How to stop work from taking over your life

Is your work schedule out of control?

It’s tricky to balance life and work at the best of times. If you’re studying at the same time, this becomes even more challenging. I often get queries from students on how to get their work schedules under control so that they have time to study. This is not an easy task, I understand this. While I can offer some advice based on common challenges, I’m not claiming that this will ‘fix’ every situation. Some things are genuinely out of our control.

We often create our own situations

I’ll explain this further below, but for now, I want you to be open to a little soul-searching, and not see this as criticism, or that I’m blaming, victim-shaming you. We don’t like to think about this, and it’s generally not something on our radar when we’re struggling with this. We tend to focus on what other people are doing, the situation, external circumstances, and the hours in a day. While this is understandable, there are a lot of times that we are a part of the situation that creates out challenges. This is a tough one to discuss. (Take a deep breath!)

Are you a perfectionist?

As Accounting students and professionals, most of the people I coach and support are perfectionists, so a lot of my advice is based on this personality trait and the challenges it creates for us.
The more you understand the underlying pro’s and con’s of this trait, the more you can see how it impacts your life on a daily basis. We strive at everything we do to try avoid any possibility of criticism, disappointing others, not being ‘good enough’. This results in anxiety, stress and over-analysis of everything we do to try keep everything under control. We create our own stress, because we often work harder, longer, redo, and agonise over tasks in order to make sure they’re ‘ok’.
Many people I speak to tell me they’re not perfectionists because they don’t ‘excel’ at everything they do. This is NOT what a perfectionist is.

How can we get our schedule under control?

We can’t control everything in our lives and work, but we can control how we deal with it. You may relate to some of these things to a greater or lesser extent, and that realisation may help you change your approach or situation.

Do you battle to say no?

We struggle to say ‘no’ to something that will add to our obligations, time demands, or work load. This can be because we’re worried that…
  • we’ll disappoint someone if we refuse
  • the task won’t get done, or done properly if we don’t do it
  • it will cause conflict or tough conversations, which we want to avoid like the plague
  • we’re not working or achieving enough as it is, so we can’t refuse something and be WORSE than we already are
This can relate to work, family, friends or our community.

Do you struggle to delegate work to others?

If we have other people on our team or working under us, it’s crucial to be able to split work, or delegate so that we’re not taking on the lion’s share of the work. Here’s some stuff to consider, and some reasons for this:
  •  We feel that we can only ‘give’ work to someone who works FOR us or under us (and we often struggle to do that as well)
  • We want to avoid conflict or tough conversations within teams and with colleagues, so we keep quiet and do it all ourselves (while our team members do less)
  • We’re worried that it won’t be done properly if we don’t do it ourselves
  • We don’t have experience with giving instructions, supervising or managing people, so we actually don’t really know how to do it or where to start
  • It’ll take too long to train them, or explain what we want done, so we’ll just do it ourselves. (This is a very short-term win, because it means that you will ALWAYS be doing it yourself. It also robs the other person of the opportunity to learn and grow)
  • We may also worry that people will see us as bossy, arrogant, not pulling our weight, or perhaps dislike us for making them work harder, so we’d rather be more popular, avoid the possibility of these types of labels
We often feel resentful that we do so much when others don’t.

Do you avoid asking for clarification or help?

Us perfectionists are not great at asking for help. This opens us up to criticism, we worry that people might think less of us, it highlights the feeling we have of not being good enough, and we can often feel that if we’re being paid to do something, we should KNOW what to do. We’re often also used to being the one who knows everything, and the one that everyone else comes to for help, so we’re not used to the idea that we’re now that person. In a lot of cases, it actually doesn’t occur to us to ask for help! We instinctively, unconsciously feel that we need to sort it out ourselves. We have a tendency to decide how others feel and think about us, without really knowing. It we’re worried that they’ll roll their eyes at us, or if we’ve decided that they think we’re stupid, we’ll avoid asking them anything. We’re pretty sensitive this way, so we’re very careful about who we feel comfortable to approach. The problem?
  • We can take longer to perform tasks because we’re researching, struggling, redoing and agonising over stuff instead of just clarifying stuff upfront, or asking for guidance and advice along the way
  • We may end up redoing work because it wasn’t right, which may have been avoided if we’d communicated where we were, and what we were struggling with, while we were doing it
At the end of the day, the objective is to get the task done. If that means that someone rolls their eyes at you, and you still get an answer and go home on time, then goal achieved!

