Workalholism is Boredom

November 2, 2006

“I have spent my days stringing and unstringing my instrument while the song I came to sing remains unsung.” (Rabindranath Tagore)

I have just recovered from a bad bout of flu – a great opportunity to rummage about the shelves and (re)discover old books. For example “Calling” by Gregg Levoy (1997), a wonderfully inspiring self-help book for those who are wondering about their calling in life. This is frequently an issue in coaching. I never read the book from cover to cover, but I like diving into it to salvage individual chapters. Here is a great passage on the true nature of boredom (emphases are mine):

“I long ago discovered that boredom is characterized by restlessness, not listlessness, and by activity, not the lack of it. This is why we refer to it as ‘climbing the walls’. The bored are fidgeters, doodlers, and daydreamers. So are procrastinators, who are further distinguished by resistance that often masquerades as quite frantic activity, even workaholism, not as laziness, which is popularly associated with procrastination. Workaholism is a perfect disguise because it’s one of the few socially sanctioned addictions. It may be just another way of going to sleep in the bottom of the boat, but you can put it on a resume.

I have been fighting workaholism all my life. Hence, I am a good guide when it comes to coaching other addicts. I have also always been easily bored – and I can see that these two actually come together. The deep secret to beating workaholism (as probably any addiction) is to identify something that is more worth spending your time on than work. Paradoyically, by moving into its appropriate 2nd or 3rd priority place, our work then becomes better – largely because we feel better.

Why don’t clients do it by themselves? Not because they are lazy – usually because they are afraid. Their fears, once articulated, can however often be argued with by their rational adult. While they engage in the addiction, no such dialogue takes place, hence the fear is a good guard for the addiction. Make no mistake: this fear is not to be disrespected – it must be honoured, because the addiction is an alternative to something (perceived as) worse – it could be depression, it could be uncontrollable anger.

In my experience, most clients who can identify their workaholism during the coaching, and who can identify other, higher priorities, and work towards them, are visibly relieved and get “better” soon and in a sustained way.

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