Full of Grit? Or Workaholic?

Grit without boundaries is just workaholism cloaked in a buzzword.


I was at brunch the other day, listening to a friend talk about how her "grit" was causing her to burn out. How her own boss was so concerned about her that she sent her an article about the dangers of too much "grit". When I asked her what her "grit" looked like, she described an all-to familiar picture: a life filled with late-night emails, stress over her latest projects, an inability to leave her work at work when she went home. And all I could think was, "She's not describing grit. She's describing workaholism."


The term "grit" has been appearing in my Insta feed with increasing frequency lately. It's a buzzword that's gained a lot of traction as everyone and their dog scrambles to go after their dreams, or at least build a side hustle. I'm not necessarily mad at it.


But the thing is, grit is just one ingredient in the recipe for success. If it's not combined with healthy boundaries, it will take you to a bad place.


Time for a little vocab lesson.


Grit is passion, determination in the face of doubt, the courage and work ethic to stick to your dreams and make them a reality. To stay the course through the un-glamorous early phases of any new endeavor. To stick with something you believe in even when everyone around you is trying to talk you out of it.


Yes, sometimes it means late nights to get the job done. But ONLY when that's absolutely necessary. Not all the time.


Workaholism, on the other hand, is simply working oneself into the ground whether it's necessary or not. And contrary to popular belief, everyone actually loses out when this path is chosen.


Your employer doesn't get your best work - far from it. No one works at their best when they're tired and stressed. Not even close.


All of your relationships suffer.


And your health takes a nosedive.


This is about quality vs. quantity. Do NOT confuse the two. Working a ton of hours and burning yourself out is NOT valuable. Setting healthy boundaries so that you can work fewer - but significantly more efficient and productive - hours: THAT is the key to success.


Grit and boundaries are not mutually exclusive. You can have both. And I would argue that if you really want your grit to result in something useful, then you NEED to have both.


Unfortunately, American corporate culture glorifies workaholism. ESPECIALLY any field with the dreaded billable hour. Blergh. I mean seriously, I don't think I could come up with a WORSE system for running a company if I tried. Rewarding quantity over quality is a recipe for inefficiency and mediocrity if ever I've seen one. And I'm not just theorizing here; I saw this in action in the Big Law world over and over and over again.


So we have to shift our mindset.


Don't be afraid to set boundaries with your boss. And if your boss doesn't respect your boundaries (or the fact that you are setting them), then I would seriously consider getting a new boss. Because that says a LOT about the kind of workplace you are in - and it's not saying anything good. Do you really want to work for someone who is still stuck in an old-fashioned, unhealthy, unproductive mindset? (And if you are in a position where you are someone else's boss, ask yourself - how respectful are you of their boundaries? Are you cultivating a healthy, balanced, and therefore effective employee?)


For many of you, the real challenge will be setting boundaries with yourself. The quantity vs. quality mindset is deeply ingrained in all of us, and has been from a young age. "How much time did you spend on your homework?" "How many pages did you read?" You won't even realize how deeply ingrained it is until you start trying to set boundaries with yourself. But as you try to make these changes, notice how often you make excuses to stick with your old habits.


"I can't take a yoga break tonight, this email is SUPER important."

Is it really? Or can it wait an extra hour or two while you take a break? Or god forbid, can it wait til tomorrow?


"I could leave half an hour early and cook dinner, or just get takeout and get a few more pages of this memo written. That's more efficient, right?" Nope. Our brains and bodies need breaks. Frequent, regular, actual breaks where you stop thinking about work.


I know how hard it is, because it took me a long time and a lot of work to shake that mindset. I recommend starting small and working your way up.


Here are a few of the small but powerful things I did in my law firm days to help prevent burnout:

  • Timer at Computer (or on Fitbit): Every hour, I made sure to take a 5-min walk or stretch break. Our bodies need to move regularly; being stationary for more than an hour at a time is a recipe for all sorts of physical problems. And our minds need regular breaks as well.

  • Yoga Mat in Office: I kept a yoga mat in my office, and made it a point to roll it out at least once a day. Especially if I was starting to feel sluggish or sleepy - instead of immediately reaching for caffeine, I would first try some movement. Usually that was all it took to recharge me, and often left me feeling a lot better than that latte would have.

  • Left the office for lunch. Get outside, get some fresh air, change your scenery up, remind yourself that the rest of the world is out there.

  • Socialized at lunch and during coffee breaks. This is especially crucial if your job is such that you are working alone in an office all day. Humans are wired for connection - yes, even introverts! Don't let your work swallow you whole. Take breaks and replenish your humanity.


Here are some of the bigger steps I took:

  • I left by 6:30. Went to the gym or yoga, had a delicious dinner (home-cooked when possible). Then, if necessary, I got back to work. My supervisors knew this was my schedule, and as long as I did my work well and on time, they were fine with it.

  • I never came in on weekends unless it was absolutely necessary. If weekend work had to be done, I did it from home whenever possible (which was fairly often.)

  • I took ALL of my vacation time. This one is HUGE. I know SO MANY PEOPLE who never take their vacation days. WHY??? People, you need to take breaks. And not just little daily breaks, though those are of course important too. You need big breaks where you remove yourself from your daily routine. Where you pause, recover, and reflect on what's going well and what could possibly use some course-correction. Often, we don't realize how stressed or unhealthy we are until we actually remove ourselves from the situation. So please, I'm begging you - take regular vacations.

  • I made pro bono work a priority. I truly believe that service is important, and that we feel and do our best when we're serving others. Since my main job wasn't really about service, I had to find other ways to make that happen. Pro bono work was a great outlet for me, but any kind of volunteer work or opportunity to truly serve others will do the trick.

And eventually I just got the hell out of there. But hey, that's just my story. What's yours going to be?


Grit is admirable. Workaholism is straight up poison. Don't confuse the two.


Writing/Discussion Prompts:

In what ways do you cross the line between dedication to your work and workaholism/burnout? (Be brutally honest with yourself here. And then find a buddy and ask them to be brutally honest with you about what they see you doing.)


What steps are you already taking to draw the line between grit and workaholism?


What steps can you start taking tomorrow? This week? This month?


Talk to your trusted friends about this. Be honest, be open. Share the changes you want to make, and accountability buddies. And drop me a line at alia@aliajkhan.com and let me know how it's going!


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