Have you ‘taught’ people that you’ll do anything?

We don’t always recognise that we teach people how to deal with us, or what they can expect from us. If we’ve always had a habit of being a ‘yes man’ (or woman), then it will take a long time to change that. This applies to our personal relationships as much as our work. In a lot of cases, people may resent this at first, because you’re changing their expectations of you, and their life or work may be tougher because you’re doing less. This can prevent us from changing our approach. (Again, the concern about what people will think of us, disappointing others, or the idea that doing everything makes us ‘ok’ and that we’ll not be good enough if we don’t do it. We also don’t want the tough conversations that may go with this. If this is you, you’re going to have to make an active decision about this, and be prepared to deal with the results. If you’re truly objective-driven, you’ll generally realise this is the best for your time, sanity, and relationships.

Are you busy with ‘invisible’ work?

I love this term! I use it to encompass all those things you spend your time at work that don’t really count as work, are not part of your role, but you do them because no one else will, you feel like someone has to, or, as above, you struggle to say no. Some examples of ‘invisible work’:
  • Taking minutes at meetings when someone else should (related to delegation above)
  • Organising social, work functions, schedules and occasions for the office so that there’s cake for people’s birthday / baby showers etc
  • Being the shoulder that people cry on
  • Being the one everyone comes to for venting, advice, and to answer questions because they don’t want to ask their managers
These may make the office a better place, but they do absorb time, are often thankless and aren’t ‘seen’ as actual work by employers, so you get no credit for it, but will get cr*p for not getting your actual work done.

Do you struggle with boundaries?

Very few of us actively consider what our boundaries are. We don’t make conscious decisions about what we’ll allow or not allow, what we’ll do and won’t do. This means we often get ‘walked over’ and then get upset with the world for taking advantage of us. (Closely related to ‘not saying no’ and ‘teaching people’ above). We need to think consciously about what we care about, take on and will and won’t do. Both physically and mentally. (ie: do we hold other people’s grudges for them, or let them vent and take on their anxiety as ours). As with some of the above, changing this is tricky, and requires you to develop some emotional resilience, or have that tough conversation with someone.

Is there a ‘trend’ in your life?

“You take yourself with you where ever you go”. I love this quote. It’s so true. Identifying and acknowledging this is tougher. Take a look at relationships, jobs etc in your past. If you continue to find the same trends, chances are, you brought it with you. This often relates to ‘teaching others how to treat us’, ‘not saying no’, ‘invisible work’, ‘not delegating’. If this keeps happening, look at the underlying common threads.

Are you a habitual ‘fixer’?

In a desire to add more value, be seen as valuable, and be ‘good enough’, we can often gravitate to jobs, situations (and people!) that are ‘fixer-uppers’. This is time-consuming, draining, and often thankless. We like fixing things, but if we’re studying, we need to be careful that we stick to one goal at a time. Again, if this is a ‘trend’ in your life, where people ‘dump’ their problems on you, knowing that you’re capable and willing to ‘fix’ it, it’s going to take some change.

Do you struggle with Imposter Syndrome?

Many professionals struggle with Imposter Syndrome. The quiet terror that if you let your guard down, don’t agonise and tear yourself apart to get everything just right, people will realise you’re a fraud and don’t know what you’re doing. This is closely related to why we don’t ask questions, why we’re fixers, take on invisible work, don’t delegate. Our fears distort the way we work, the mental energy we give it, and how much time we spend on stuff.

Are you effective with your time?

Our time disappears like cash in your back pocket. We tend to say that we don’t ‘have’ time. In truth, we have to ‘make’ time for stuff. This is especially true when it comes to studying. That requires a LOT of FORCING. Life will not ‘make space’ for your studying. Productivity apps, especially on our devices, can be pretty handy in helping us identify just how much time we spend on non-core stuff. Social media, YouTube, Netflix, chatting to others etc. We do it as an escape, and it’s often in small doses, but these add up. I like the shift in thinking from ‘time management ‘ to ‘attention management’. Are you strictly aware of what you’re paying attention to? Students often tell me they don’t have enough time to study because they feel they need at least 2 hours for a study session. If there’s only 45 minutes, then, “Oh well, can’t study. Too bad. Not my fault”. This is a bad habit, and the large time slots we feel we need is based on our need for perfectionism, closure, FINISHING something all at once. You need to force study sessions into smaller time slots.

