Episode: 3 Reasons You Can’t Stop Working

Michael Hyatt: Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.

Megan Hyatt Miller: And I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.

Michael: And this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work and succeed at life. In this episode, we’re talking about a problem a lot of leaders face and you probably face. They know they work too much, but they just can’t stop.

Megan: Man, we hear this all the time from our BusinessAccelerator clients when they’re just joining the program. Very often, they are working way too many hours, and they just don’t know how to stop doing it.

Michael: Right. I’ve been in that same situation myself.

Megan: Right. They’re telling themselves things like, “I’m in a busy season right now, but it’ll back off soon” or “I need to hustle and earn more because of my income needs” or “It doesn’t really matter, because I love my business” or “I love my job.” That one I hear a lot. “I’ve tried to slow down, but something urgent always comes up. After all, I’m the boss” or “I’m the business owner.” And they’re working on Saturdays to just catch up. That’s the only time they have to do real work. So this is a struggle.

Michael: It is a struggle. We have Larry Wilson with us to guide us through this process. Larry, welcome.

Larry Wilson: Hey, guys. I have this study I found on average hours worked by CEOs. It’s interesting, and the way they presented the results was interesting too, because it shows the ways we lie to ourselves about how much we work. The average CEO spends 9.7 hours per weekday at work. So that’s Monday to Friday. Almost 10 hours. Now, a lot of people would say, “It’s just under 50 hours.”

Megan: It doesn’t sound like it’s totally out of control.

Larry: It doesn’t sound that bad…48.5 hours per week. But here’s the kicker: they also worked 79 percent of weekend days at an average of 3.9 hours and 70 percent of vacation days at an average of 2.4 hours. So, you add that all together. That’s an average of 62.5 hours per week.

Megan: And they’re not reporting on how much time people are working at night or in the morning before they go to the office. Right? That nine hours was the time they spend at the office?

Larry: I don’t have that data.

Michael: My guess is that’s the case.

Megan: What we see a lot of is that those hours at the workday are okay, but what’s happening is people are doing their email before they go to work, and they’re coming home and working on projects in the evening, and it’s a lot of hours.

Michael: We know for a fact that a lot of people… The last thing they do while they’re in bed is check email. The first thing they do when they get up before they get out of bed is check email. A couple of days ago, I was listening to one of my favorite podcasters…a friend, in fact…admit he hadn’t taken a vacation in over a year. He was admitting on this podcast episode that he was on the edge of burnout, and he publicly said, “This has to change.”

Now, I’m thinking to myself kind of judgmentally, “Why hasn’t it changed until now, and how did he get into this kind of situation?” Then I remembered my own experience. I’ve been there myself. I was being a little bit like an ex-drunk who struggled to get sober and has forgotten what it’s like to be addicted to drinking. I’ve been a workaholic in my past.

When Gail and I were first married, we had the benefit of two incomes. It was awesome. It seemed like we had more money than we knew what to do with. We bought a new house. We bought a new car. I bought a new motorcycle, all through the miracle of debt. I’m being facetious, but that’s how we did it. Everything was fine until we decided to start having children. Gail got pregnant and quit her job. Then she decided she wanted to be a full-time mom. So suddenly, we went from two incomes to one.

Realizing we needed more money, I took a higher-paying but more demanding job that required a lot more hours. My new boss told me he couldn’t meet my salary requirements immediately, but if I did a great job he’d give me a raise in 90 days. I was absolutely determined that I was going to get that raise. So I typically arrived at the office at 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 the recliner and went right back to work.

I’d go to bed about 10:00 or 10:30 at night, and then the whole thing would start all over again the next day. In addition to that, I typically worked on Saturday mornings, kind of to your point, Larry, about CEOs. I wasn’t a CEO, but I was working on Saturday mornings. I wasn’t an executive at this point in my career, but I wanted to be one, and I noticed that all of the executives in our company all came in on Saturday morning, because they said, “This is the only time we have to catch up.”

