

(Source: Mayo Clinic.)

 

Symptoms of Burnout

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are many symptoms of job burnout, including:

  • Becoming critical or cynical at work
  • Feeling low motivation to go to work and start working
  • Becoming impatient or irritable with others
  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Feeling disillusioned about the work
  • Lacking satisfaction from achievements
  • Using food, alcohol, or other substances to self-medicate or tamp down feelings
  • Experiencing health issues, including poor sleep, headaches, stomach problems, and more

 

Causes of Burnout

According to researchers, there are many causes of job burnout, including:

  • A sense of a lack of control, including an inability to influence relevant decisions
  • Unclear or unrealistic job expectations, including job scope creep
  • Dysfunctional work dynamics, such as micromanagers or office bullies
  • Lack of social support, including isolation at work or home
  • Work demands that impede on important family or social commitments outside of work
  • Lack of communication, feedback, and support at work
  • Frequent time pressures, raising stress levels
  • Limited upward mobility
  • The removal of boundaries between work and home

Note that burnout doesn’t come automatically from long hours. Whether it sets in can depend on many factors, including context, personality, mindset, and worker actions.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

The Great Resignation

So where does all this leave us, amidst a pandemic with a burnout epidemic? According to a Microsoft survey of more than 30,000 workers around the world, 41% of workers were considering quitting or changing professions this year. In the U.S., more than four million people quit their jobs in April 2021. That’s the biggest increase on record, according to the Department of Labor.

Nearly half of millennials have left a job due to burnout, compared to 42% for all respondents, according to Deloitte.

The reasons for leaving a job are often multifaceted. Common reasons include not only burnout but also:

  • Substandard pay
  • Lack of meaning at work
  • Work that doesn’t fit with, or even violates, our values
  • Lack of dignity or respect at work
  • Feeling like a cog in a large machine
  • Lack of human connection
  • Lack of good management and proper recognition
  • Poor working conditions

The pandemic has caused a shift in priorities in life for many. In some cases, it’s provided motivation to pursue a dream job or more meaningful work. Or it’s stoked resentment about being treated poorly, or not getting adequate support. The great resignation is a tectonic shift that should wake us all up to the need to think and act anew about work.

 

What to Do About It

We’re all responsible for our own condition. Including the need to act when a situation is bad or toxic. Though the context is tough for many, there’s still much we can do not only to reduce or eliminate burnout. And to improve our working and living conditions:

  • Boundaries. Set boundaries and get better at saying “no.” If we try to please everybody, we’ll fail miserably. No matter how hard we may try, we can never do things just as others might want or expect.
  • Breaks. Take regular breaks (e.g., Pomodoro technique) to improve your physical and emotional state, gaining a fresh perspective in the process.
  • Exercise. Move your body more to build strength, endurance, and energy. It causes positive reactions in your body that affect your mood, and it helps you sleep well.
  • Gratitude. Be grateful for what you have. That can have powerful effects on your quality of life, including improved wellbeing, life satisfaction, sense of connectedness, and physical health.
  • Healthy Support Systems. Take time and care to develop relationships based on trust, diversity, reciprocity, commitment, openness, and vulnerability. Build healthy support systems that act like roots that ground us in life. (Source: LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives)
  • Hobbies. Find something you enjoy (e.g., gardening, hiking, photography) and build it into your daily or weekly routine.
  • Job Crafting. Craft your work intentionally. Take actions to shape or redesign what you do at work, especially changing your mindset toward your work to make it more satisfying and meaningful, but also changing tasks and relationships when possible.
  • Meditation and Mindfulness. Mindfulness has been defined as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” (Jon Kabat-Zinn). Researchers have found many benefits from mindfulness practices, including improvements in mental and physical health, as well as performance.
  • Nature. Fresh air and sunlight are essential. Given all our screen time, we need to be sure we’re getting outside enough with walks, hikes, runs, bikes, or trips to the park.
  • Nutrition. Our bodies need good fuel if they are to remain resilient and energized.
  • Reframing. Reframe things from setbacks or defeats to challenges or opportunities (for learning and growth).
  • Sanctuary. Find places or practices of peace (e.g., nature, prayer), allowing you to get beyond your ego and connect with something larger than yourself.
  • Savoring. Fully feel and enjoy positive experiences, magnifying and extending them in the process.
  • Self-Reflection. Engage in self-reflection and seek to identify the root causes of your burnout. Look especially for what may drive a sense of resentment (such as work causing too much missed family time during the precious formative years of children).
  • Sleep. Sleep turns out to be one of the most essential practices for physical and mental health. Poor sleep has tremendous deleterious effects on a wide range of factors: addictive behaviors, anxiety, appetite, attention, concentration, creativity, decision-making, depression, ethical behavior, impulsiveness, irritability, memory, motivation, relationships. Don’t forget about naps.
  • Writing / Journaling. Research has shown that writing about stressful experiences can help people create meaning from them. (The same can be true for talking through feelings with others.)
  • Yoga. Yoga can increase flexibility, strengthen muscles, center thoughts, and relax and calm the mind.