Have you spoken to your manager / employer?

Ah, the tough conversations, possibility of conflict, disappointing others, not asking for help and Imposter Syndrome all help us to avoid this idea like the plague. Many students tell me they have their employers support for their studies at the beginning of the year. But what does that actually mean? What are the practical logistics, offers and boundaries? Do you remind them of this conversation? We tend to wait until something’s gone wrong before we have this chat. By then, this looks like whinging and an excuse for not doing something properly. Pick your time wisely. While things are ok, you’re still getting stuff done, but you can see the writing on the wall. We also don’t like to initiate these conversations, so we’ll wait, resent, and complain to others about the fact that they’re going back on their word, but we won’t directly address it. We’re probably also terrified that it will raise a conversation about how much we suck at our job. In reality, if that is an issue, it needs to be dealt with anyway! Unless you’ve been on both sides of the table, you don’t always realise that there’s an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ reality that comes with managing. If something’s working, leave it alone and hope it carries on working. You’re dealing with loads of crises, why would someone’s study schedule be uppermost in your mind?!  You’ve got enough of your own challenges to worry about. Many people also don’t think about whether their manager actually has the power or authority to DO anything or make any of these kinds of decisions. In that case, you may want to go above them and talk to someone who does. It is best to do this after you’ve let the manager know. Blindsiding them isn’t smart and won’t help your situation. I know many people who avoid this because they don’t want to be seen as ‘tattle tales’. You’re not in primary school anymore. An honest, calm, unemotional conversation about performance, challenges, expectations is not tattle taling. Your colleagues may see this as tattle taling, but again, you need to figure out what your objective is. Being popular? Or being effective?

‘Good enough’ vs ‘Fit for purpose’

A lot of the above concerns means that we’re not always great at differentiating between ‘perfect’ and ‘fit for purpose’. There are some classic perfectionist traits that impact this:
  • We always feel it could be better. Every time we look at it, we want to improve it
  • We’d rather miss the deadline, or work a ton of overtime than submit something that’s ‘good enough’ instead of ‘great’
  • We’re scared that it’s not good enough, so we have to overachieve, just to be ok
  • We’re scared to ask for guidance on better ways to do something, or what the boundaries are, because we may open ourselves up to criticism
  • We may be nervous about getting the label of ‘doing the bare minimum’
Most perfectionists I know will visibly cringe at the words ‘good enough’. We interpret this as ‘not good enough’. lol. What we need to learn is the concept of ‘fit for purpose’. What does the task require in order to be considered complete? What are the parameters of the job? How do others do it more effectively? I very often find that perfectionists over-analyse, over-engineer, make things more complicated and as a result, take more time, and submit work late. As a manager, I’d rather have the job DONE on time, than late and over-engineered. If you’re not sure of the difference, ASK!
‘Fit for purpose’ – Put this in your vocabulary. It’s about being objective-driven.

Career? Or Job?

Tricky one, but if you’re doing this as a way to earn money while you’re studying, before you start articles, then you REALLY need to consider the ‘fit for purpose’ concept. You also need to actively consider the mental energy and anxiety that you invest. I’m not saying that you should slack off, but the reality is that perfectionists will do themselves an injury in order to give 100% (mainly because they’re worried that their 100% is actually only worth 50%!)

Are you in a toxic work environment? Should you stay?

Toxic work environments are as bad as toxic relationships. We may stay because we’re ‘fixers’, or because we don’t feel that we’re worth more, because of that stupid saying “better the devil you know…”, or because we’re too scared to reach out and explore options. If this is negatively impacting you, your life, family, studies, and you’ve gone through the above stuff to identify how much of it you can control, change, influence or shift, and it’s genuinely toxic, then you need to do some serious thinking. When you’re 60, you’ll be pretty p*ssed off that you allowed a toxic boss to prevent you from qualifying. Note: I’ve been in this situation more than once. Because of some of the above, it took me a long time to leave, and the experience did both physical and emotional harm to me. (We DEFINITELY don’t like to talk about this!). Once I made the decisions, I did not regret it, and felt an immense sense of relief, sanity and a release from pressure. I’m not saying it was a walk in the park, but it was worth it.

Final words

I’ve focussed mostly on stuff related to you, as opposed to employers and managers, not because I believe that you’re the only problem. I’ve done it because it makes sense to look at what we CAN control. If there’s anything WE can do to improve our situation, then let’s do it!
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