Team Productivity

Too Much Hustling? The Hazards of Workaholism

Daniel Threlfall
October 10, 2016
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Hustle is the fuel for ambitious young professionals. It’s the mantra of hoodie-wearing developers. It’s the elixir of deal-closing salespeople. It’s the drug of serial entrepreneurs.

We side hustle, main hustle, work hustle, out hustle, Silicon Valley hustle, and hustle hustle to make it big, make it rich, and achieve success.

Hustle is awesome.

Or is it?

In my professional capacity, I work with a lot of startups entrepreneurs, developers, and young professionals—people who hustle.

I love to hustle, and I love to feed off the energy of other people who hustle. My Instagram feed is filled with inspirational hustle harder quotes, usually involving a background image of a very expensive car.

I’ve been known to wake up at 4am, wielding the weapon of coffee to hustle all day long. I’ve read the 10X Rule and I listen to the podcasts. Hustle feels good. And the result of hustle — progress and profit — feel good, too.

But there’s a danger to the hustle. When we promote hustle, it loses meaning. Hustle must possess purpose beyond itself.

If we hustle wrong, we can hustle our way straight to disillusionment and discouragement.

What’s worse, hustle can lead to the destructive malady of workaholism, which I’ll discuss below.

If you’re a hustler, I applaud you. We share in common a passion for hustle.

But as we hustle, let’s try to keep it in check.

Here’s why.

Too much of anything is a bad thing.

I have four children. One of the things that I try to teach them is that too much of anything is a bad thing.

For children, the “too much” warnings tend to be about screen time or candy or something My kids have heard it so many times that they finish the sentence when I begin to say, “too much of anything...”

We read books together, like The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV, Too Much Junk Food, and Too Much Birthday.

It’s a simple lesson. Too much of anything is a bad thing.

Adults learn to reign in the too much of alcohol, coffee, junk food, Netflix, material possessions, exercise, sleep, and pretty much anything else.

Why? Because too much of anything is a bad thing.

The same goes for hustle.

Hustle is okay, just like birthdays are okay, TV is okay, and the occasional indulgence in double stuf Oreos (maybe not okay).

But too much hustle can become a major problem.

One such major problem? Workaholism.

Workaholism is dangerous.

Workaholism does not have an entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

However, it’s still there, even if not identified specifically.

Workaholism falls under a spectrum of other concerns. Most significantly, workaholism is identified as an addiction. The DSM-5’s complex classification system has begun to erase the fine line between addictive behaviors and behavioral addictions (Source: PLoS One, “The Relationships between Workaholism and Symptoms of Psychiatric Disorders: A Large-Scale Cross-Sectional Study, edited by Daisuke Nishi).

What does this mean for workaholism? It means, among other things, that workaholism can be dangerous addiction.

Furthermore, workaholics are at higher risk for other psychological maladies. What kind of maladies?

  • ADHD
  • Anxiety
  • OCD
  • Depression

The whole correlation vs. causation question will, no doubt, arise here. Does workaholism cause such illnesses, or do these mental illnesses produce workaholism?

According to the research, “workaholism comprised the dependent variable in a three-step linear multiple hierarchical regression analysis.”

In other words, workaholism is at fault. It is the cause, not the result of the psychiatric disorders.

There is no questioning the fact that workaholism is a problem.

The real question, then, is what do we do about it?

The difference between workaholism (boo!) and hustle (yay!)

What is the difference between a healthy hustle and a dangerous addiction to work? Are you hustling in a good way or workaholic-king in a bad way?

As unsatisfying as it is, it just depends.

It depends on your proclivity to addictive behavior, your responsibilities as an adult, the needs of your family, and a host of other factors.

The foremost research on workaholism admits, “the line between excessive enthusiasm and a genuine addiction is difficult to define.”

You may be passionate about work, and that’s a good thing. When does your passion begin to leak into workaholism and begin to erode your health and wellbeing?

That’s where things get murky.

Here are some signs that your hustle can be leading to workaholism:

  • You work in order to reduce your stress in other areas of life (e.g., a rocky marriage).
  • You feel like you need to work harder or longer in order to feel better about yourself and your life. You’re constantly dissatisfied with the number of hours you’re working.
  • You get stressed out when you’re not working.
  • You feel angry, anxious, or depressed if you are unable to work longer than you want to.
  • You neglect other responsibilities in order to work (e.g., eating, sleeping, exercising, spending time with family and friends)
  • You lack a sense of meaning or purpose in your work, but continue working longer and harder in an attempt to overcome it.
  • You never really take a vacation. (If you go on vacation, you’re working.)

