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High-Functioning Workaholism

Work less to accomplish more.

Published on

Five rows of text with clock times of five-minute intervals and "7:00" is highlighted in red in the center.

I'm lucky to love what I do professionally. This means I spend a lot of time doing it and occasionally, the hours can fly by quickly. Especially with personal projects. It's tempting to say "just 5 more minutes," so you can finish something, then 5 hours later in 3AM it's "almost done." Some might say that's dedication, but I say it's poor self-control and planning. If you need 14 alarm snoozes the next day just to get yourself back into consciousness, you're not working hard; you're working stupid.

By definition, a workaholic is:

[…] a person who works compulsively. A workaholic experiences an inability to limit the amount of time they spend on work despite negative consequences such as damage to their relationships or health.

But in my opinion, a true workaholic goes one step further, beyond their addiction. They realize that by focusing on their well-being, they can actually do more work in the long run, fulfilling the higher purpose of accomplishing more.

The wrong addiction

There will always physically exist only 24 hours in the day, so if you "work more" during the night, you're not making more time out of thin air. You're borrowing time, which is inefficient because:

  • During the night, after several hours of work already, your brain has probably melted and is operating at a significantly lower capacity

  • You will be handicapped the next day due to lack of proper sleep. Watch this TED talk by Matt Walker(opens in new tab) to understand exactly how bad that is

Sure, you might be doing more work than "most people," as in "spending more hours at once," but that's the wrong metric. Let's say you accomplish something for 4 hours in the night. What if you could rest and do it the next day for just 1 hour in the morning? There will always be people who can do things way slower than you and way quicker. It only makes sense to measure yourself against yourself.

It's easy to think you're working harder than others because you spend the nights working. Some call it "hustling" or "the grind," but for me that's nothing more than a toxic cliché. You might beat the majority of people in terms of sleep deprivation and quality of life deterioration, but not so much in terms of achievements. Working more and achieving more aren't correlated.

If you really want to get the maximum number of things done, you shouldn't strive to spend as much time working as you can because, as I've already pointed out, you're just borrowing time. You should instead focus on the quality, efficiency, and productivity of that constant time you have allocated. This forces you to think outside the box, cut out everything unnecessary, and focus on the essential.

The right addiction

If you don't believe that mind-body teamwork is essential, then you've probably never experienced neither true health, nor your own peak performance. It's hard to break out of the vicious cycle, get your shit together, and see what you're really capable of. But until you do that, you'll be spinning the same hamster wheel, thinking you're working "real hard."

To me, true workaholics are people who actually want to get things done, even if that means *gasp* living healthy:

  • You have a sleep schedule

  • You treat your sleep schedule as if it was a date with Emma Watson on the top of the Eiffel Tower

  • You avoid caffeine because it could make you late for your date and can also leave you with energy crashes. It also doesn't make sense to have a cup of liquid dictate whether you wake up or not

  • You avoid sugar because it prevents the otherwise inevitable sugar crash. Getting further away from diabetes is a nice little side-effect too

  • You exercise frequently to avoid chronic (back) pain. Even if you might not notice it, it's harder to use your brain and think when you're in constant pain, because pain is not pleasant, obviously…

It's a simple feedback loop:

  1. Taking care of yourself improves your performance and well-being

  2. Your high performance means you can finish things more quickly

  3. Finishing things more quickly leaves you with time to take care of yourself

You just need that initial push and then to maintain this cycle.

A high-functioning workaholic doesn't obsess over the number of hours they spend working. Instead, they set a limited window of time for work and obsess over their output during that window. Apart from better health habits, they work on other inefficiencies. For example:

  • A low-functioning workaholic spends the nights writing emails

  • A high-functioning workaholic makes an investment to learn and increase their typing speed with touch typing(opens in new tab)

My recent all-nighter

I was building a project called QuarterTime(opens in new tab) that shows you your remaining workdays and workhours for the current quarter of the year, excluding vacations. The idea is to be able to visually see your available time and plan better. Or, more accurately, to know if you're running out of time and you're fucked.

After dragging the project along for a couple of weeks, I decided that I wanted to finally finish it on one specific Monday and committed. It wasn't really a deadline, because nobody had told me to do it, but I decided to do it anyway as a little "endurance" challenge. Well, I got to bed at 4AM after roughly 20 hours of screen time (I was at work prior to that). Yeah, I got through it, but felt like a bag of cement the next day and it took ~3 days for the back pain to go away.

Further in the past, there were also times where I had been leaving the office at 3:46AM or just working for 30 hours straight… Every time I had done this, I would have to pay back the extra time with 50% interest, in the form of physical weakness and brain fog. It can be fun to test your limits like that, but definitely not productive long-term in any way.


To some people, working day and night might seem like dedication and determination, but in reality it's just poor planning and inadequate prioritization. It's only worth it if you have a tight and non-negotiable deadline. Otherwise it's just counterproductive stress.

The better alternative is to summon the will to stop early, eat well, sleep well, and sharpen your mind. Like a sharp knife, a sharp mind cuts through problems effortlessly. Don't be cutting a beef steak with a butter knife.

If you're losing sleep over something, can you spread it over the next couple of days? Can you make a shortcut and do a simpler version of it? Actually, do you want to do it at all? You will invest a part of your life that you will never get back. Is it worth it?