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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

Wise Wednesdays: The difference between dedication and workaholism

How do we know when we are overworking and when we are being dedicated? Things would be simple with set working hours that we respected or if we just relied on being accountable to family (loved ones give direct feedback when they feel neglected).

But what if you don’t have an external accountability mechanism or wish to use something more internally based? Is it possible to have an internal body clock that tells you when it is time to work and when it is time to rest?

Do this little test to find out if you're more likely to be a workaholic (watch video).

Habits are hard to break for positive and negative reasons

In the past, human activity was mainly agricultural and governed by seasonality. Even today, our creativity is cyclical with phases of rest being integral to the process (if fact, if you procrastinate, you should ask yourself whether you are disrespecting your creativity cycle). But this is a topic for another article.

During my break, I had cause to ponder the question: how do I know if I am overworking or being dedicated? More specifically, I noticed that I wanted to write my weekly Wise Wednesdays blog even though I had intended not to. I found myself beginning to compose it, searching for links and worrying about internet connection. Then, I caught myself and my subsequent exploration took me down a deep rabbit hole…

The positive aspect of wanting to write the blog was that I had successfully established a new habit (over 3 months) around something that mattered to me in a deliberate and conscious manner, independently of an external authority or work structure.

The concern was that when I tried to align with my intention to take a break, I noticed resistance fuelled by dregs of some old fears (fear of failure; fear of not being enough; fear of abandonment) which are known to drive overwork and overachievement.

The learning point was in noticing how choice (not to work on the Wise Wednesdays blog) aligned with a meaningful intention (to take a break from work) was the way to get a sense of conscious direction back and prevent my falling into an old pattern of overworking.

At a deeper level, anxiety around travel may have triggered the old overwork pattern. Being self-aware/mindful and bringing the different fears, thoughts and patterns to light, defused the emotional charge of the overwork pattern and I was able to let go and enjoy my break.

The core engine of bad habits: the mechanism of addiction

Ultimately, it is not the fears (fear of failure, etc) themselves that cause the problem but our relationship to them i.e. how we allow (or don’t allow) our metacognition to relate to these primal fears in a healthy way. If we repress or misinterpret these emotions/fears, they cannot run their natural course in our nervous system and body, in which they would usually subside within a few seconds. Instead, we enter a train of thoughts and behaviours that are closer to a trance than to conscious, rational thought.

This is the basis of addiction, whether work, food or other: an internal mishandling of emotions which leads to maladaptive behaviour (overeating/overworking, etc). An external object/activity like food or work, becomes the regulating framework for our emotions. This may occur as an isolated incident but if repeated over time, it becomes a habit, particularly if this occurred in childhood or around a traumatic event. The pull is so strong because the external object is linked to a strong emotional need (e.g. the need for attention).

An inclination towards certain states e.g. depression and anxiety could also be seen as forms of addiction if they are formed as a behavioural adaptation over time: the depression or anxiety has a function in regulating other emotions and needs by alleviating the stress of the initial emotion – this is known as primary gain in medicine. These states can be reinforced externally e.g. by receiving attention and empathy – what is known as secondary gain.

The road to recovery from bad habits: activating your internal clock (the internal locus of control)

The road to recovering from addictions whether work, food or other involves a number of steps (see the widely used and recognised 12 steps programme).

The starting point is in surrendering control by acknowledging that this habit has taken on a life of its own and turning our willpower over to a wiser, more benevolent force (however, an individual might conceive of this force).

After agreeing to let go of the habit, the turning point comes in reclaiming an internal locus of control for our lives and activating a healthy relationship between our metacognition (our ability to apprehend our own feelings and thoughts) and the primal emotions we experience as we go about our daily lives (including the fears). The process includes bringing the thoughts an feelings to the light of consciousness and allowing them to gently dissipate.

Of note, many of these emotions including the fears are over-reactions based on vestigial cognitive functions from the time when we were extremely vulnerable to natural phenomena. Once we acknowledge them and see them for what they are, they subside.

Understanding that we are in charge of our own experience is the way out. From a scientific perspective, Daniel Goleman’s book on emotional intelligence and Walter Mischel’s famous research (the marshmallow experiment) show how emotional regulation is linked to better life and work outcomes and can be more important than IQ.

Mastering the internal locus of control: clear and clean intentions

So how do we know if we are consciously acting from our internal locus of control (the conviction that we are in control of our life experience) rather than from an old unhealthy habit? Without getting into a debate about free will, one way is to practise being clear on our conscious intention in the moment.

The idea is that it’s impossible to evaluate anything unless we make an internal choice first. If our intention is to stop habit X, then that becomes our barometer. In conjunction with this, we need to learn to see the web of thoughts and emotions woven around any intention that might cause resistance to change and sabotage our intention.

Operating from an internal locus of control, requires a great deal of psychological maturity because we are letting go of external authority as the source of truth. This maturity combines:

+ the belief in the validity of an internal locus of control (believing that it is possible to know what is right for us and that we have the right to this)

+ the courage to take responsibility for one’s actions

+ compassion to know that it’s OK to make “mistakes”

+ the self-belief that we’ll be able to handle the consequences

+ the faith that things tend to turn out fine in general.

In understanding the intention and the web of thoughts and emotions that is associated with it, an important question is to ask if we are serving an underlying egoic part of us (a pattern of behaviour and beliefs developed from fear e.g. I must please my boss or I will be punished) or if we are serving a conscious intention (e.g. to develop deep and genuine connections). Your choice of action is likely to be different once you become clear on the driving force behind it.

If you can clean up the intention by separating the need to be approved of by your boss versus your original intention to connect deeply with people that matter to you, your willpower will be supported in aligning with your intention. For example, you might come up with a nuanced resolution to a request to work at the weekend and say to yourself: “I want to please my boss where possible and I’ll do that by doing X on Monday, but right now I want to spend time with Y, so I’m going to politely but firmly say “no” to working this weekend.”

Another tip, particularly for those who are the more rational, organised inclination is to have a diary that tracks how you are spending your time, then reallocating time in proportion to the activities that matter to you most.


In summary, the difference between dedication and workaholism is the intention. Of course, life is dynamic and we have to be flexible as situations arise. But what we are talking about is patterns. Where a pattern exists that you want to break – set an intention and do the inner-work to strengthen your internal locus of control to stay true to it.

Until next week,


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