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No engineer can succeed without a certain obsessiveness, but if you're reading this article at your office after hours, our advice is: go home

4 min read

If you’re sneaking a quick read of this article at the office, after hours, in between phone calls, then I’m concerned about you. You may be swimming in a whirlpool of work and don’t know how to get out or nearing the edge of that abyss and afraid of sliding in. Or, perhaps worse, you may indeed be a workaholic, someone who works at the expense of a fuller family and personal life. Some people even use work as an excuse to avoid going home.

To be sure, we all must put in long hours sometimes. Deadlines are upon us, some co-workers are out, and it’s up to us to pick up the slack. But work­aholism is not the same as just working hard. It is, rather, a compulsion or even an addiction to work. A 1999 Gallup poll found that 44 percent of Americans considered themselves workaholics. Do you?

PHOTO: Greg Ceo/Getty Images

Whatever your situation or preferences, there can be no doubt that the world is demanding more and more of our time for work. Only a generation ago, the pressing issue seemed to be what we would do with the increasing amount of leisure time as the workweek shortened. It hasn’t worked out that way. Globalization and increased competition have induced us to work longer and harder to get ahead, or just to keep up.

So it was that I eagerly read a recent newspaper article about how some professionals deal with the problem. It reported that they were increasingly able to get home early enough, for example, to kiss their kids good night. Then came the kicker: one guy got to work around 6 a.m. so he could leave at 7 p.m. Ouch!

The fact—or at least the perception—is that the hours you work often correlate with the success you attain. Put another way, you must be seen to work hard or you will be dismissed as a slacker. A colleague recently spilled out her concern to me that she needs to stay in the office late every night not only to do her work but also to keep up with her co-workers, who also stay late every night.

All right, enough about the descriptions of a workaholic life. Now for some prescriptions on what to do about it.

The first and most important thing is to step back and assess your work life in terms of your goals for your whole life. Ask what you want to accomplish in your career and in your personal life, and then ask yourself how it’s going. Remember, it may not be possible for each of us to have much effect on the wider world, but we all can affect how we behave and act in our own world. Identify actions you can take to improve your life, at work and away from it. Consider these specific ways to avoid workaholism:

Manage your time better. Analyze your job, determine which aspects are going well and which are not, and then review your priorities. Do you and your boss agree on your priorities? Do the two of you discuss them regularly? Make sure that everything on your plate needs to be there. Perhaps you can get some items taken off your plate or pushed back. Make the argument that you can do only so much, and do that well; be ready to back it up with suggestions. Ever hear the phrase ”manage your boss?”

Don’t be a perfectionist. Many of us feel that our work has to be just right, and thus we will continue to work on it and not finish it until it is perfect—which it can never be. (Been there, done that.) If you feel this way, it’s time to renounce your perfectionism. Determine what level of quality and quantity will satisfy both you and your boss in a given task. This will make you more productive and give you more time for other important things, including your personal life.

Don’t eat lunch at your desk every day. Ah, a sure sign of a workaholic, or someone just overwhelmed with work. It’s so easy to fall into this trap and just as easy to get out of the habit. People who eat at their desks are riding into the false canyon of thinking that they’re getting more done. Nope. They’re just getting tired. (You have my permission to eat at your desk once or twice per week, if that makes you happier.)

Learn how to say ”no.” Many of us take on too much work because we don’t know our limits, or we feel that by saying ”no” we might show inadequacy or a lack of team spirit. In fact, we need to assert ourselves and decline additional work if we are unable to do it in a reasonable manner or time frame. 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?” Or ”It needs to be done now? Well, I can take it on if you let me push back [Task A] or shift [Task B] to someone else.”

Work at home more. If work is keeping you in the office a ridiculously high percentage of your life, why don’t you try to negotiate working at home on a regular basis? It could be for specific tasks that don’t require you to be in the workplace—for a day every week or two. Give it a try.

Take vacations. Without getting into too much psychology here, I would guess that many compulsive workers tend not to take vacations on a regular basis, in part because they feel indispensable. This is a big mistake. Organizations want you to take vacations so you’ll come back refreshed and raring to go. I once spoke to an engineering professor who was trying to decide whether to take a vacation that year. He said his wife was pressing him to take the family on vacation, since he hadn’t taken one for five years.

If you think I’m not in favor of hard work, you’re wrong. I’m a big believer in ”work hard, play hard.” But there is a line that’s crossed when one becomes a work­aholic, and it’s not always so clear where that line is. You may need to seek professional help to sort it all out.

Bottom line: it’s up to you to determine what you want in a full, robust life, and to make sure that you fulfill your work obligations while also enjoying every day that’s given you.

About the Author

CARL SELINGER is an aviation and transportation consultant and a college professor. He is the author of Stuff You Don’t Learn in Engineering School: Skills for Success in the Real World , published by Wiley-IEEE Press. For more information, see

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