How to Be a Workaholic Without Burning Out
What’s the most important quality you need to reach the top of any career ladder?
You could list dozens of possibilities:
- Stellar communication skills.
- Sales and marketing know-how.
- Attention to detail.
- Critical thinking.
- Analytical and quantitative ability.
Any of those could work, but there’s one problem with that list: if you burn out on your way to the top, nothing else matters because you’ll never get to use any of those skills.
And if you’re an ambitious, goal-oriented person, you stand a very high chance of burning out.
It would be nice to avoid this by problem by reducing your hours, but if you want to make it to the top, you have to work a lot.
A lot of idiots these days are running around screaming about “automation” and “outsourcing,” but they’re full of crap – if you want to be the best, you need to make sacrifices.
So how can you do that without burning out or dying?
Why Does This Matter?
If you’re interested in the careers we cover on this site – investment banking, private equity, hedge funds, etc. – long hours are a part of the job and will continue to be a part of the job forever.
Yes, banks might offer “protected weekends” now, but you know the truth: those programs just shift your hours; they don’t reduce them.
But even if you want to do sales, join the corporate development team, or start a company, you’re going to be working a lot.
“Long hours” seems to be a dirty phrase these days, but I love to work a lot.
And chances are, you also enjoy working a lot if you’re reading this site right now.
We’re not here to watch TV shows or to lounge around drinking wine for 6 hours per day; we’re here to achieve great things, which means putting in the hours.
But you can always go too far, which is where burnout creeps in.
I’ve been following a crazy schedule filled with 14-hour workdays, 3 AM calls, and minimal sleep for over 10 years now. But despite all that:
- I look several years younger than I am.
- I’ve gotten into better shape as I’ve aged.
- I still manage to do something social at least once a week.
- I’ve expanded my social circle as I’ve gotten older.
To accomplish these feats, I’ve attacked the problem from two angles:
- Your Physical/Mental State – If you go overboard, your health is guaranteed to suffer. You might also start going crazy. But there are ways to avoid both.
- The Social Stigma from Working Too Much – Friends, family, and significant others will always complain that you “work too much.” But there are ways to change their thinking and to hide your workaholic habits from them.
I’m going to share some of the strategies and tactics I’ve used for both angles.
You will NOT be able to apply all of these if you’re working in investment banking, private equity, or at a large company, but you may be able to tweak these ideas and get good results.
Angle #1: How to Avoid Physical and Mental Decay When You Work Long Hours
The internal side is a bit easier to tackle because it involves only you.
Sure, other people or external events might conspire to stop you, but you still have a lot of control.
The key to this side is understanding your psychology.
Contrary to what many people think, workaholics are not motivated by “greed” or by “getting a bigger house”: they’re motivated by accomplishment.
You can’t just erase that feeling, but you can spin it to your advantage:
Schedule Non-Work Activities into Your Calendar
If you’re a goal-oriented person with nothing scheduled for the day, what will you do?
Yes, that’s right: you’re going to work all day, morning to night.
Sometimes you need to do that, but you can’t do it every day.
The solution is to schedule non-work activities, such as sports, social events, “fun” classes, or talking with friends into your calendar, just like you would schedule business meetings.
In the height of my workaholic period, I scheduled at least 1 hour of a non-work activity every 1-2 days: a Korean language class, kickboxing, jiu-jitsu, etc.
You schedule these activities for psychological purposes – motivating yourself by looking forward to an activity rather than an achievement – as much as anything else.
So it’s fine if you get busy or you have to cancel your plans; just by physically typing the words into your schedule, you’ve already devoted brainpower to something outside of work.
Make Work into a Game of Thrones Tasks
If you’re a high achiever, you’re motivated by getting things done: launching big projects, scratching items off your to-do list, or putting together something bigger than yourself.
But is it the magnitude of these tasks or the act of “crossing them off” that motivates you?
I would argue that a good portion of your motivation comes from the latter.
So you can leverage this principle to “feel” like you’re productive without killing yourself 24/7: divide your work into very small tasks so that you always cross off a certain number of them each day.
I use this strategy with major projects, like new courses:
If you have a slow day but you feel the compulsion to work, create very small tasks that will take only 10-15 minutes each to complete – and then cross them off, so you feel productive without putting in long hours for the day.
How to Apply This in Finance: You can divide almost any work assignment in banking – a pitch book, a CIM, or a model for a client – into much smaller tasks, such as individual sections of the document, charts and graphs you have to paste in, and research you have to complete.
If you feel like you “have” to work even on a slow day, tackle a bunch of these smaller tasks so that you can say you finished something.
Separate Your Work and Personal Relationships
What could be worse than sitting in a cubicle for 80 hours per week and dealing with crazy VPs with no management skills?
Easy: doing that for 80 hours per week and then spending your 5 free hours complaining about it with co-workers.