In summary, lead yourself and intentionally craft your life and work, taking full responsibility for your life and refusing to adopt a victim mindset.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you at risk of burning out?
  2. What are the root causes?
  3. What will you do about it?
  4. Which of the above practices work best for you?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Quotations about Burnout and Renewal

  • “The truth is that stress doesn’t come from your boss, your kids, your spouse, traffic jams, health challenges, or other circumstances. It comes from your thoughts about these circumstances.” -Andrew Bernstein
  • Burnout is “civilization’s disease…. It is not only an individual disorder that affects some who are ill-suited to the system, or too committed, or who don’t know how to put limits to their professional lives. It is also a disorder that, like a mirror, reflects some excessive values of our society.” -Pascal Cabot, Belgian philosopher
  • “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.” -Bill Clinton
  • “In life itself, there is a time to seek inner peace, a time to rid oneself of tension and anxiety. The moment comes when the striving must let up, when wisdom says, ‘Be quiet.’ You’ll be surprised how the world keeps on revolving without your pushing it. And you’ll be surprised how much stronger you are the next time you decide to push.” -John W. Gardner
  • “What do we want more of in life?… It’s not accomplishments. It’s not popularity. It’s moments when we feel like we are enough. More presence. More clarity. More insight. More truth. More stillness.” -Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key
  • “Creating the culture of burnout is opposite to creating a culture of sustainable creativity.” -Arianna Huffington
  • “We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.” -Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek
  • “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy.” -Soren Kierkegaard
  • “Burnout sets in when two conditions prevail: Certainties start to characterize the workday, and demands of the job make workers lose a sense of control.” -Ellen Langer
  • “A rested Andrew can do more in four hours than a tired Andrew can do in eight. It’s not only diminishing returns; [not being rested] is like a scorpion’s tail—it can undo things. That’s true of everyone’s productivity and particularly in an intellectual role like that of a CEO. A lot of boards don’t get that. People need to be fresh.” -Andrew Mackenzie, CEO, BHP
  • “Burnout is about resentment. [Preventing it is] about knowing yourself well enough to know what it is you’re giving up that makes you resentful.” -Marissa Mayer, tech executive
  • “Overwork sucks us into a negative spiral, causing our brains to slow down and compromising our emotional intelligence.” -Annie McKee
  • “Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” -Ovid
  • “Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.” -Parker Palmer
  • “No matter how much value we produce today—whether it’s measured in dollars or sales or goods or widgets—it’s never enough. We run faster, stretch out our arms further, and stay at work longer and later. We’re so busy trying to keep up that we stop noticing we’re in a Sisyphean race we can never win.” -Tony Schwartz
  • “It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?” -Henry David Thoreau

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Are You Trapped by Success?

success trap--man on a hamster wheel

Are you trapped by success? It’s an odd question. How can success be a trap? Is that even possible?

Turns out it can be a big trap. Below are 15 quick ways.

 

1. Addicted to Success

In a culture that worships success, we can become obsessed by it. It can consume most of our waking hours, and most of our waking thoughts. It can become a compulsive drive. We can build our lives around the pursuit of success. But what is success, actually? Have we taken the time to define what it means for us, in our current chapter of life, based on our own values?

 

2. Success Can Lead to Overwork

The pursuit of success can become all-consuming. It can cause us to be busy all the time, with a perpetual deficit of downtime, or addicted to work. We never feel fully rested and renewed. Or we start losing our perspective and our resilience. We get run down and, ironically, start to lose our motivation and productivity.

 

3. The More We Aim for It, The More Elusive It Becomes

Some things in life aren’t exactly logical and linear. It’s not a matter of inputs in leading to inputs out. Some things don’t respond to sheer willpower or muscle. Some things in life are more nuanced.

We can’t force a baby kitten to feel comfortable with us. We can’t force someone to love us, no matter how hard we try. In fact, it may push them away. If we go bounding into the woods seeking wild game, they may never appear unless we sit quietly for a while and let them come to us in their own time. We can’t force happiness, at least the real kind. There’s a difference between a real smile that comes when we see an old friend after a long time apart and a forced smile that everyone can tell is fake.

Success will likely elude us if we’re too focused on it. Rather, it’s something that ensues when we get our life in order, when we’re clear about who we are and act accordingly—letting go of the trappings of false influences. Of course, success usually requires focus and hard work. But it’s best when we get lost in our work because we love the process itself and how it makes us feel while we’re doing it, not because we’re set on some arbitrarily created result with factors well beyond our control.

 

4. Locked into the Wrong Thing

What if the one thing that we excelled at isn’t right for us? What if we’re destined for something more, or something different? When did we make that decision about our career path, and on what basis and with what practical experience about what it actually entailed? Too often, it’s when we’re too young to make sound decisions, and we panic and play the short game or become overwhelmed by all the options. (See my article, “Time to Check the Path You’re On?“)

 

5. Stuck in One Phase of Life

Perhaps we’re changing, with new interests emerging, but how could we possibly abandon the things that took us to the top? So we stick it out. We don’t grow and evolve into new challenges and opportunities better suited to our current circumstances. We flounder. (See my article, “What Keeps Us from Moving On?“)

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

6. Never Feeling Successful Enough

There’s this illusion that once we become successful, then we’ll feel happy. But it’s often not the case. There are many “successful” people who are unsatisfied or even miserable. Many reach one goal, enjoy it for a while (literally a few days), only to then start focusing on the next goal, and the next one, ad infinitum. The happiness never arrives, because there are always new goals out there and higher levels of success, achievement, recognition, or wealth. Researchers call this the “hedonic treadmill”: the tendency to remain at a stable level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of goals. We rapidly adapt to the new circumstances and simply increase our aspirations. We get tripped up by social comparison among a new class of people, perpetually raising the expectations.

 

7. Resistance to Being Imperfect

Success comes with lots of perks, from wealth and power to comfort and prestige. But it can also make us feel like we need to be perfect. Otherwise, how can we be worthy of success? We fear making mistakes or being wrong in front of others, lest they start to question our worthiness. So we harbor a secret terror of being discovered as a fraud or of letting our imperfect humanity come through. We wear a mask of projected perfection and total confidence, secretly hoping that people can’t see through it. It’s exhausting. Nobody’s perfect. We can’t always be on, and right, and put-together. In this charade, we miss out on what Brene Brown calls “the gifts of imperfection,” including authenticity, self-compassion, connection, intimacy, and more.

 

8. The Burden of Success

Yes, success has its privileges. But it can also feel like we’re walking around with a hundred pounds of bricks on our backs. We carry the pressures, the expectations, the demands, the effort, the work. Life can start to feel like a burden we must bear.

 

9. The Illusion of Circumstances

As we chase success, it can feed into a trick our minds play on us, the illusion that the quality of our circumstances determines the quality of our lives. It’s such a pervasive belief that we can go through our whole lives without ever pausing to question it. The logic goes like this: When we’re successful and things are going well, we feel good and we’re happy. When we’re unsuccessful or in pain, uncomfortable, or facing a challenge (ourselves, or for our loved ones), we feel bad and unhappy.

