I've written about my heart attacks several times before, but bear with me, because I'm still in the long process of healing and understanding what it's all about and how I need to change my life.
Quick recap: Last July I had two heart attacks which led to the discovery that I had major heart disease, serious enough to need a sextuple bypass. I was in the hospital for three weeks, and even months later, I'm still recovering, physically and emotionally.
When all that sh*t went down, I was astounded that I had heart disease because I lacked most of the warning signs: I wasn't overweight, didn't smoke, and had no history of heart disease in my family.
However, I was under enormous stress--partly because of family issues (one of my two children is high-needs) but mostly because I was constantly anxious about work and therefore stressed all the time.
What's weird is that I was stressed even though: 1) I work my own hours, 2) I set my own workload, 3) I only work with people I like, 4) I make very good money, 5) I get to work from home, and 6) I do work that I generally enjoy.
In other words, there was no objective reason for me to be stressed about work. In fact, I sorta fit the profile of the exact opposite of a workaholic. Or so I thought.
According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, you are still a workaholic if you allow work to intrude into your thoughts all the time and if your feelings about work are tied up with anxiety, regardless of how many hours you actually spend on the job.
So I was a workaholic and didn't even know it. And it almost killed me.
And when I say it almost killed me, I'm not exaggerating. All but one of seven my heart arteries were blocked, some of them 100 percent. I was literally on the edge of death and it's a miracle that I'm still alive.
In fact, due to the operation, I'm in better health than before the heart attacks. That's the good news.
But here's the bad news: Even with my new regimen of heart medicines, those blockages may return. And because I'm not overweight and don't smoke, there's really not much "ballast" to throw overboard to keep my ship afloat.
I eat heart-healthy, but I pretty much did that before the heart attack. I've also stopped drinking alcohol, but I've always been a "two or three glasses of wine a week" kinda guy. So even with heart medicine, I'm high risk for more heart problems.
So you see, if I can't lick my workaholism, it will literally kill me.
I have a feeling that I'm not the only one who's facing the challenge of way too much stress at work. So, in the hope that it might inspire, here's specifically what I'm doing to prevent both the workaholism and the heart disease it causes:
1. I've abandoned unrealistic goals.
The root of much of my work-related stress was a deep-seated feeling that I wasn't living up to my potential because I hadn't fulfilled two goals I'd set for myself about 20 years ago:
- Write a NY Times nonfiction bestseller.
- Write a novel that would be made into a movie.
In setting these ambitious goals, I was "shooting for the horizon." However, while that might work for some people, I made myself miserable every time I failed to achieve those goals.
So, even though I wrote several well-received and successful business books, I never hit the NY Times bestseller list. And while the novel I wrote did garner some Hollywood interest, nothing came of it in the end.
So, even though most people would probably be proud to have done so well, I felt like a failure because I didn't reach the horizon for which I'd aimed.
So while "aim for the horizon" goals might work for some people, for me they're toxic because I beat myself up when I think that way. So I've scaled down the goals, big time. I just can't afford to think that way any longer because it will kill me.
2. I've redefined who I really am.
As you might have noticed, there was more than a little grandiosity behind those ambitious goals. Indeed, I had such a high opinion of my potential that I hated that I wasn't fulfilling that potential. And that hate was a HUGE source of stress.
For example, (and this is really embarrassing and I've never told anyone this) I used to have a little mantra: "I'm a famous author." I'd repeat this silently to myself hoping that if I convinced myself it was true, it would become true in the real world.
After the heart attack, I realized that I can't think of myself that way, not if I want to stay alive. Rather than try to be somebody I'm not, I have to accept the fact that, at best, I'm a moderately talented writer. And a reasonably good father, husband, and friend.
And that's OK.
3. I've stopped doing work I don't enjoy.
If there's one thing that I KNOW I can do really, really well, it's write compelling marketing messages, marketing copy, cold emails, email marketing chains, website copy, etc. I can usually double or triple the sales revenue of a typical client.
Needless to say, clients have been more than willing to pay me big money to rework their marketing message.
However, while I'm really good at it, I just don't enjoy this kind of work. It's too simple and too repetitive, like fishing with dynamite.
Even when I make good money, I have to FORCE myself to hit deadlines. My desire to do a good job for my clients was in direct conflict with my desire to avoid doing this kind of work. That's been a recipe for crazy stress.
So no can do no more.
4. I make health my No. 1 priority.
Prior to my heart attack, I went through periods when I'd work out regularly, but in the past decade or so, I'd made working out a lower priority than "getting the job done." As a result, I rarely worked out.
Needless to say, this wasn't a smart move, heart-wise.
Today, regardless of how much work I might have on my plate, or what's going on in my sometimes crazy home environment, I work out every day...before I do anything else.
Just as important, I don't get all frantic about working out because that would just create more stress, negating the purpose of working out. If I have to take a day off from working out because, say, I have an appointment, that's OK.
5. I'm filling my life with gratitude.
As a workaholic, I was addicted to the ambitious goals, the grandiosity behind them and the stress that it caused. My addiction drove me to achieve more and more and more. And it was killing me.
So now I'm jettisoning all of that, which leaves a huge metaphorical and metaphysical hole inside me. If I'm not that workaholic guy, who am I?
I'm trying--really hard--to fill that hole with gratitude. I'm trying to use gratitude as a fuel that will keep me going, still writing and still creating. I'm not sure how to do that but, seriously, my life depends on it.
I used to think it was me against the world and I was a self-made man. I now realize that I've been very, very lucky. Insanely fortunate. Hopefully, I'll be able to stick around long enough to enjoy my good fortune.
Anyway, if you stuck around long enough to finish this post, I'm open to any advice or suggestions as I go forward. Frankly, I'm sailing in what, to me, are uncharted waters.
Wish me luck!