In high-intensity jobs like investment banking and corporate law, it’s easy to fall into the rut of always hanging out with co-workers.
But your conversations will inevitably turn negative when you hang out with them, and that will lead to feelings of exhaustion and burnout.
One solution is to stay in touch with friends from university and business school who followed completely different paths; another is to attend events in different industries or with different types of people.
Example: When I was feeling burned out in Korea, I started going to “Drink Entrepreneur” events to meet new people and go outside my normal sphere.
I could show up for 1-2 hours, meet a bunch of people doing very different things, and then go back to work if I didn’t have much time that day.
Don’t Work at 100% Capacity at All Times
For me, creating videos is extremely high-intensity work. I have to focus 100% when writing notes, outlining content, recording the video, editing it, adding captions, and so on.
Sometimes I’ll unplug my phone, disconnect the Internet, and stare at my screen for 8-10 hours at a time to optimize my output when I’m in “production mode.”
But it’s impossible to do that type of work 24/7, so I take breaks in between major projects and spend 2-3 weeks at a time on lower-intensity work: writing or editing emails, research, web design, or brainstorming new marketing ideas.
These tasks need to get done, but they don’t require my full attention. And I’m far less likely to burn out as a result.
How to Apply This in Finance: It’s harder to apply this principle if you just started working in the finance industry, but you can come close by under-promising and over-delivering.
For example, you might know that a pitch book will take you 3 days to finish if you worked at 100% capacity the whole time.
You think that it would take 4 days at 70% capacity, which is what you tell your VP, but then you deliver it “early” in 3.5 days. Your team is happy because you beat expectations, and you also avoided burnout by working at 85% capacity rather than 100%.
Reward Yourself Once a Week, and Really Reward Yourself Once a Month
Once a week, take a few hours and do something fun that has no practical/career value: a massage, an extreme sport, a new TV show, or afternoon tea if you’re in London.
I tend to this on Saturday each week, when I go off my normally strict diet and drink and eat whatever I want for 8-12 hours.
Sometimes I get busy and have to work at the same time – last week, for example, I had to spend 6 hours resolving a tax problem on a Saturday.
But having a small “reward” at the same time made it much easier to endure.
Outside of these weekly “mini-rewards,” you should also go crazy once a month.
By “crazy,” I don’t mean having a good croissant or watching a new TV show: I mean going to Vegas, drinking excessively, getting in a fight with the bouncer, and waking up naked on your couch at 4:30 PM the next day.
How to Apply This in Finance: Banks have made this one easier with “protected weekends” and other efforts that give junior bankers more time off.
If you have such a weekend, USE IT by going somewhere and completely disconnecting yourself for the day.
If you don’t drink or you don’t like to party, go to an exotic island, go surfing, go on a long bike ride or horse ride, or do something else like that.
Optimize Your Diet and Workout Routine
I don’t want to get into a debate over “the best diet,” but food and exercise make a huge difference in your ability to avoid burnout.
Even though my sleep schedule is a mess, I still look younger than my actual age because I follow a strict diet, limit alcohol consumption, and exercise strategically, even in periods when I’m insanely busy.
We have a detailed article on how to stay in shape with less than 4 hours of time per week, but the short version is:
- Do Short, High-Intensity Strength-Training Workouts – You can get results from as few as two 20-30 minute sessions per week if you do it right.
- Avoid Sugar and Follow Some Variation of the Paleo Diet – I’ve tried dozens of different diets, and this one has yielded the best results with the least amount of effort.
- Make Intelligent Substitutions for Alcohol and Dessert – For example, skip beer and cocktails and have straight whiskey if you’re pressured to drink (it has calories, but no sugar); if you’re at a business dinner and everyone is ordering tiramisu, get fruit or cheese instead.
If you have the time to run marathons, swim across the English Channel, or do triathlons, great, but the time they require may not be practical if you’re a true workaholic.
Angle 2: Overcoming the Social Stigma of Workaholism
Even if you avoid physical and mental trouble yourself, you’ll face another issue: the people around you don’t want you to work all the time.
This point hit me when I began spending more time in Europe and South America, places which are not exactly known for long workweeks.
I had to deal with the social pressure of people not understanding why I would ever need to work past 4 PM.
And then your family, your significant other(s), and your friends with lower-intensity jobs will offer skeptical comments on a regular schedule.
Train People to Expect Your Schedule
I tell everyone that Monday through Wednesday are my busiest days – which is true – and rarely do anything social on those days.
That way, I can lock myself up in my underground cave and focus on work for 12-14 hours at a time.
I also respond to text messages and emails more slowly on those days and rarely answer any phone calls.
Even if I’m not busy or I have a sudden burst of free time, I follow the same routine simply to maintain consistency.
People tend to get upset when you’re unexpectedly busy, but the blow is softened if they know about in advance – especially if you’re consistently busy on the same days each week.