The truth is that we can feel good even when our circumstances are bad. We can return to our values and sense of purpose. Or we can revisit our personal history and what makes us who we are. We can remain grateful for all that we have and have had. And we can stand still in awe of the gifts of life even when things are tough. We can be unflappable in the storms that are a natural part of life. We don’t have to let our thoughts spiral down with our circumstances.

 

10. The Myth that Success Is the Point of Life

The belief that success is the point of life is another mental trick that we can go through life without questioning. The point is to climb the ladder of success, right? To win the game, right? To be the best, or to achieve success, right? Not so fast.

Aren’t there more important things than achieving success and winning? What about love and our precious relationships? And what about contributing to something greater than ourselves, to our family, our community, our world, or a worthy cause? What about character and integrity? And what about our faith, or spiritual practice, or connection with something deeper and more significant than points on a scoreboard or zeros in our bank account? Yes, we can do great things on a quest for success, but is that really the point of it all?

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

11. Success Can Take Us Away from Ourselves

As we get caught up in the image, in the prestige, in the chase, we can drift away from our core, from who we really are and what we value. We can get so caught up in the chase that we compromise our integrity on the way to the top. And we can get so driven that we lose sight of the things that capture our hearts. We can lose our artistry and our soul. Or we can become success robots, following social programming instead of pursuing our calling.

 

12. Success Can Take Us Away from Others

As we drift away from ourselves, we can also drift away from others. From our spouse or partner, because we’re so busy and have such important things we need to do. Or from our own children in their precious formative years or their struggling adult years, because we’re so caught up in our own stuff. From our extended family, from the friends we cherish, from our neighbors and community. We’re busy like bees, so we let our relationships suffer or die.

 

13. The Comparison Game

When we’re in chasing-success mode, it becomes a numbers game: How do we stack up against others in terms of salary, promotions, title, awards, fame? We start judging our worth by how we stack up on superficial metrics, falling into what Father Robert Spitzer called the “comparative ethic,” instead of the “contributive ethic.”

 

14. The False Metrics of Success

When we take a mercenary view of success, we start measuring it in cold and calculating ways: cash, net worth, position, power, number of followers or direct reports. These may send our ego to the moon, but do they keep us warm at night and light us up? Will they hold up and stand the test of time as we look back on our lives?

 

15. Narrow Views of Success

Somewhere along the way we can start to view success in overly narrow terms, thinking about it in terms of professional, financial, and relative social terms—wealth, prestige, celebrity. The problem with this thinking is that, as Clayton Christensen has noted, it causes us to over-invest in our career while under-investing in our health, family, friends, community, spirituality (or mindfulness), and fun.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you trapped by success—or caught up too much in the chase?
  2. Which of the traps above resonated most with you?
  3. What will you do about it, starting today?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Is Your Identity Wrapped Up Too Much in Your Work?

Work is a big part of our lives. It’s essential to our income and security, and it can be a source of meaning and satisfaction. But there are dangers with having our identity too wrapped up in our work.

What happens if we’re laid off? Or in-between jobs? No longer able to do that kind of work? Retired? We’re vulnerable to an identity crisis and a downward spiral when the work that animates our identity disappears or changes.

“Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.”
-Colin Powell, U.S. Army officer, statesman, and diplomat

For sure, there are many different types of workers out there: nine to fivers working for the weekend, side hustlers, part-timers, hybrid professionals, unemployed, underemployed, and more. Some like or love what they do. Others despise or endure it.

Some toil away in a workaholic organizational culture. Others are trying to live up to parental expectations. Some are trapped in golden handcuffs. Others can’t stop ruminating about work situations and scenarios.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

The Traps of Overidentification with Work

There’s nothing wrong with working hard. Or with loving or liking what we do. Or with identifying with our work.

The problem comes when we identify too much with our work, losing other important aspects of ourselves and our lives in the process.

“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive.
You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your f**king khakis.”

-Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Problems come when we bury ourselves in busyness and overwork—when we glorify being busy and can’t slow down and shut if off (or can’t feel good when we’re not working). According to a meta-analysis of 89 studies, workaholism is related to lower physical and mental health and lower job, family, and life satisfaction. Sometimes we use overwork to avoid dealing with difficulties, disconnections, rejections, or wounds.

