Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Learn To Evaluate the Impact Of Your After-Hours Work

Chapter 5: The Pivotal Role Of Circumstance Part 3 

In the last posts, I described the illusion of control as the propensity to think that one has a greater impact on the outcome of events than one actually does.

Wikipedia lists three reasons why people experience the illusion of control:

  1. As a coping mechanism to deal with chaotic situations where there is little actual control.[i] I once asked someone working crazy hours if she was having an impact.  Her answer “I couldn’t imagine working this hard if it wasn’t having an impact.”
  2. Our brain is wired to find cause and effect.  For random games like slots or dice, research has shown that people think their actions are influencing the outcome.[ii]  So at work, where the situations are more complex, it is even easier for us to think that our actions are having a bigger impact than they really are.
  3. People who see themselves in control are more likely to detect control when it isn’t really there.  Ironically, this means that people with more self-control are more susceptible to the illusion of control.

This last point applies to Patrick, who we met in the last post.  Pat was considered by his peers to be one of the most solid and capable leaders in the company.  When one of the products his team developed had technical issues post launch, Pat took charge.

“I remember working late every night.  I remember feeling a sense of my ability to help put this fire out, how key of a role my team had.  I took it upon myself to not sleep, to work too much, and I basically ended up in the hospital.”

Pat had a panic attack in the cafeteria, and was rushed to the hospital with what he thought was a heart attack.  The technical issue was resolved several months later.

Do you think those extra hours had a discernable impact on how quickly the problem was solved?

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[i] Wikipedia Fenton-O’Creevy, Mark; Nigel Nicholson, Emma Soane, Paul Willman (2003), “Trading on illusions: Unrealistic perceptions of control and trading performance”, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (British Psychological Society) Via Wikipedia

[ii] Thompson, Suzanne C. (2004), “Illusions of control”, in Pohl, Rüdiger F., Cognitive Illusions: A Handbook on Fallacies and Biases in Thinking, Judgement and Memory, Hove, UK: Psychology Press, pp. 122 Via Wikipedia



  1. Greg Marcus says

    I am just getting into Chapter 5. Let me know what you think!


  1. […] << Previous Post  Next Post Thursday  9/27>> […]

  2. […] circumstances, and the overall company culture.  I’ve shared the stories of people like Mary, Pat, and Harry to illustrate these dynamics in […]

  3. […] all have the illusion of control to some degree or another. Greg’s example here of when Pat had a panic attack because he felt he had control when he really did not illustrates […]

  4. […]  And when there is trouble in other parts of our life, work can serve as a refuge.  (See posts here and here for […]