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Behavioural addiction can happen to anyone. While it’s great to love what you do, like anything else, love it, but keep it in balance with the rest of your life.

The nature of addiction revolves around how the brain perceives pleasure. The word addiction comes from the Latin meaning “enslaved by” and while the word addict tends to conjure up the image of someone who is addicted to drugs, alcohol or gambling, addictive behaviour develops from how the brain registers pleasure.

And let’s face it; if a particular behaviour makes us feel good, that extra dose of dopamine experienced through the brain’s reward circuitry drives us to seek to experience all over again.

So we start to crave that chocolate, cigarette or playing another session of World of Warcraft. From a brainy perspective, the development of addiction from simple pleasure is thought to result from the interaction of dopamine with another neurotransmitter glutamate, that leads to the development of compulsion, seeking out that reward, even when we know deep down that what we’re doing isn’t healthy.

While we’ve had the term “workaholic”, (meaning being compulsively addicted to working excessively hard and long hours) for a while, many more of us are at risk of work addiction because of the change in the how we work coupled with our increasing integration with technology, which is specifically designed to grab our attention and is potentially addictive in its own right.

Look around any public space, café, train or pavement and it appears everyone is deeply engrossed with their smartphone. While going down in a lift to exit a hotel last week, I noticed how every additional passenger was either already engaged on their phone as they entered the lift, or quickly started scrolling down their screen during that short passage of time to the ground floor

According to Adam Alter, author of “Irresistible” behavioural addiction comprises six ingredients:

1. Compelling goals just out of reach.

The element of “so close, I’ll just keep going for a little bit longer to try and reach my goal”.

2. Irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback.

The anticipation and pure pleasure of positive reward stoking our internal motivation.

3. A sense of incremental progress and improvement.

This is working well, so let’s keep going!

4. A gradual increase in the level of challenge of tasks over time.

I’m learning so much and getting far better at this.

5. Unresolved tensions that require resolution.

I need to keep working on this to get rid of these glitches getting in the way of my success.

6. Strong social connections.

It feels so great having the support of others.

All of these are highly motivating, to make us want to strive harder to reach our goals, which is fine. What’s not so fine is when the motivation becomes so compelling that we lose sight of how much is enough, and when to stop.

When out of balance, it’s not only us that suffers our relationships suffer too. At a personal level because we’re never around, or when we are we’re tired, grumpy and not much fun to be with. At work where interpersonal relationships can become strained if your mono focus means a raised level of expectation of the contribution of others requires them to work to a level that wasn’t agreed to causing them to experience increased stress and overwhelm.

What matters is recognising if you are working too hard in an obsessive way that is taking a toll of your health, wellbeing and performance. Ironically working too hard is counterproductive to obtaining our goals, because it is the fast track to exhaustion, burnout and an increased risk of mental illness.

Countering our work addiction is about putting in place those boundaries to enable us to lead a sustainable, rewarding and enjoyable life at work, home and play.

This is where increasing your level of brain fitness comes into play by ensuring you have what Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit” describes as cornerstone habits in place.

There are four basic cornerstone habits to cultivate.

The first is to get enough sleep each night. Sleep deprivation comes with the terrible cognitive cost of poor attention, a slower speed of processing, reduced learning and memory capacity, more mistakes, poorer decision making and reduced analytical or creative thinking. It’s about making the decision that no matter what, you ensure you get 7-9 hours of good quality, uninterrupted sleep.

A second cornerstone habit is to exercise every day. Exercise primes the brain for better performance with improved memory and cognition, helps to burn off stress hormones and stimulates the release of our feel-good hormones elevating mood and confidence. It’s far easier to work efficiently with a clear head.

A third cornerstone is to place boundaries on your technology. Hyperconnectivity is stressing out our brain and is unsustainable. This is where agreed protocols can be put in place, by switching the phone to silent and turning off other technology to provide focused periods of uninterrupted work so more gets achieved in a shorter period of time. This works well in meetings, by keeping everyone present, present to what the meeting has set out to achieve and get there more quickly. At home, this may take the form of agreement that no one brings technology to the dinner table and an agreed time curfew for all technology in the evening.

The fourth cornerstone is the habit of taking regular time out from work, scheduling in a long weekend, short break or holiday every 3 months or so, to break the cycle of feeling indispensable to the cause. This helps to keep things in perspective, cultivates an interest in other things beyond work and provides a much-needed cognitive break to refresh and re-energise.

Do you find it hard to switch off from work?

Do your cornerstone habits need to be revisited?

Has work addiction ever cost you your health, wellbeing or relationships?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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