Megan: At least that was more honest back then, because you couldn’t work from home. If you wanted to really work, you had to go into the office. Now you can kind of hide out and work way more than anybody knows.

Michael: Exactly. But if that wasn’t bad enough, I took on an additional job in order to meet our financial obligations. I became a weekend preacher for a congregation that was 81 miles from my home in Waco, Texas.

Megan: Whoa!

Larry: Oh my word!

Michael: As a result, I spent Saturday evening and early Sunday morning preparing my sermon. We would leave the house on Sunday morning at 7:00 a.m. Then Gail and I would typically have lunch with one of the families after church. By the time we got back home, it was usually 5:00 p.m. So then did I rest? No, because then it was time to start getting ready for the work week.

Megan: Oh my gosh!

Michael: It was brutal. I was working at least 80 hours a week, sometimes more than that. But here’s the crazy thing: I eventually got used to it. What had been difficult and challenging became kind of the pattern of my life. It became routine. Worse than that, my boss would praise me for my amazing work ethic. He gave me the raise I needed. I was soon promoted, so then that took on additional work, and it was this endless cycle.

I think a lot of people find themselves in this situation. What we want to talk about in this episode is if you’re in that situation where you’re living a life of total work and you don’t know how to extricate yourself from that because you want to have work and life, we’re going to get some practical tools for doing that.

Megan: Yeah. One of the fallacies that underpins that whole way of living is that people are not owning their agency. They have more control than they think they have, but they’re not aware of that or they’re maybe in denial of it, because it can be easier to take on more work than it is to have a tough conversation with a client or your boss.

It can feel less threatening to overwork than do an honest self-assessment. “Am I a workaholic? What’s going on here?” Or we can procrastinate delegating work that is intimidating to us. We just hang on to stuff and try to figure it out. We need to just hand it off, but we don’t do that. I think sometimes we’d rather deal with the problems that come from overworking than to do the self-reflection and make the hard changes necessary to free ourselves up.

Michael: Yeah. These patterns of overwork for me really outlived their utility. I persisted in this because it was psychologically giving me something that was important. Long after I was financially stable, I was still doing this, because it was familiar. A lot of reasons for that. That’s why we want to talk about these specific strategies.

Megan: One of the things that is the most insidious in this whole conversation is that it is easier, very often, to do the things you need to do in your business and your work than it is to show up at home. For example, when you’re at work, you get to check things off your little list. You get an “attaboy” or a “way to go” from your boss or your clients. It’s definable. It’s something you have a sense of accomplishment about.

Michael: A lot of rewards.

Megan: A lot of rewards. But when you go home, you may have challenges in your marriage, you may have the exhaustion of kids, you may have financial pressure, all kinds of things that are squishy or the rewards are unclear or require a different level of work and emotional intelligence than what your work does. Very often, workaholism is driven by the desire to escape home.

Larry: I think a lot of us can identify with this pattern of overwork and how easy it is to slip into. So we’re going to talk about the three reasons you can’t stop working, and of course, we’ll share what to do about that along the way. So here we go. First reason: you haven’t set boundaries.

Michael: This is really a foundational practice, and it’s deceptively simple. You think, “Wait a second. What do you mean?” I’m talking about setting hard boundaries about when you’re going to work and when you’re not going to work. I had kind of a hard meltdown back in the year 2000/2001, when I had turned a division around. We’ve all heard this story. I’ve told you guys and told our audience a lot of times.

I ended up in the emergency room three times thinking I was having a heart attack, and a cardiologist tells me, “You have to make some changes.” So I hired an executive coach. It was Daniel Harkavy at Building Champions. Daniel said to me, “I want you to set three boundaries, because here’s the thing about your job now.” He said, “You have a lot more responsibility, more responsibility than you’ve ever had, and if you’re not careful, this is going to be all you do.”