How to Apply This in Finance: This one is tough since your schedule is unpredictable, but you can give “mini warnings” that you won’t be available. Even 12-24 hours of notice is better than a last-minute cancellation.
In many buy-side roles, you do have more free time on weekends, so you can always block off weekdays as your “busy days.”
Physically Separate Your Workspace from Everyone Else
Is it your long hours that bother your significant other the most?
Or is it the fact that he/she sees you working a lot?
Perception often matters more than reality when it comes to your schedule.
Previous girlfriends have complained a lot when I’m on the computer working at home, but they’ve rarely said anything when I’m out of sight.
To take advantage of this behavior, I often leave the home in busy periods and work from the library, coffee shops, or even co-working spaces.
Another strategy is to have a “work room” in your apartment or home and go in there to avoid letting others see you when you’re busy.
Be 100% engaged in social activities or 100% engaged in work, but don’t mix the two.
How to Apply This in Finance: If you can work from home at nights or on the weekends, don’t do it in front of others.
In fact, even if you can work remotely, consider going to the office instead simply to get this separation.
When You Do Spend Time with Others, Make It Memorable
If your friends only see you working 24/7, that’s what they’ll remember about you.
This pattern is particularly dangerous with friends and family members you rarely see.
To get around this problem, I try to plan activities beyond the normal eating/drinking, especially with friends I see only once or twice a year.
It doesn’t have to be something extravagant or time-consuming – it could be something as simple as:
- A restaurant or bar that offers live performances (or robots fighting each other).
- Something with a specific theme, like a “speakeasy” bar.
- A sports event, show, or concert.
Once again, it’s about perception vs. reality: yes, you might be working a ridiculous amount, but if your friends see you doing something creative whenever they see you, they won’t necessarily think that.
How to Apply This in Finance: If you’re in a city like New York or London, it should be easy to find these types of events and places. They’re a good use of “protected weekends” or real weekends/holidays.
Even if you follow all these tips, the long hours will take a toll on you.
You won’t always sleep well.
You might lose some friends along the way.
You’ll never be in the same physical condition as an athlete.
But you’ll survive.
And with any luck, you might even avoid burnout on your way to the top.
For Further Reading:
- Investment Banking Hours
- How to Win Friends and Influence People in Investment Banking by Slacking Off and Pretending to Work Hard
- The 4-Hour Investment Banking Body: How to Keep Off the First Year 15 and Get In Shape While Sitting In a Cubicle Staring at Excel All Day
- How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions in the Finance Industry
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Read below or Add a comment
Hi, I really want to have stellar communication skills and great english for this field. I am currently an analyst at KPMG Corporate Finance. Can you tell me what should I do to improve my English and to have amazing communication skills.
Read and write a lot. Get books on writing. Start with these:
Hey Brian, big fan here; i have a huge question because i kind of fucked up. I was working in Lazard at the M&A team in a south america country (it’s called MBA-lazard a JV). I was considered like a high potential by my associate (i was an intern doing anayst work pretty much), but after 2 months i got burnt out and i decided that i wanted to quit, surprisinly i quitted in the way you taught (despite not knowing your web by that time), however, the team took it really bad, to the point to giving bad references to other Jobs about me. Im currently working in Asset Management, but i want to go back to IB eventually (1-2 years period). How can i make it happen since im sort of having a bad reputation?
First I’d ace your current role and make sure they give you stellar recommendations. Secondly I’d try to figure out the real reason they gave you bad review. Was it because you left abruptly? Were there are other reasons? If you can try to tie up some loose ends this may ease the situation a bit. Thirdly I’ll work on your pitch – why did you jump from IB to AM, and why do you want to jump back to IB? And I think its always easier to transition through your contacts/friends in your case. If they have seen your work / know you personally your case maybe an easier sell. I wouldn’t worry too much about the bad reputation if this isn’t something you can change. I’ve seen someone in your case who bounced back just fine.
what’s the name of that list software ?
This is a good article. My favorite book on this topic about not burning out is by Tony Schwartz called The Power of Full Engagement. Ten years ago when I worked a lot of hours it would take me hours or maybe a full day away from work to relax and get re-centered. After a lot of practice and using the methods in the book I can disengage and fully re-engage after a restroom break.
I’m much more productive working remotely, but as you mention in the article, it can cause relationship strain. So I’ve had to be very clear with each that just because I’m “at home” doesn’t mean it’s leisure time. Yet some still find the temptation to believe that my presence indicates that I’m not doing anything important. Whenever I tell someone for the first time I work remote often and they say “Oh, so you can work in your PJs! That’s cool!” then I know that it’s probably not going to work out between us. They just don’t get it.
Yeah, that book is definitely a good one to read. Agreed on the litmus test to see if someone “gets it” or not… whenever someone says something like that to me, I immediately think “Pass” in my head and try to avoid the person in the future.
Hi Brian, great article as always. Will you cover in the future career in M&A in corporates?
We’ve actually covered this topic before: