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Workaholic? Maybe You're Really a Successaholic

Think you're an incorrigible workaholic? A Harvard professor suggests you might actually be addicted to success. And that's a good thing.
Maybe it's not all the time you put in, maybe you're just in it to win every battle. (That's probably more sane anyway.)
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The latest science on how habits are formed, and broken, according to New York Times staff writer and author of The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, involves routines and rewards. Take Duhigg's waistline-expanding afternoon cookie compulsion for example. In order to stop his daily habit of dropping in to the cafeteria for an unhealthy snack, Duhigg's research into the science of habits led him to try replacing his destructive munching with another routine that offered the same reward—in his case not calories, but a friendly chat with other colleagues in the cafeteria. By swapping his cookie for a bit of office gossip, he satisfied his need for an afternoon break without packing on extra pounds.

That's great info for dieters, but what does it have to offer workaholic entrepreneurs who find themselves chained to their smartphones all day and night (and, let's be honest, even all vacation long)? Quite a lot, explains Leslie A. Perlow, a professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, in a recent HBR blog post. Perlow's research is on the underlying motivation of those who work 24/7 and how to modify this hard-to-break behavior pattern.

Her conclusions offer hope for even hopeless-seeming workaholics (and their long-suffering families), suggesting that an always-on mentality isn't an unchangeable personality trait but stems from a need for success. Like Duhigg's cookie habit that was really about a bit of social engagement at the office, the drive to work at all hours isn't really about an obsessive need to peck away at a keyboard, Perlow found, but instead about a need to feel successful. And she found that need can be satisfied in healthier, schedule-liberating ways. Perlow explains using the example of one of her study participants, a consultant named Tad:

When I proposed the idea of turning off for discrete periods of time — with the full support of his manager — Tad explained to me: "It's going to be really hard to let go... even on weekends, I cannot let go... I'm always thinking about work." Tad was used to taking his Blackberry everywhere and whether during work meetings, his best friend's wedding, or quiet moments with his nine month old daughter…

But Tad was part of a team on which I was conducting an experiment. The experiment was to have each team member turn off for one night a week. Starting at 6 pm, for that one night, they were to do absolutely no work — not even to check their wireless devices. They were to completely disengage from work. Each person's night off was set well in advance and was not supposed to change, even if suddenly there was a client deliverable the next day. And, each week the team met to discuss their progress, with each team member being required to share whether they had taken their night off, and if not, why not. Suddenly, always being on was not the badge of honor that it once had been. Rather, team members were publicly applauded for taking their time off — even the night before a major deliverable — and they were shunned for failing to take their nights off.

Tad like so many others was initially resistant to this plan. He saw this as causing more stress not less. As he said, it interfered with his ability to keep on top of what was happening, always. Yet, several weeks into the experiment, Tad reported with delight: "It was the first Saturday in three years I did not check my Blackberry!" And soon it was other times as well.

By going deeper and understanding the reward Tad was seeking from his behavior – feeling successful – Perlow was able to engineer an office environment that provided this feeling while sparing Tad the physical and psychological toll that constant connectivity can bring. Tad was able to switch from getting his success fix from his Blackberry to getting his success fix from the praise of his colleagues (and no doubt his vacation companions and fellow wedding guests).

Could your business band together to try something similar?

IMAGE: pinkpurse via Flickr
Last updated: May 11, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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