He said, “I don’t want you to lose your health. I don’t want you to lose your family.” So he encouraged me to set three hard boundaries. Here’s what they were. I decided then I wasn’t going to do any work after 6:00 p.m. My previous practice was that I would drag work into the evenings. Either I would leave the office late or I’d go home, wolf down a quick meal with the family, and then I’d park myself in the recliner, as I said earlier, whip out my laptop, and keep working.

Second boundary: don’t work on the weekends. That was tough, because Saturday was my time to catch up. Sunday afternoon was a time to catch up. There was all this time. I loved that time for working, because it was the time when I could do the work I really enjoyed that I couldn’t do during the week because I had so many meetings. Then the third hard boundary was not working on my vacations. Oh, that’s tough.

Megan: It is tough.

Michael: It makes you rethink your work.

Megan: This is a helpful list. If you’re not sure if you’re a workaholic…maybe you’re kind of in the fog of it and you’re wondering if it’s out of bounds or not…you can use this criteria to measure against. If you’re checking these boxes, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re beyond the normal limits.

Larry: I think everybody who hears those limits, Michael, would say they’re pretty common sense. “Don’t work yourself to death. Don’t work all the time.” Yet people still don’t set boundaries. Why is it that people have such a difficult time getting their mind around to do this?

Michael: I think a part of it goes back to what Megan was saying. There are such huge rewards at work. When we think about being at home or being with ourselves, it’s not clear what we’re going to do with ourselves. My friend, by the way, the person I talked about at the beginning of this, suddenly realized, as he was dealing with this burnout and needed more free time… He said, “I don’t know what to do with myself.”

He said, “I don’t have any hobbies. My work is my hobby. They’re one and the same.” That can’t be the case. That’s going to make you less interesting at work. It’s going to make you less rejuvenated if all your waking time is thinking about work. Something has to give. We’re after the double win here. We talk about this all the time: winning at work and succeeding at life. That requires that you set some boundaries so you can have that other life.

Megan: This really goes back to the idea of the secondary gain. The obvious primary gain of all of those hours you’re putting in is it’s what’s required to build your business and it gets results and all that kind of stuff, but to my earlier point, there’s this insidious thing that’s happening where you’re getting a secondary gain from these choices that you may not be aware of. It could be that you want to please people. It could be that you’re flattered by having people depend on you. This is a big one for people.

It could be that you really enjoy feeling like you can do it all, that you’re more productive than everybody you know, and you are proud of it; that you’re unaware of the toll your work is taking on your family and others. You may tell yourself, “I’m doing it for my family,” but really, you’re doing it at their expense. It may be that you are really uncomfortable saying no, and when you work too much, it keeps you from having to have conflict with people in your workplace, or what you would perceive as conflict.

Michael: That’s a very good point. I just want to make a quick argument before we leave this point for the value of constraint. I think the value of setting these boundaries is it forces us to make choices about our priorities. All you have to do is think about how productive you are on the Friday before you leave on vacation. You have a hard boundary. You’re flying out the next morning. You’re going to be on a vacation with your family. You’ve decided you’re not going to take any work with you. How productive are you on that Friday? I mean, you’re crazy!

Megan: It’s like a week’s worth of work in one day.

Michael: Totally. You don’t allow yourself to get distracted. You don’t have meaningless conversations. You don’t get caught up in Facebook, because you have to get the work done. Well, when you put these hard boundaries on your workday… If I know I can’t drag the work into the evening because 6:00 p.m. is when I stop, guess what: I get my work done by 6:00 p.m. Same thing when I’ve decided I’m not going to take the work into the weekends. So these hard boundaries can be our friends. Constraints can actually enable us to give us the freedom we want and to be more productive and more focused at work.

Megan: They really force clarity. In my own experience… Eight years ago, we adopted two boys from Uganda, our third and fourth children. When they came home, they had special needs that we were previously unaware of, some medical, some neurological. It was very significant. I realized quickly that if I was going to continue working and continue growing in my career, the only way that was possible with their needs was I was going to have to set some hard boundaries, because they really needed me. Very intense parenting was going to be necessary for years to come.

