Overachieving: An Addiction You Need to Break

In a digital world where our best selves are constantly put in front and center for all of the world to see, it's easy to slip into a trap of feeling like there's always more to do. This elusive "more" can create a vicious cycle, though. There will always be "better" everything—aren't they clogging up our Instagram and our FB feeds? Better relationships, better degrees, better apartments, better jobs, bigger bank accounts, houses, newer, thinner, smarter… and while it can be good to have an aspirational mentality and the motivation you need to succeed on any and all fronts, this mentality may be doing more harm than good. Here's why:

An Endless Cycle

Overachieving is an addiction akin to more traditional addictions. On the surface, it can look a lot like competitiveness. "Keeping up with the Joneses" quickly becomes "surpassing the Joneses." Soon, it becomes less about individual achievements, and more about coming out on top. An article in Psychology Today makes the point that overachieving for its own sake, ironically, defeats the purpose of success. "The data on perfectionism and actual performance show little payoff in terms of objective achievement," said psychologist Gordon Flett of York University. And when perfectionists do perform exceptionally, he adds, "many evaluate themselves quite harshly and don't feel especially good about their accomplishments." So what's the point?

Burying Problems

Overachievers might be highly focused on setting the bar higher and higher in order to avoid other problems. In an article in The Atlantic, Tanya Paperny wrote that "a number of researchers and clinicians—and people who self-identify as workaholics or overachievers—believe the connection between trauma and overwork is likely. Some believe coping with trauma is at the very heart of a work addiction." This makes so much sense. Bury yourself in an endless to-do list, and what you should be facing can be tamped down.

"Workaholic": A Medical Reality

Work addiction is a mental health condition that's been researched in the medical community. The University of Bergen, a leading research university in Norway, created something known as the Bergen Work Addiction Scale (BWAS) that measures seven criteria to measure the phenomena. The core symptoms of work addiction are based on symptoms found in more traditional drug addictions: salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict, relapse, problems. Lead researcher Schou Andreassen developed seven criteria to measure work addiction. "If you reply 'often' or 'always' to at least four of these seven criteria, there is some indication that you may be a workaholic," says Andreassen.

  • 1.You think of how you can free up more time to work.
  • 2.You spend much more time working than initially intended.
  • 3.You work in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness, and/or depression.
  • 4.You have been told by others to cut down on work without listening to them.
  • 5.You become stressed if you are prohibited from working.
  • 6.You deprioritize hobbies, leisure activities, and/or exercise because of your work.
  • 7.You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.

Letting the Present Slip Away

When we're living on the hamster wheel of overachieving, it's virtually impossible to live in the present moment. We're so busy being controlled by our thoughts that we don't allow ourselves to experience the joy of what we've already achieved. Living in the present is easier said than done, and can take a lot of practice. Luckily, there's a growing body of literature about how to be mindful. Understanding mindfulness, an idea born from Buddhism, can be life-changing. "Mindful people are happier, more exuberant, more empathetic, and more secure. They have higher self-esteem and are more accepting of their own weaknesses," writes Jay Dixit in Psychology Today. "Anchoring awareness in the here and now reduces the kinds of impulsivity and reactivity that underlie depression, binge eating, and attention problems."

Finding Balance

No one in the history of the world was, is, or ever will be perfect. Learning how to measure when enough is enough is a valuable skill. For some, this will mean putting the to-do list on the back burner, and engaging in some precious "me time." For others, this will mean understanding that living in the competitive "constantly reach for more" cycle is doing more harm than good. When we learn that we have enough—that balance and happiness can be found in what we've already built—we can begin to shift the emphasis to the things that really matter.

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