We get into trouble when work is all about trying to please or impress others. When we reject who we really are—abandoning our true nature and avoiding our calling.

Problems pop up when we bury ourselves in someone else’s priorities so much so that we never get to our own.

It’s nice when we get recognition, praise, or even prestige from our work, but it’s dangerous when we become dependent on those, addicted to our next hit.

It’s a problem if we feel terrible when work is going poorly, clouding everything in disappointment.

It becomes a trap when our relationship with work becomes an obsession in which we’re constantly striving and can’t switch it off—when we’re never satisfied with things as they are.

It’s trouble when our attachment to work disconnects us from meaningful relationships—from the people we love and who need us.

“…the work I’ve put between us, you know it doesn’t keep me warm.”
-Don Henley in “The Heart of the Matter”

It’s limiting when our current work keeps us from moving forward and trying new things, because we feel safer in the current iteration of our work and wary of venturing forth. So we avoid the uncertainty and awkwardness of the in-between periods of our lives—the ones that tend to lead to the biggest breakthroughs in growth and fulfillment after we ride out the storms of fear and doubt and stare down the unknown.

The problem is when our identity is wrapped up too much in our work, with too much emotional investment (and time). It leads to stress, anxiety, burnout, or depression—and a sense of emptiness, disappointment, or regret.

Who are we? Are we only our title? Only the person who gains income or accolades? Yes, we are those, and we’re wise if we’re intentional as possible about infusing those activities with as much heart and soul and fun as we can. It’s great if we can integrate our life and work into a cohesive whole that suits us. It’s powerful if we can integrate our values, passions, and authenticity across all the domains of our lives, bridging them with an overarching sense of purpose.

“A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature.”
-Seneca, Roman Stoic philosopher

But aren’t we also husbands or wives, fathers or mothers, sons or daughters, friends and neighbors, lovers and dreamers, community members, citizens, and humans bound together on spaceship Earth?

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

What to Do If Your Identity Is Wrapped Up in Work

What to do when we’re identifying too much with our work and not honoring other important areas of our lives?

Return to what’s important: who and what do we love? What do we long for? What are we missing in our life?

Do we have enough vitality, connection, and contribution in our lives, as Jonathan Fields recommends? Do we have a strong sense of our “core identity,” and are we living with “authentic integrity” (integration of all aspects of our lives in a way that coheres with our true nature)?

We all get off-kilter sometimes. We need to cut ourselves some slack. But we also need to stop lying to ourselves. We must take our lives back when we’ve given them away. We must honor the fullness of our nature and the marvelous range and depth of our lives, both in and out of the work we do. If we do, we can learn to be well regardless of the events and circumstances of the day, grounded in a deeper presence and appreciation for all that we’ve been given.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Is your identity wrapped up in work?
  2. What important areas of your life are you neglecting?
  3. What will you do start doing to make yourself whole again?

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Life, Work, and Identity

  • “Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.” -Epictetus
  • “‘Can I be comfortable in my own skin regardless of what’s going on around me?’ And that to me is the definition of true success.” -Peter Crone
  • “People who can tolerate the painful discrepancies of the between-identities period, which reflect underlying ambivalence about letting go of the old or embracing the new, end up in a better position to make informed choices. With the benefit of time between selves, we are more likely to make the deep change necessary to discover satisfying lives and work and to eventually restore a sense of community to our lives.” -Herminia Ibarra

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Do You Have Margin in Your Life?

Many of us are always “on” these days, running from task to task. Never-ending demands. Frenetic pace. We fill every available moment with activity or scrolling through our digital feeds. The problem: We don’t have enough margin in our lives.

Young hustlers making it happen. Working parents managing the household. Climbing the corporate ladder or growing our small business or nonprofit. Perpetual busyness.

It feels heavy always going at this pace. We get exhausted.

It’s not common to talk and think in terms of margin in our lives. But it’s needed now more than ever. A margin is the border between things, like the margin on a page. Filling every page up to the max just gets overwhelming.

 

The Consequences of Not Having Margin in Life

The consequences of not having margin are severe: lower quality of life, less happiness and fulfillment, and lower performance at work over time.