I decided not too long after that that I was going to put a cutoff on my day, where I was going to finish when my kids were done with school. It has kind of evolved a little bit as their school schedules have changed, but now 3:30 is when they’re done, and I’m done with work. Probably 95 percent of my days, I’m finished at that point. That has become a hard boundary for me. What that has forced is a greater level of clarity about where I add the most value to the business, what I need to say yes to, and what I need to say no to, and I think I’ve become more effective and more productive as a result of that constraint than I ever was before.

Michael: How many hours would you estimate you work per week?

Megan: Probably about 35.

Michael: Okay. Here’s the crazy thing: you’re the COO of our company. I’m counting on you to basically run the business, and as the COO, you’re spending about 35 hours a week. Nobody would know you’re not working full time, because you are so productive, so focused, but I would argue that it’s those very constraints that are forcing that.

Megan: I think so too. Absolutely.

Larry: Well, Megan, you take us to the second reason you work too much: because you haven’t taken that hard look at what you do all day, and you haven’t culled your calendar and your task list.

Megan: That’s so true. I had to do this again now that I have a new baby. Now my life looks different than it did six months ago, and I’ve had to revisit my calendar, my task list, the things I’m responsible for, what I’m delegating. Really, it goes back to the concept of the Freedom Compass that we often talk about in this show. By the way, if you want to know more, you can go to chapter 2 in my dad’s book Free to Focus. It’s explained in detail there.

The basic idea is that it shows you what to keep and what to cut and where you’re going to drive the most value for your organization. At the end of the day, if you’re thinking, “My boss would never let me do this,” the crux of it is…Are you adding value? That’s what your boss wants. Are you adding value in the ways you’ve been hired to do? Or if you have your own business. So with the Freedom Compass, there are two axes in this two-by-two matrix. There’s passion and proficiency.

Adding value is really the proficiency part. The passion part is the other component of that. Do you love these activities? So those are two questions I’m asking myself: “Am I proficient, and am I passionate about this?” Those are the things I want to give the majority of my time to, and it’s the filter I use for culling my calendar and my task list. Everything that doesn’t fit into what we call the Desire Zone, that area of your greatest passion and proficiency, is a candidate for elimination, automation, or delegation. That’s really what I’ve done to get where I am.

Michael: Why this is so important is that we only have 168 hours in the week. Time is unlike every other resource. You can’t earn more of it, you can’t make more of it, and you can’t just keep adding stuff into your calendar. You have to periodically prune. That’s a key word. I’ve just gone through this same process myself.

We had a huge strategic opportunity this fall for our business that was going to require my personal involvement, so we had to go in with a machete to my calendar and start whacking out a bunch of stuff that, at one time, made a lot of sense but now at this stage in our company doesn’t make as much sense. We had to free me up, because I can’t just add more time. I’m not willing to compromise my evenings. I’m not willing to compromise my weekends or my vacations. I have those hard boundaries in place, so that, by necessity, requires pruning.

Every leader has to periodically do this, just to go in and prune and say, “Okay. That meeting made sense at one time, but does it still make sense or does my involvement in it still make sense?” Or “I used to be doing these kinds of tasks, but am I still going to be required to do these kinds of tasks?” I find that people, especially when they get a promotion…

I saw this in the corporate world when I was running a big corporation. The biggest threat people have to their success is they don’t let go of the old job. They keep doing the old work, and they add some new stuff to it, and that’s not going to work. They have to give up stuff. They have to prune if they’re going to be successful, if they’re going to experience the fullness of the fruit of that new position.

Larry: So if I’m working, like the average CEO, 62.5 hours per week, the real question is how many of the things I’m doing during those hours are actually driving results.

Michael: Yes!

Megan: And the more successful you become, the more the things you’re choosing between are great and very best. There’s not anything that’s just low level or not good. You’re really choosing between what’s good and the very, very best, and it makes the choices harder. That’s why you have to look at it carefully and regularly or you’ll just keep it all on there, because it all sounds great.

