Are You Working Yourself to Death?

"Hard work never hurt anyone." Everyone's heard the expression. It's true, but there's work and then there's work. For engineers, the work ethic runs deep. It's what keeps you chained to your desk cranking code into the middle of the night or perfecting that design presentation that's due the next morning. If it's consuming you, it may be more than total commitment to excellence. It may, in fact, be a problem. In this month's issue, contributor Carl Selinger looks at the dilemma we all face in trying to balance our workload with our personal lives in a piece called "Workaholism". Give it a read and see if the symptoms he describes can be applied to you. If they do, you might want to take him up on a few of his suggestions.

Selinger, the author of Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School: Skills for Success in the Real World (Wiley-IEEE Press), has nothing against working hard. He writes that he's a big believer in "work hard, play hard." However, he says, there is a line that's crossed when one becomes a workaholic, one that's not always clear cut. Once crossed, that path can lead to trouble. To be sure, it's a well-trod path, though, as most of us can attest to. Or nearly most. As Selinger points out, a 1999 Gallup poll found that 44 percent of Americans considered themselves workaholics. And probably, at one time or another, you've felt trapped in the overwhelming demands of your job.

So what does Selinger recommend when it seems to be all crashing down on you? The first and most important thing is to step back and assess your work life in terms of your goals for your whole life, he writes. Ask what you want to accomplish in your career and in your personal life, and then ask yourself how itâ''s going. Identify actions you can take to improve your life, at work and away from it. Specifically, he identifies a handful of helpful options to keep from slipping into the meat grinder.

  • Manage your time better. Analyze your job, determine which aspects are going well and which are not, and then review your priorities.

  • Donâ''t be a perfectionist. This will make you more productive and give you more time for other important things, including your personal life.

  • Donâ''t eat lunch at your desk every day. People who eat at their desks are riding into the false canyon of thinking that they're getting more done.

  • Learn how to say "no." A good way to respond to someone with another task for you to tackle is to say, "I'd really like to handle this, but I'm swamped right now. Can it wait until later?"

  • Work at home more. If work is keeping you in the office a ridiculously high percentage of your life, why donâ''t you try to negotiate working at home on a regular basis?

  • Take vacations. Organizations want you to take vacations so you'll come back refreshed and raring to go.

The bottom line, according to Selinger, is that it's up to you to determine what you want in a full, robust life. You're the ultimate boss of you. So take charge. Be a boss who understands that hard work never hurt anyone, but killing yourself to get it done does.

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