“If I was to sum up the single biggest problem of senior leadership in the Information Age, it’s a lack of reflection. Solitude allows you to reflect while others are reacting. We need solitude to refocus on prospective decision-making, rather than just reacting to problems as they arise.”
-General James Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of Defense and four-star Marine Corps General

It can damage to our health and relationships—and our soul. Not having enough margin in life can lead to burnout and a sense of emptiness. It takes time away from the things we enjoy, such as hobbies or time with friends. And it prevents us from exercising enough. Notably, it also induces us to stress-eat, binge-watch, or skimp on sleep.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

The Benefits of Margin in Life

Having margin gives us room to breathe, to reflect and renew. To “sharpen the saw,” as author Stephen R. Covey wrote. With margin we can rise up and view things with perspective. We can reactivate our creativity and wisdom.

When we have breathing room, we can start to see where we’re going wrong—where we’re shooting ourselves in the foot with dysfunctional behaviors. We begin to see the possibilities for change.

Without margin, we keep our heads down and keep ploughing forward, stuck in the same traps and not even admitting it to ourselves. Sometimes we’re too busy and distracted to notice.

What to do with the margin we carve out in our lives? With it, we can:

  • reflect on what’s important
  • assess how things are going
  • see if there’s a gap between the life we have and the life we want
  • consider new ideas for closing that gap
  • experience mindful living in the present, without fretting about the past or worrying about the future

 

Why Is Having Margin in Life So Hard?

It sounds simple enough, but it’s not an easy feat in today’s world of dizzying distractions and cunning algorithms designed to hijack our attention with chemical manipulations in our brains. At bottom, they’re not giving us a better life but an escape from it.

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop. Exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
-Sean Parker, first president of Facebook and co-founder of Napster

The evidence is alarming. Average daily digital content consumption (including time spent on social media, news sites, and streaming) is now just under seven hours (six hours and 59 minutes), according to a recent Forbes report.

This can lead to what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “psychic entropy,” a condition of inner disorder in the mind, often including a chaotic mental review of things that impairs our effectiveness. He writes that it “involves seeing more to do than one can actually accomplish.”

It’s especially difficult if we’re trying to please everyone and not learning to set boundaries and say no—a big challenge for some people. In turn, this leads to us becoming overcommitted and falling into a death spiral of too much anxiety without the mental and emotional fortitude to deal with it and too much work volume without enough deep work to handle it.

“Slow down and remember this: Most things make no difference.
Being busy is a form of mental laziness—lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”

Tim Ferriss, author and podcaster

For some, a compulsion to achieve, win, or achieve recognition or status prevents us from carving out enough margin in our lives. This can lead to workaholism, a state of addiction to work in which we can’t switch it off or stop thinking about it. Another factor is being overly optimistic about what can get done by when—wearing “rose-colored glasses,” as they say.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

How to Get More Margin in Your Life

So, how to get more margin in our life? It helps to acknowledge the problem first, perhaps flowing from an assessment of how we’re spending our time and determining the areas in which it’s not time well spent. (Yes, there are apps for that.)

Perhaps most importantly, we must get clear on what’s important to us, starting with our values (what we value most in life—and the behaviors that manifest those things), purpose (our reason for being, or what infuses our life with meaning and significance), and aspirations for our life and work. Modern movements like essentialism and minimalism can help us avoid the trappings of overconsumption and overscheduling while distilling things to the essential few that enrich our lives.

It’s essential to establish clear and challenging criteria for what to say “yes” to and to get better at saying “no” to many things that come across the transom in our lives. As author Greg McKeown advises, “If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”

Next, we need to build renewal into our days, giving us a sense of serenity instead of that precarious state of anxiety from the cumulative effects of overwork, stress, poor sleep, and not taking caring of ourselves or connecting enough with others. There are limits to our energy. We need good habits of rest and renewal.

“In life itself, there is a time to seek inner peace, a time to rid oneself of tension and anxiety. The moment comes when the striving must let up, when wisdom says, ‘Be quiet.’ You’ll be surprised how the world keeps on revolving without your pushing it. And you’ll be surprised how much stronger you are the next time you decide to push.”
-John W. Gardner

Even better if we can find “sanctuary” in our lives—places and practices of peace that restore our hearts. Places of quiet and tranquility. Beyond the striving, beyond the chase, beyond the willfulness, there’s an acceptance, a yielding, a comfort with the present moment and a willingness to see things for what they are and ride with the flow of life. It’s the serenity beyond the stress and struggle.

