3 Reasons You Can’t Stop Working

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts when the host  confessed he hadn’t taken a vacation in over a year. Admitting that he was on the edge of burnout, he said, “This has to change.”

I immediately thought, Why hasn’t it changed before now? How do you let yourself get into this kind of situation? I admit, I was judgmental.

Then I remembered my own experience. I was reacting a bit like an alcoholic who struggled to get sober,  then forgot what it’s like to be addicted.

When Gail and I were first married, we had the benefit of two incomes. It seemed like we had more money than we knew what to do with. We bought a new house, a new car, and a new motorcycle—all through the miracle of debt. (I’m being facetious, of course.)

Everything was fine until we started having children. Gail chose to be a stay-at-home mom, which I fully supported. Suddenly, we went from two incomes to one. Realizing we needed more money, I took a higher paying, albeit more demanding, job.

My new boss told me he couldn’t meet my salary requirements immediately, but if I did a great job he would give me a raise in 90 days. I was determined to get that raise, so I went all in.

I typically arrived at the office by 6:00 a.m. I made sure I was the first one there. I didn’t leave until 6:00 p.m. Then, after a quick dinner, I parked myself on my recliner and went right back to work. I’d go to bed at 10:00 or 10:30 p.m., then do it all over again.

In addition, I typically worked Saturday mornings. I wasn’t yet an executive, but I wanted to be one. So I imitated the behavior of the executives in the company. They all worked on Saturday mornings. Why? According to them, it was “the only time we have to catch up!”

As if that weren’t bad enough, I took on an additional job in order to meet our financial obligations. I became a weekend preacher for a congregation 81 miles from our home. As a result, I spent Saturday evening and early Sunday morning preparing sermons. We would leave for church at 7:00 a.m. After the service, Gail and I typically had lunch with one of the church families.

By the time we got home, it was usually 5:00 p.m. Did I finally rest? No. I spent Sunday evenings getting ready for the workweek.

It was brutal. I was easily working 80 hours a week, often more. 

The crazy thing was that I eventually got used to it. And, of course, I received lots of social reinforcement at work. My boss praised me for my “amazing work ethic.” He gave me the raise I needed, and I was soon promoted. Slowly but surely, I became addicted to work.

Even after the financial pressure subsided, I made excuses for working so much:

  • I need to get this project finished. 
  • I need to earn this next promotion.
  • I need to compensate for the vacancies in our department.
  • I need to get this new business launched.
  • It’s just temporary.

Even when I didn’t have a ready excuse, I could always fall back on this old line: “But I love my work!” In fact I did. It didn’t even feel like work!

Many leaders fall into that trap. One study found that the average CEO works 9.7 hours per weekday, which totals just 48.5 hours per workweek.  You may be thinking, That’s not too bad. It’s probably about what I work.

But consider this: the CEOs also worked 79 percent of weekend days for an average of 3.9 hours per day. And they worked 70 percent of their vacation days for an average of 2.4 hours per day. In all, the study found that CEOs worked an average of 62.5 hours a week. And remember, that’s the average. Many leaders work far more.

We all know this isn’t healthy. As the saying goes,  “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” There is real wisdom in that old proverb. If we don’t occasionally stop to sharpen a blade, it gets dull and requires more effort to achieve the same result. The same is true for us. I detail the research behind this in Chapter 3 of Free to Focus.

So why don’t we take more time off? I have observed, both in my own life and in my clients’,  that three reasons seem to surface.

Reason 1: You Haven’t Set Hard Boundaries

This is one of the hacks that finally provided me with the margin I needed. When I became the CEO of Thomas Nelson in 2005, it was the biggest job I’d ever had. At the time, we were a publicly held company. We were traded on the New York Stock Exchange. I had investors, a board, 650 employees, and thousands of customers to please. I quickly realized I could work all 168 hours in a week and still not get it all done. 

My coach at the time encouraged me to set three hard boundaries: 

  1. Don’t work after 6:00 p.m. 
  2. Don’t work on the weekends.
  3. Don’t work on my vacations.

This forced me to make more efficient use of my work time. Prior to that, I would often get distracted, especially in the afternoons. Then I’d think to myself, If I don’t get this done before I leave the office, I can do it at home after dinner. But my self-imposed 6:00 p.m. work curfew made this impossible. I stayed focused and more easily avoided time-wasters during the day.

