Yesterday, my husband made a mistake selling some stock. The amount of money he lost was measly, but from his mood, you'd have thought someone had just skinned his pet bunny and dumped a cup of salt in his lunch. Part of the reason for his frustration, he said, was because of the less quantifiable investments he'd lost--mental energy, for example. If he worked hard, if he just did more, he should get more back, not lose.

It's a pervasive concept, this idea that the effort you put in always should be proportional to your yield. But research shows that it's a flawed logic. Working beyond 50 hours per week actually results in decreased productivity, for example, and happiness has been found to increase when work hours go down. Yet, we hold on to the idea with fists clenched tighter than a toddler crushing Goldfish crackers. Why? Why hold on to a belief that exhausts us, pushes us to bite off more than we can chew and, ultimately, steals away our joy?

1. It appeals to our sense of fairness.

Deep down, most of us have a sense of justice. We want things to be fair because then we have the same chance as anybody else of making it and surviving. Believing that everyone has the same rule, that anyone can work harder to get a bigger reward, makes it easy for us to ignore life's unpredictability. And that makes us feel a whole lot safer.

2. It helps us maintain a positive sense of personal identity.

Virtually from the moment Americans are born, we are taught "the dream". Work hard and you just might get the proverbial house and white picket fence. Work harder? You'll get two houses. And we are taught that our ancestors used the same model, that we are, by tradition, a people of doing and overcoming. If we don't follow that model, if we accept the countless anecdotes and statistics that show effort doesn't guarantee a good outcome, somehow, we feel like we are betraying our culture, our history and our very sense of who we are. We feel like failures.

3. We equate more with security.

From the evolutionary perspective, more literally separates us from death. Get more, get fat, win the harem and survive the famine. Today, that might resonate better as stay late at work, get noticed and get the big promotion where you don't have to worry about paying your bills or being let go in the next round of layoffs. But the basic premise--that we can protect ourselves through gain--remains the same. And so we believe that, the more we work, the more solid everything in our lives will be. Work might stress us out, yes, but that stress, we think, is a far lesser evil than the stress of loss and isolation, and if we can manage to just hold on and accumulate stuff or titles, we'll get closer to peace.

How to break the do-it-all cycle

It's incredibly hard to get past the psychological drivers listed above and stop doing. But creativity, innovation, health, relationships--they all depend on us relaxing our grip. If you need some tips for how to do that, try these:

  • Jot down whether your daily activities made you happy, neutral or unhappy. After a few days of listing, purposely change your routines or delegate so that you're not tempted to engage in the activities that make you unhappy anymore.
  • Schedule yourself out. Have teams hold meetings where you're not there, for instance, or take your vacation time. When the building doesn't burn down in your absence, you'll have a better perspective about what needs to be your responsibility and what doesn't. Plus, other people can rise to the occasion with the chance to hone their leadership skills.
  • Get off Facebook and other social media, at least during set periods of the day. Connection is important, but every time you go online, you can spot a potential fire you "need" to address or put out. Focus on today's agenda. That's it.
  • Create a morning routine that gives you "you" time. Otherwise, everything else in your day will feel rushed, too, and you won't have as much balance and focus to say no to requests.

We all want to accomplish. We all want to be safe and be somebody. But you don't have to work yourself to death to get there. Give yourself permission to back it off. Tell yourself over and over again it's not OK to crush the Goldfish. You won't regret it.

Published on: Apr 14, 2017