Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

A Simple Rule To Reduce Chronic Overwork

Chapter 8: Build Your Community Part 3

Remember David from Chapter 7, whose stroke led him to recognize his corporate idolatry, and switch to a people-first identity?  (You can read about him here.)  Family and community was an essential part of his change. David’s wife was thrilled that he was more focused on the family and his health.  And I was amazed to hear that David and his wife decided to sell their large house in an affluent, gated community for a smaller, but very nice home in a more rural area.  It meant changing school districts with kids in high school, but everyone was on board, looking for a less stressful life together.

David seemed surprisingly relieved to move.  He said it was very stressful to maintain what he called “the façade” – making sure “you acted a certain way.” The kids needed expensive clothes; Sears was not allowed.  (I didn’t ask about Chez Target, my family favorite but I strongly suspect it was also out of bounds.)  But David’s move wasn’t about the materialism per se; it was the people in the community that made him uncomfortable.  He told me that one parent he met wouldn’t let her kids go to a certain person’s house because of a coat someone was wearing.

David’s de-materialism was probably the most extreme example I encountered.  Of course David is also the only person I interviewed who had a stroke before the age of fifty, which gave him a particular urgency to change his life. David also made changes that were less extreme, more typical for people looking to build community.  For example, David started going to the gym a few times a week with his buddies, which reinforced his decision to make people a higher priority than his company.

Who we choose to associate with is a key to change.  By analogy, an alcoholic cannot spend his free time  in bars, even if only drinking soda.  Eventually, the environment will lead to a relapse.

Similarly, if you want to move to a lifestyle that is less work centric, you need to find people who aren’t working all the time.   And the next post will suggest ways to do just that.

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How To Change The Habit Of Stress

The Habit Loop

The Habit Loop

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 6

Prior to his stroke, David was living a life of corporate idolatry, where the company was the top priority to the detriment of his health and family.  After the stroke, David changed his values, and refocused his personal identity.  He was in the habit of deriving positive reinforcement from job-related activities, and shifted his focus to family related activities.  Remembering that a significant portion of idolatry derives from a collection of habits is an important clue to change.

In his book The Power Of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that in a typical habit, there is some kind of cue that triggers a behavior that has a reward at the end of it.  For example, if someone puts a plate of cookies on the table in front of me, I will take and eat the cookie, even though I am trying to lose weight.  The cue is the cookie, the behavior is eating, and the reward is a burst of pleasure and sugar.  In addition, when my brain sees the cookies, it anticipates the pleasure, and I start craving the cookie, such that it becomes harder and harder over time not to take a cookie.

Habits are mediated by a primitive part of the brain called the basal ganglia which operates independently of rational, cognitive thought.  In other words, a habit is similar to a reflex, something we just do without thinking.  The best way to change a habit  is to disrupt one of the three stages of a habit, which means avoid the cue, change the middle behavior, or change the reward.

In David’s case, the work stress became a self fulfilling prophecy.  For example, Duhigg explains that checking email becomes a habit.  Executives get a reward from the temporary distraction a new email provides.  For me, I got an adrenaline burst from all kinds of work-related issues, and I think that was David’s issue.  The rewards for his people first values were calm and peace.

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