Reason 2: You Haven’t Culled Your Calendar and Task List

When you don’t have boundaries, it’s difficult to say no. Sure. Why not? you think. I can always squeeze this in somewhere. But if you set firm boundaries and intend to live by them, as I did, you have to take a machete to your existing lineup of tasks and meetings. As David Allen says, “You can do anything you want; you just can’t do everything you want.”

The truth is that not all tasks are created equal. Some move your goals or most important projects forward. Others don’t. They might need to be done (by someone), but they don’t have a huge impact. This is where the Freedom Compass™ comes in. If you are not yet familiar with this tool, I cover it in detail in Chapter 2 of Free to Focus.

Picture a two-by-two matrix with two axes: passion and proficiency. Passion is about what you love or enjoy doing. Proficiency is about what you are good at and also what drives the results you were hired to deliver. The intersection of these two axes creates four quadrants or zones. If you rotate it to the right by 45 degrees, you have a compass.

  1. The Desire Zone. This is north on the compass, where your passion and proficiency meet. This is where you add the most value to your organization and where you should focus most of your attention and time. By the way, just because you enjoy this work doesn’t mean it’s easy or without significant challenge.
  2. The Disinterest Zone. This is east on the compass, where you have proficiency but lack passion. Maybe you had passion at one time, but now it’s gone. You’re bored. Often, this zone includes tasks that need to be done. They just don’t need to be done by you.
  3. The Distraction Zone. This is west on the compass, where you have passion but lack proficiency. Unfortunately, this is where we can go to escape the challenge of Desire Zone work. 
  4. The Drudgery Zone. This is south on the compass, where you have neither passion nor proficiency. The key to great job satisfaction and more productivity is to eliminate, automate, or delegate this work to someone else.

The Freedom Compass provides a filter for whittling down your list of tasks and other activities. It also provides a means for evaluating every incoming request for your time and attention.

Reason 3: You Haven’t Cultivated Other Interests

When my friend Doug went through a health crisis, his doctor told him, “You need to take some time off. The stress of constant work is negatively affecting your health. You are not going to get well until you do.”

Doug protested. “But I love my work. It doesn’t feel stressful to me.”

His doctor went on to explain that our brains and our bodies are not designed for constant work. We need breaks. We need to cultivate an intentional rhythm of work and rest. He then asked, “Do you have any hobbies?” Doug had to admit he didn’t. 

This is one of the main reasons high-performing leaders don’t take time off. They simply don’t know what to do with themselves. All they know is work, work, work. Even when they do schedule time off, they usually drift back into work.

They key to avoiding this is to cultivate other interests and schedule time to pursue them. Literally, book appointments for leisure activities on your calendar.

For example, I’ve developed a love for fly fishing. I routinely have my assistant, Jim, book appointments with fishing guides so I get out on the river. This past year, my wife Gail has joined me on several trips and has fallen in love with the sport too. That’s made it even more enjoyable.

Not long ago, I rekindled my interest playing the Native American flute. I bought a couple of new flutes, hired a teacher, and now take weekly lessons. This forces me to schedule practice time in the evenings. I look forward to sitting down and making music every day.

The Proof Is in the Pudding

If you are going to be your most healthy, most focused, most productive self, you have to take more time off. You can’t keep procrastinating. And there’s a bonus: this will help drive your business results. 

Last year I took off 162 days. That equates to taking every weekend off, plus almost 12 full weeks of vacation. These were truly “off stage days” (another concept I discuss in my book Free to Focus). I didn’t do any work. In fact, I didn’t think about work. I didn’t talk about work. I didn’t even read work-related books or listen to work-related podcasts.

But here’s the kicker. Despite the fact that I took so much time off, my business grew by 62 percent. I don’t think that is an accident. I’ve been taking a similar amount of time off for each of the last four years. Yet my business has made the Inc. 5,000 list of America’s fastest growing private companies for each of the last three years.

Taking this time off has made my time at work more productive. And I’m not alone in that. Numerous studies confirm that those who take more time off achieve higher sales and productivity, experience greater happiness, and even get promoted more often.  

You really can achieve more by doing less. The key is to set hard boundaries, cull your tasks and activity list, and cultivate other interests.