It helps to schedule margin into our lives: put it on our calendar and protect it. We must regain control of all the things that eat into margin, such as email or Slack, meetings, smartphones, interruptions, and messy workspaces. Also, we need to get better at anticipating and preventing distractions, thereby creating the conditions for focus, flow, and deep work.

We should also look for smaller things we can do—quick and easy hacks that help us preserve margin. In his book, Indistractable, Nir Eyal, recommends the “ten-minute rule”: waiting ten minutes before giving in to an urge to check our phone as a pacification device.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Do you have enough margin in your life?
  2. How is lack of margin harming your wellbeing, relationships, or work?
  3. What steps will you take, starting today, to reclaim your life and the margin it requires?

 

Tools for You

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Build More Margin in Life

  • “I love a broad margin to my life.” -Henry David Thoreau
  • Margin is “time to make room for change.” -Jeff Sapadafora, author and coach
  • “What do we want more of in life?… It’s not accomplishments. It’s not popularity. It’s moments when we feel like we are enough. More presence. More clarity. More insight. More truth. More stillness.” -Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key
  • “Human beings have always employed an enormous amount of clever devices for running away from themselves, and the modern world is particularly rich in such stratagems. We can keep ourselves busy, fill our lives with so many diversions, stuff our heads with so much knowledge, involve ourselves with so many people and cover so much ground that we never have time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within. More often than not we don’t want to know ourselves, don’t want to depend on ourselves, don’t want to live with ourselves. By middle life, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” -John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal
  • “Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” -Ovid
  • “All profound things, and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence…. Silence is the general consecreation of the universe.” -Herman Melville
  • “We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.” -Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

 

Books that Will Help Change Your Life with More Margin

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Problem of Going It Alone

One of the silver linings of the covid-19 pandemic was what it reminded us about our longing for relationship, for connection, for human touch. What was suddenly stolen was dearly missed and now cherished. We see the problem of going it alone.

Close connection with family and friends and a sense of belonging are the most important building blocks of a life well lived. Yet today we have forces driving us apart.

One is a culture of excessive individualism and egocentric living, a sense that life is all about us. It’s the trap of being self-absorbed and caught up in our own stuff, without focusing on something larger than ourselves. If we’re fortunate enough to live a comfortable life with our needs met, one danger is that we can “cocoon” into our big homes with big yards with more stuff than we need and wall ourselves off into social isolation.

Here we encounter the emptiness of egocentric living. By contrast, we can pursue the meaningfulness of relational commitment, of being there for others and letting them be there for us.

 

Burnout and Overwork

Another problem is our culture of burnout,  overwork, and work addiction. In his wonderful book, How Will Your Measure Your Life?, written with his colleagues James Allworth and Karen Dillon before he passed away, Clayton Christensen wrote:

“…there is much more to life than your career…. In my experience, high-achievers focus a great deal on becoming the person they want to be at work–and far too little on the person they want to be at home. Investing our time and energy in raising wonderful children or deepening our love with our spouse often doesn’t return clear evidence of success for many years. What this leads to is over-investing in our careers, and under-investing in our families–starving one of the most important parts of our life.”

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Happiness Is Social

There’s a mountain of research demonstrating the importance of relationships, belonging, and social connectedness to our happiness. Take the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a massive longitudinal study of hundreds of people for about 80 years now. Writing about the study in The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk reported, “The project is one of the longest-running—and probably the most exhaustive—longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history,” including interviews, questionnaires, medical exams, and psychological tests.

The subjects continue to be studied to this day. They’re evaluated at least every two years by questionnaires, information from their doctors, and interviews. Researchers gathered information about their mental and physical health, career enjoyment, retirement experience, and marital quality.

When asked what he’s learned from the study, psychiatrist and professor George Vaillant (a psychiatrist who led the study for decades) wrote: “Warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.’… (We now have) “70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people… matter more than anything else in the world…. Happiness is love. Full stop.”

