When I started working for myself about four years ago, I knew it entailed a certain amount of risk. No guaranteed salary. No paid time off or sick days. A constantly fluctuating workload.
But the upside? Endless potential.
If I worked harder and kept raising my rates, I knew there was an opportunity to earn more than I could if I were locked into a set annual salary. Sure, I’d eventually max out (because I’m one person who can only do so much work on my own), but as my authority and expertise grew, I’d knew be able to charge more over time. I saw the challenge as exciting; one worth reaching for.
But I didn’t realize that I was setting myself up for a bit of a sticky situation.
Money as a Metric for Success
One of the things I didn’t realize early on was that my indicators for success were going to be quite a bit different than they had been in the full-time job I had occupied before.
In my traditional 9-to-5 job, my salary was a direct reflection of my performance. The longer I was there, the more I earned. When we hit certain goals, I got a bonus. It made sense to gauge my ability and success on my earnings because they were directly correlated.
But running my own business, things were different. I didn’t have an annual salary that was a reflection of my performance, so I had to find another metric for success. I tried to come up with creative things like the number or prestige of clients I had or the publications featuring my work.
But that didn’t work. What seemed to be the easiest benchmark to lean on was my monthly earnings. How much I made in a month was my indicator for how well (or not well) I was doing in my business.
It only took me about six months to realize this was a terrible idea.
Becoming a Workaholic
As someone who likes a challenge, the goal of out-earning myself month-over-month was initially good fuel. It helped me stay focused and efficient during my working hours.
I started saying yes to more opportunities that came my way - and was a bit less picky than usual. Not every gig was a great fit, but my thought was, “Yay! Money!”
I started working a bit earlier in the morning and a bit later at night. I’d roll out of bed and into email. I’d skip my daily yoga session to sit just a bit longer to finish a piece I was working on.
The tendency to overwork crept in slowly. It was subtle. But things were going well financially: I was earning more than I ever had before.
Over time, though, I started to pass on the very opportunities that I once savored as my own boss with a flexible schedule. I skipped an afternoon hiking invitation. (Work to do!) I missed out on countless 75 degree days where I’d normally take a break to read in the hammock in our shady backyard. My lunch breaks went from an average of 45 minutes down to 10, and most days I ate at my desk, fully immersed in work. During the day, I never took a “real” break.
Then one day it hit me: I was becoming a workaholic.
I was constantly thinking about work and my to-do list. I was having trouble sleeping because I was working through problems when I laid down in bed at night. My health was beginning to suffer: I had terrible back pain and recurring migraines from sitting and staring at the computer for so long. And I was always irritated and stressed, which made me a not-so-pleasant spouse and friend.
Everything I once valued about working for myself - specifically the ability to work whenever and wherever I wanted - had become a curse. I was working all the time, from everywhere.
I’d forgotten the beauty of having a schedule that was mine to design.
Making a Change
In wanting to make a positive change and break my workaholic tendencies, I knew I needed to make some major shifts in how I viewed my work and planned my daily schedule. And so I did.
- I stopped trying to compete with myself on monthly earnings. Breaking the link between my self-worth and how much I was making each month was step one.
- I started seeing a therapist. Talking through some of my work-related stress with a trained professional added objectivity to an internal conversation that had spun way out of control.
- I built personal time into my work weeks. In the summer, I started doing half-day Fridays and scheduled a daily 20-minute time block for yoga and decompression as a bare minimum.
As a result, I started earning a bit less than I had at my full-steam ahead pace - but I felt better doing it. My health improved, and I was generally more fun to be around in my non-working hours. I also felt less burnout by being more selective in what projects I took on, so the quality of my work improved, too.
The urge to do more and earn more is still something I wrestle with on a regular basis. The temptation to self-compete is an ongoing battle, as it’s something that’s hardwired into my personality. But I know that finding a better work-life balance has been one of the smartest choices I’ve made for the sustainability of my career. And it’s worth working on.
Kaleigh Moore is a freelance writer specializing in ecommerce and software. She also writes for publications like Inc. Magazine, Entrepreneur, and HuffPost.