If you think, “Wow. That’s me!” to a few of the points above, don’t panic.

Any hard-working manager, solopreneur, entrepreneur, or modern worker has, at times, felt the anxiety of needing to work more, the strain of not going on vacation, and the stretches of long-hour days.

When conditions become chronic and debilitating, you may need to seek professional help.

For many of us, there are ways to reverse the slide towards workaholism.

Hustle with meaning.

I’ve experienced two kinds of hustling in my life.

  • Hustle 1: I drag my weary carcass out of bed, put caffeine in my face, crawl to my computer, and pound it for hours. I hate it. I loathe it. Everything feels out of balance. I restrain the occasional desire to place my fist through the flimsy screen of my MacBook.
  • Hustle 2: I wake up. I’m full of energy, enthusiasm, and excitement. I word as hard as possible during my working hours, spend time with my family, and take time for self care and personal development. I get way more done, and I’m far more fulfilled.

What’s the difference between Hustle 1 and Hustle 2?

It has nothing to do with the quality of my coffee, though I certainly have my preferences.

It has everything to do with purpose and meaning.

If you hustle with meaning, you will be able to dodge the hazards of workaholism, while also improving the quality of your hustle and the quality of your life.

Am I promising too much?

I don’t think so.

To keep hustle from devolving into a mind-numbing, soul-sucking, life-draining pursuit, you need to (dare I say it) “balance” your hustle with several other things.

The first of these things is an overarching life purpose — the very reason for your existence, and for your work.

It didn’t take us long to go from talking about “hustle” to pondering the meaning of existence, did it?

That’s because it’s important.

One helpful model for contemplating this issue is Simon Sinek’s famous "Golden Circle"— asking the why question to drive us to a central purpose for our action.

My purpose is not to burden you with existential issues, but rather to encourage you to bring meaning into your work.

Different people will have different purposes, and that’s okay. For some, like me, meaning is moored in faith. Some find their meaning in contributing to a greater good, to caring for their families, or to achieving a personal goal.

There’s not a right or wrong answer to the why am I working? question. The point is to choose something, even if that something changes — and to keep that purpose at the center of your thinking.

How do you hustle with meaning?

Here is a helpful set of guidelines that will help you to hustle with meaning.

  1. Define your purpose, the one central thing that defines who it is you are and why you’re working.
  2. Set your goals. Your goals should contribute to fulfilling that purpose.
  3. Understand your priorities. When you’ve defined your central purpose in life, it makes it far easier to prioritize the right things. You create matrix for decision making.

Remember, don’t start with the hustle. Start with the why, the purpose, and work outward so that your hustle is fueled by that purpose.

How not to fly off the track when you’re hustling.

When I was a kid, I liked to race little motorized cars on a track. The track was awesome, because it had a slight edge that kept the cars from careening off the track.

We would tinker with our cars, however, and made them faster than the track would allow. When this happened, our cars would fly off the track and shatter on some wall or on the floor.

Watching our cars shatter into smithereens was, of course, half the fun when you’re an 8-year old kid. But when you’re a twenty, thirty-or forty- something who has more to lose than a 5 dollar toy, it’s a different game.

If you want to hustle — to go fast like my motorized toy car — you need to control your hustle with guard rails.

Here are the guard rails I suggest.

  • Continually remind yourself of your purpose. I use the Reminders app on my iPhone to display my purpose statement every morning at 7:00 and every evening at 9:30.
  • Protect your health. Sleep, exercise, and intentional eating are crucial to good health.
  • Give attention to relationships. I skew introvert, but I know that relationships are essential for my wellbeing. My family is at the center of my meaning and purpose.
  • Find meaning outside of work. You don’t “need” hobbies, but it helps to have issues that pull your mind away from work for short periods of time.


When we elevate hustle above purpose, we lose all sense of meaning.

When disconnected from our purpose, hustle is nothing more than an exercise in wasted effort, wasted time, and basically a wasted life. Hustle accomplishes nothing unless it’s coupled with purpose.

In order to life a truly meaningful life, you need do more than just hustle.

You need to hustle with meaning.

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