“All you need is love.”
-The Beatles

 

Sources of Happiness

In another study, researchers sought to identify the characteristics of the happiest 10 percent of people among us. What did they find? Wealth? Beauty? Fame? Fitness? No, the main distinguishing characteristic of the happiest 10 percent: the strength of their social relationships.

In their book, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener write: “…like food and air, we seem to need social relationships to thrive.”

According to summary findings on happiness from Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky and other researchers she’s studied (from her book, The How of Happiness), the happiest people:

  • Devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships
  • Are comfortable expressing gratitude for all they have
  • Are often the first to offer helping hands to co-workers and others
  • Practice optimism when imagining their futures
  • Savor life and live in the present moment
  • Exercise regularly
  • Are deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions (e.g., teaching children their values)
  • Show poise and strength when coping with challenges

(Note how many of those activities involve relationships.)

According to researchers who evaluated data from the World Values Survey, which surveyed people in more than 150 countries about their life satisfaction, the top factors that account for about three-fourths of reported well-being are:

  • social support
  • generosity
  • trust
  • freedom
  • income per capita
  • healthy life expectancy

(Note how many of these factors are social. The link between life satisfaction and social connection has held up very well across time and place, according to the World Happiness Report 2015.)

“Here’s the most fundamental finding of happiness economics: the factors that most determine our happiness are social, not material…. social connectedness is the most important of all the variables which contribute to a sense of wellbeing in life. And that is true at any age…. We are each other’s safety nets.”
-Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

 

Isolation and Going It Alone

Alas, the flip side is also true. Isolation can become a downward spiral, fostering discontent and shame, leading to further isolation. It turns out that going it alone through hard times and transitions, though an instinct for many, is a recipe for more hardship.

“Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.”
-Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined

Truth be told, staying connected to others can be hard at times. It doesn’t help that we have so much political division and distrust, with so many people dismissing or dehumanizing others who have different views. Our age of political contempt, partisan warfare, and take-no-prisoners tribalism is surely not helping.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Vulnerability and Connection

Many of us also struggle with vulnerability, with asking for help. We fear feeling uncomfortable and a potential loss of social status if we admit that our lives are not Instagram-perfect. So we resort to superficial conversations that feel safer, neglecting the deeper territory of openness and self-disclosure through meaningful dialogue.

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.”
-Brene Brown, researcher, speaker, and author

What’s needed, though, is more of what design thinkers call “radical collaboration,” which can be thought of as collaborating much more than you normally would—proactively seeking mentors, coaches, friends, peer groups, and people to learn from and ask questions.

The problem of going it alone in times of trouble or transition is that it doesn’t work very well. A better approach: reach out and connect. Share. Listen. Help, and accept help. You and your family, friends, and colleagues will be glad you did.

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

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Postscript: Quotes on Relationships and Not Going It Alone

  • “In everyone’s life, at some time, an inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” -Stephen R. Covey, author, executive, and speaker
  • “Belonging begins with safety…. this is a place and a relationship where you feel safe enough to be the real you.” -Jonathan Fields, How to Live a Good Life
  • “Going it alone in times of hardship is never a good idea.” -Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve 
  • “Being in a state of in between means being in some state of loneliness. Being neither here nor there often feels like being nowhere. Which is why connecting with others is so central to getting through one of these times. Human beings like to share.” -Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions
  • “I came to understand that while many of us might default to measuring our lives by summary statistics, such as number of people presided over, number of awards, or dollars accumulated in a bank, and so on, the only metrics that will truly matter to my life are the individuals whom I have been able to help, one by one, to become better people.” -Clayton Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?
  • “Well, what are you? What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself: your kidneys, your liver, your blood vessels? No. However far you go in your memory it is always some external manifestation of yourself where you came across your identity: in the work of your hands, your family, in other people. And now, listen carefully. You in others—this is what you are, this is what your consciousness has breathed, and lived on, and enjoyed throughout your life, your soul, your immortality—your life in others.” -Boris Pasternak, Russian poet and novelist (Doctor Zhivago)

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!