Larry: The first reason you can’t stop working: you haven’t set hard boundaries. The second reason: you haven’t culled your calendar and your task list. The third reason: you haven’t cultivated other interests.

Megan: Our brains and bodies are not designed for constant work. We need breaks. Kids have recess at school. Grown-ups need breaks in order to be productive. We need an intentional rhythm of work and rest to be our best at work and at home. In other words, you need to play. This is hard. This is hard for me. I think this is hard for you. This has been learned. It’s like, as adults, we have to relearn how to play, but it’s so rejuvenating, and it’s really the antidote to burnout.

Michael: It’ll make us more interesting at work, it’ll enable our brains to recuperate, and it’s just essential for a sense of well-being. But it’s this “other interests” idea, and so few adults have cultivated other interests.

Megan: The lack of other interests is the reason so many people say to us when they join our coaching program, for example, “My work is my hobby.” They say it like they’re proud of it. We’re like, “Oh, that’s not good.” When they schedule time off, they find themselves drifting into work. It’s kind of like you have to actually book time on your calendar for your other interests, particularly if you struggle with this, if you’re a high-achiever.

I also think the compulsion to drift back into work is even harder if you are an empty-nester, if you’re single, you don’t have kids, any of those things where you just have a lot of time on your hands if you’re not working and you’re at home. That can be really unsettling for people.

Michael: Danger zone.

Larry: Michael, we’ve heard you talk on this podcast about a couple of your hobbies, fly-fishing and playing the Native American flute. We know what they are. Give us a sense of what those hobbies give you.

Michael: They draw on my creativity in a way that I don’t get to express at work often, especially the flute playing. One of the things I thought there was, “How can I take this to the next level?” so I hired a flute instructor, a guy I meet with every week or every other week. I do it all by video, by the way, which is really interesting. He’s an amazing instructor. It has really taken it to the next level where I really enjoy it.

The same thing has happened with fly-fishing. It’s something I took up maybe 15 or 20 years ago, but I didn’t really pursue it in earnest until a few years ago. When Gail and I were in Wyoming this summer (we spent two weeks in Wyoming), I made sure, so I didn’t drift back into work, because that’s easy for me to do even at this stage… I booked a guide to take us fly-fishing six days.

Megan: That’s a lot of fishing.

Michael: That’s a lot of fishing, and it was incredible. And Gail got into it and loved it.

Larry: I’d just like to point out, too, that I don’t often hear people say about their hobbies, “How can I take this to the next level?”

Megan: You might be a high-achiever if…

Michael: Well, it’s more enjoyment. It’s intellectual stimulation and all that. It gives me something to talk about beyond my work.

Larry: Well, Megan, I don’t think we have a real sense of what your hobbies are other than raising children.

Megan: Yeah, that takes up a lot of time, and that’s a great point. I’m in a very different season of life. I am excited for being an empty-nester. I have just committed to another 18 years of parenting, so it’s going to be a while.

Larry: You’re going to absolutely love it.

Megan: I know. That’s what I hear. I really am excited. So my time for hobbies is much more limited. However, one of the things I love the most is cooking. As I have shared before, I don’t necessarily cook during the week, but on the weekends, I love to cook. I love to cook by myself with music, with some wine, with a new recipe I haven’t tried before, probably a solo trip to Whole Foods at some point in there, something fun. It’s very creative and restorative for me. I think the reason for that, in part, is because I’m doing something with my hands. It’s very tactile. It’s kind of a sensory-rich experience, and that’s different from my day-to-day work. So I love that.

Michael: You do a little fly-fishing.

Megan: I love to fish. When I’m an empty-nester or when my kids are all older, I’ll be doing that all the time, but definitely on vacations fly-fishing and fishing in general is something I love. We’re a part of a small group at church, which I enjoy. So it’s just kind of regular stuff. It’s not elaborate hobbies during this season, but it’s really important to find that time.

Michael: What are your hobbies, Larry?

Larry: My hobbies have changed a little bit over the years. I’m kind of a serial hobbyist, which I think I got that term from you, Michael.

