I think it’s time for some honest discussion about a common life mistake: Falling Into “The Life Trap”.
Working can be a wonderfully fulfilling, intellectually stimulating, and enjoyable activity, so let me be clear what I mean by “the life trap.” The trap is when you work so hard that you spend the vast majority of your time stressing about your job at the expense of your own family, friends & even personal time only to find that your limited productivity endangers your ability to be promoted or move around. If you are at a company where your advancement will be based largely (or entirely) on one faucet of your job, the “life trap” occurs when you fail to manage your boundaries so that you have no time or energy for the other things that matter in your work and in your life. If you find yourself coming to work early and staying late, checking work email on the weekends and staying up late stressing about the upcoming work week, and — as a result — you haven’t spent any time investing in your long-term success, then you may have fallen into the ‘life trap’.
Time for Some Tough Questions
While it’s important to recognize when you have fallen into the life trap, it’s even more critical to identify WHY you are spending such disproportionately large amounts of time on work. The first way to start climbing out of the trap is by asking yourself: why am I over-preparing and over-functioning in this one aspect of my job?
There are MANY different possible reasons including:
- You love what you do!
- You mistakenly equate working late with delivering enormous amounts of content
- You feel insecure about your job performance
- You are highly sensitive to others’ opinions of your work
- You believe it’s somehow possible to please everyone so if you just spend more time, you will get better and receive more positive evaluations
- You feel you have to be twice as good to be judged as equal
- You have unrealistically high expectations of yourself
- You often feel like a fraud or impostor, so over-preparing protects you from being discovered
- You have a profound fear of failure
- You may not have had the best “work role models” so you’re trying to be different and better for the next generation.
- If you’re an underrepresented minority (hint: Black or brown), the dynamics of racism mean that you don’t get the benefit of the doubt, so you over-prepare
Once you have pinpointed WHY you are over-preparing, you can begin to think about ways to work more effectively and efficiently. Here are a few ideas:
Align Your Standards With Your Department
If you are a perfectionist and have very high standards for your position, consider visiting some of your colleagues’ that may work elsewhere. This can be a tremendously liberating experience and help you to put what goes on in your own department into alignment with your local context. If your colleagues are apathetic or mediocre in their place of business, I’m not suggesting you become apathetic or mediocre. But if they are delegating twice as much as you are there may be room for adjustments on your end.
Ask For Help
There are people who would love nothing more than to help you improve in your career. Not only do they want to help you, they know all the empirically-documented best practices, what to read to help you get ahead & where to go for direction. Find the right people and ask them how you can become a more effective and efficient leader.
Delete Things That Waste Your Time
If your over-preparation is an effort to make everyone happy, if you are driven by a fear of negative evaluation, if you find yourself devastated by what a few angry co-workers may have said about you, and/or you consistently focus on the small number of negative feedback (to the exclusion of the overwhelmingly positive majority), it’s time to re-orient your perspective. Instead, use that time to ask yourself: does it make sense to focus on the broad pattern of feedback or the outlying data points as reliable feedback? If the broad pattern is negative, it’s time to visit your mentor. If the broad pattern is positive, release yourself from the idea that it’s even possible to please everyone. If that doesn’t work, try asking some of your senior colleagues (whose work you admire) to share their evaluations with you and provide some perspective on yours. This will open your eyes to the fact that even senior professionals may have received a few negative evaluations at some point during their career. The difference is that they have learned to focus on the big picture and work towards continual and incremental improvement instead of dwelling on a handful of negative comments.
Consider Working On Your Core Issues
If you find that the reasons underlying your over-functioning are deep and profound feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, anxiety, and fear, then why not consider taking one hour out of your week to unravel those issues with a therapist? Psychological obstacles tend to persistently re-emerge across various areas of our lives and relationships, so why not pro-actively start the process of self-reflection and growth now?
I’m NOT suggesting you should run out and do all of these things today. Instead, I’m presenting this list of ideas to stimulate your thinking about how many different options you have available to help you climb out of the ‘life trap’.
I hope this week brings each of you the honesty to assess whether or not you have fallen into “The Life Trap”, the strength to ask yourself WHY, and the joy of consciously making changes that will allow you to move in a new direction!