How I got past feeling crappy if I didn't work 60+ hours a week

This article is written by Darius. 

Shame has been a big motivator for me since the beginning of my career.

It’s because I've always compared myself to my brothers. Two of them worked 70-100 hour weeks regularly as investment bankers. I would compare my work ethic to theirs, feeling deep shame during weeks I couldn’t even muster a paltry 60. When I felt I didn't work enough, thoughts like  “You’re such a weakling” and “You only worked 40 hours this week? Pathetic.” would be common.

This negative self-talk propelled me to success at multiple companies. But it came at the cost of my mental health.

How & what I changed

Thankfully, reading “Nonviolent Communication” (fun fact: this book was recommended by Satya Nadella to his execs at Microsoft) helped me change this mindset.  The book taught me to re-evaluate my logic whenever I thought  I “should” do something. The book said that thinking I “should” do something creates a sense of shame. For example, thinking “I should work harder or else I’m weak.” creates a sense of shame around my lack of willpower. 

When I thought I should've worked 60 hours a week, there was little genuine desire to do it. There was a huge difference in desire compared to doing stuff I actually wanted to do. Like spending time with family or playing basketball. I didn’t genuinely want to work as much as I wanted to avoid feeling weak or feeling shame. 

Marshall, the author of Nonviolent Communication, offered a simple solution. He advised me to think about my needs and how my actions are driven by those needs (if at all). He suggested that if actions didn't fit my needs, then I could consider dropping them. Marshall defined needs as things that I truly valued in life. Importantly, he stresses that avoiding a sense of shame was not a need.  When I first read this, I was stunned to realize I didn’t have a clear idea of any of my needs.  I was working because I felt like I "should". I also felt like I "should" work out or eat healthy. All of these things felt like chores to do. 

After doing Marshall’s exercise, work is now a lot more enjoyable. When I work, I think of it through the lens of meeting my needs of: 

  1. Being a good CEO/teammate.
  2. Being a good future brother/friend/husband by being able to protect my family from disaster.
  3. Learning new things.

Just as importantly, the exercise helped me develop more patience and enjoyment from actions that helped me meet those needs: 

  1. My need to be a good brother/son/friend have made me more patient when listening to points of view I disagree with.
  2. My need to have strong relationships made it okay to hang out with friends/family.
  3. My need to be able to protect my family/friends made it okay for me to take the time to work out.

I no longer felt guilty about exercising or catching up with my family/friends when I had more work to do. There's always more work to do. As long as I was proud of the work I've put in during that day or week, I was able to enjoy activities that met my needs - guilt free. 

Wrapping up

It’s no wonder my mental health hadn’t been glowing my entire career. Work wasn’t viewed in a healthy way and I wasn’t taking care of my needs. After reframing how I saw work as something I should do > something I want to do, I’m able to work roughly the same hours as before but with much greater fulfillment.

A big win for me is how I feel when I miss my work goal. Sometimes I work a few hours less than my 50-60 hour goal. But it’s not a big deal for me now. I don’t feel shame for feeling weak. I feel good as long as I spent the time doing things that matter to me, like spending time with family.

I’m a much happier person since I began removing the sense that I “should” doing things. I’m doing things because I WANT to do them. I’m no longer a puppet to Guilt’s whims. And for the first time in 10+ years, I feel like I have a much stronger sense of control over my life. 

I'm curious if you've ever been motivated by negative emotions in the past - drop a comment below if you have. I'd love to hear your story.

Cheers to my mentor, Andrew for recommending this book. And my friend Vincent, whose conversation with me inspired me to write this post.

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