Michael: My dad was that.

Larry: I’ve kind of done that. I’ve been learning French lately. Just use your brain in a different way. I found out you use your mouth and your throat and your nose in a different way.

Michael: The whole thing.

Larry: It’s very interesting. I’ve recently taken an interest, thanks to Nick, our producer, in some… This will sound kind of dopey, but pencils.

Megan: These are not like grocery store #2 kid pencils.

Larry: Oh, no. These are Palomino Blackwing pencils. They come in various hardnesses and styles.

Megan: Who even knew?

Michael: What this shows is that no matter what your thing is…

Megan: There’s a thing.

Michael: There’s an industry to support it.

Larry: Yeah. Over the years, I find something that’s interesting and learn about it, pursue it, and then I move on to something else.

Michael: That’s why I like you. I think one of the big reasons people don’t pursue hobbies is they have this limiting belief, like, “I’m not good at music” or “I didn’t grow up with a dad who taught me how to fish,” or whatever. This is the incredible thing about coaching. Somebody somewhere in the world knows what you want to do.

Like, I’m thinking to myself, “I want to take my flute playing to the next level,” so I got on the Internet this summer, and I started saying, “There has to be people who teach this. Right?” And I found these amazing instructors. I have a guy who I can do it with over Zoom. I didn’t know anything about playing a Native American flute. As it turns out, it’s not that hard to get some sound out of it. I’m paying him like $25 a lesson, and that exists for everything.

Megan: I mean, really everything.

Michael: Everything. I don’t care if it’s photography, if it’s fishing. That’s one of the reasons I go with guides. I can fish by myself now, but it’s so much more enjoyable with guides. Soccer, any kind of musical instrument, whatever it is.

Megan: Wine tasting, crafting, cooking, travel, languages. I mean, the list goes on.

Michael: It does.

Larry: I think, too, a hurtle people have to get over is, especially for high-achievers, this idea of going back to being a beginner.

Megan: That’s one of the best things about it.

Larry: Doing something you’re no good at.

Michael: We’ve heard it said before… I think it’s actually even a Buddhist saying. You know, cultivating or developing a beginner’s mind. I think it’s so important. I think it’s really important in business, and I think that’s one of the things we can bring to our business. When we’re working on a hobby and we’re having to start at the very beginning and experience again what it means to learn something for the first time, it brings a mindset to our business that’s very helpful.

Larry: Well, today we’ve learned that you and you alone are responsible for how much you work. Though you may think you have no choice, the real reasons you can’t stop working boil down to three: you haven’t set boundaries, you haven’t culled your calendar or to-do list, and you haven’t developed other interests. The good news, of course, is that you are the one who can change every single one of those.

Michael: That’s right.

Larry: Final thoughts today?

Megan: If you really want to see your life change and you want to have a sense of full-orbed success…not just that you’re winning at work with your business but that you’re actually succeeding in your whole life…the strategies we’ve shared today are really the secret to that. If you will apply yourself to these things, the life you will have six months from now, a year from now, will be so much better, so much richer, so much more satisfying than what you’re experiencing today.

Michael: I know this is said often, but nobody gets to the end of their life and regrets that they didn’t spend more time at work. The things we’re talking about today are the things that are going to make your life, in retrospect, be rich and satisfying. I don’t want to get to the end of my days and look back and think to myself, “I wish I’d spent more time fishing” or “I wish I’d spent…” Because those are the things that really give texture to life.

Yeah, my work is important, but I spend plenty of time at work. The things I need to cultivate are outside of work, and these relationships I have with people doing these things are so important. So, yeah, I think you have to look at… Start with the end in mind. Where do you want to end up in your life?

Larry: Well, for some high-achievers, this may have been a hard message to hear today, but it certainly is going to be a liberating truth if we take it and apply it. So thank you very much.

Megan: Thanks, Larry.

Michael: Thank you guys for joining us today. We invite you to join us next week for a new episode. Until then, lead to win.