The Real Reason You’re Working More Than Ever (And How to Stop) - America's Future Foundation

June 9, 2020

Professional Development

The Real Reason You’re Working More Than Ever (And How to Stop)

By: Lyndsey Fifield

It’s weird to be told you’re not essential. 

It’s a humbling and perspective-giving thing to grapple with—but we’re being given a lot of that these days, amirite? 

If you’re a law enforcement officer, medical professional, sanitation worker, truck driver, or any person whose daily work is keeping our country safe and running this post is *probably* not for you—keep reading if you like but I *totally* understand if you have literally more important things to do.

If you’re a professional whose work is usually completed in an office but (gasp) it was recently discovered your work can, in fact, be more or less completed from literally anywhere with wifi, you’re probably learning a LOT about yourself these days.

You might also work somewhere where you feel your work is very much essential even if it lacks the designation. My work at The Heritage Foundation is very meaningful to me and gives me a sense of purpose—I’m helping communicate ideas I believe in to an audience who might otherwise never hear them. The news cycle is never ending—and so is my brain in search of opportunities to connect what’s happening with the policy solutions I know work to make our world better.

But that can also drive me to take on too much—and now, without any physical reminders of when I should start and stop my work day… it’s extremely easy to have a work day that never actually ends.

And it turns out I’m not alone.

If you’re anything like me or any of the people I spoke with about this: You’re checking (and responding to) emails at all hours, taking on extra projects to help your colleagues (especially those who are suddenly homeschooling their kids while working from home), and it’s VERY easy to look up from hours of work and realize “oh… it’s 8:00 pm.” While your friends joke about binge-watching Netflix and learning how to knit, your to-do list never seems to stop.

Your boss and colleagues might be super impressed… but they’re also lowkey probably a little worried about you.

And so I’m here to tell you WHY you are this way—and how to knock it off before you burn out.

Why We’re Suddenly Workaholics
Shrinks have been studying this long before the pandemic hit—but all the uncertainty in the world is forcing us to create order from chaos and derive meaning and purpose from everything we do in a way we might not have done before.

According to the Institute for Work & Health, the impact of unemployment on mental health has been researched since the Great Depression. After the 2009 recession, Canadian mental health workers concluded that when people lose their job, “not only is your usual source of income gone, but also your personal work relationships, daily structures, and an important sense of self-purpose. Unemployment can be, and often is, a shock to your whole system. You can experience some of the same feelings and stresses that you would if you were seriously injured, going through a divorce, or mourning the loss of a loved one. You can go through some or all of the stages of grieving just as you would with any other major loss.”

Sound familiar… even if you still have your job?

Why? Because PEOPLE LOVE TO WORK. We love to contribute, innovate, problem-solve, and come home from a long day of productivity knowing we did our absolute best. It feels good to be reliable to your team and be recognized for what you do. And when you don’t have the same daily structure and connection with your colleagues (combined with a healthy dose of existential dread), a Zoom conference call isn’t going to cut it

And so we fill that hole with more work.

So… do you want to get out of this bad routine? Here are three things the experts recommend: 

1. Replace your bad routine with a fake good routine.
May I suggest some variation of my husband’s?

Here is his daily grind: He wakes up EVERY morning at 6:00, goes into his home gym and works out for an hour, takes a shower, puts on ACTUAL PANTS, and then comes out to make breakfast and catch up on news. If you think THAT sounds scary, get this: Then that man goes into his home office at literally 8:00 ON THE DOT and works steadily until noon at which time he comes out to walk the dog and eat lunch, and then he returns, works until 5:00 pm ON THE DOT and then he comes out to walk the dog once.

He has been doing this *every single weekday since we started working from home* and does it without an actual alarm.

No, I didn’t know I married a psychopath, but these are the lessons lockdown life has taught us.

But he’s… got a point. He’s also a USMC veteran so he has an extremely annoying level of self-discipline and drive that is based on something I always thought I had on lock until pandemic times: Routine.

The Stoics call it the flow in life. Whatever you want to call it: Make one.

Even though you don’t have a tangible reason to wake up early (you’re not beating traffic to make it to your 6:00 am Orange Theory class on the Hill) or have any reason to block out your work along a schedule for your day, do it anyway. Make Zoom appointments with friends and colleagues and keep them like you would any other appointment.

2. Keep yourself and your space clean.
And not just because, you know, pandemic.

If you feel out of control in a chaotic world, you’ll be amazed how much better you feel after taking a shower and cleaning your room.

Every day you should make your bed and spend a few minutes wiping down surfaces, sweeping or vacuuming, and running a load of laundry. Exercise, shower, put on something comfortable that is also not pajamas, and eat meals at regular intervals. You’ll feel more present in your physical space and more relaxed—and it’ll give you lots of items to add to your afore-detailed fake routine. 

Voila—look how much your dance card is filling up already!


3. Communicate with your team about what you need.
My team is VERY comfortable telling each other when we’re signing off for the day, when we’ll be unavailable, or waiting an hour to respond to a non-urgent email. Why? Because that’s how we worked when we were all in the office together—now we just have to actually tell each other (usually via Teams) what we’re up to. It might sound silly but it signals to everyone that you value yourself and your time—and you want to perform at your best.

Trust me, NOBODY will think you’re slacking off—because we’re all in this together.