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How to Know if You’re a High Performer or a Workaholic

marissa mayer
Vogue

Thinking a high performer and a workaholic are the same thing is quite common; it’s also common for workaholics not to realize they’re workaholics and mislabel themselves as high performers. However, if you look at these two labels more closely, you’ll find that they’re actually vastly different. A high performer is happier, he delivers more results, and performs well for longer, while a workaholic is more stressed, works hard without actually producing, is more likely to face a burn out.

Unfortunately, the corporate world we all live in is becoming more and more demanding year by year and workaholism is quickly becoming the most acceptable form of addiction. Finding ways to tap into our inner workaholic might be a good idea if we are complete slackers –it’ll only mean that we are producing something, but for people who want to be successful, workaholism is definitely not the way to go.


Jullien Gordon is a self-confessed recovering workaholic who has identified a number of ways to differentiate between a workaholic and a high performer. He points out that workaholics are more obsessed with proving rather than improving themselves and think a packed schedule is automatically a sign of exceptional achievement, while high performers realize that it’s more important to work at a sustainable pace and know the difference between busy and productive.

1. Quantity or Quality?

Do you get anxious when you’re not busy? Have you ever looked at a coworker and decided they were slacking off because they weren’t feverishly working on something? Do you work way over your normal working hours without breaks? Then you, dear reader, are probably a workaholic. Rather than focusing on working towards goals and actually being productive, you get your high by simply being busy.

If you’ve ever been passed up for promotion, try checking your performance review for phrases like "they worked hard." Reviews of workaholics tend to acknowledge that they’re hard workers, but fail to come up with concrete examples of results produced.

On the other hand, high performers focus more on results. They know that no one can be busy all day every day, and when they can’t be productive, then they sit back and strategize or take a time out. They know that breaks are important for body and mind and that their work will only benefit from taking a lunch break away from their desk. They know that working harder is not the same as working smarter, and that not every whiff of smoke is a forest fire that must be dealt with immediately.

2. Attainable Goals or Moving Goalposts?

There’s nothing wrong with setting new goals and ensuring that your career doesn’t become stagnant because you’ve stopped pushing yourself to be better and do more. You aren’t automatically a workaholic because you have goals. You’re a workaholic if you’re never satisfied with what you’ve achieved and always feel that you aren’t good enough: yes, you want to keep moving forward, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take five minutes to celebrate your successes and know when a win is a win.

High performers have set goals and a clear definition of what they need to do to be able to label something a success and reap the associated rewards. This sense of accomplishment makes them happier in themselves and makes everyone around them happier as they’re far easier to please than the workaholic who’s forever insisting that everything is terrible and that they need to work some more to make it better.

3. Risking a Burnout?

High performers know how to conserve their energy for the things that are actually important, while workaholics work themselves to death by treating everything like an emergency that needs their full attention. The workaholic in you might be shouting that it’s good to work hard, and it is... when it’s necessary. Handle everything with the same intensity and not only will you wear yourself out, but you’ll also scare everyone away by making them feel like they can’t possibly match your standards.

If you’re constantly running around like a headless chicken, panicking about everything then you are very much a workaholic. Learn to prioritize and understand when it’s okay to unwind a little and not only will your work and workplace relationships benefit, but you’ll avoid the health risks that come from working too hard for too long, otherwise known as burnout.

4. Proactive or Reactive?

You’ve already guessed that being proactive (or showing initiative) is the better option here, haven’t you? High performers who can proactively pause and look ahead to foresee any potential problems will avoid the stress a workaholic will make for themselves when they find they’ve had their head down for so long focusing on Problem A that they’ve missed the ignition of Problems B and C.

Granted, things are always going to pop up that require an immediate reaction, but if you’re well-organized then these things will fit into your daily schedule without causing too much of a stir. High performers start every day with a game plan and make sure to get the important things out of the way early on so that they can deal with anything unexpected. Workaholics start with the unimportant things and grab every new task that lands on their desk in a frantic effort to do as much as possible, and in doing so they never have the time to get to the actual important task, which means that they have to take work home.

You don’t need to plan every moment of your day, but have a to-do list with the three things that absolutely need to be done and make sure you do them first thing.

5. Always Selfless, or Sometimes Selfish?

Your first instinct might be to disagree with this one: how can always putting others first ever be a bad thing? Well, it can if you literally always do it to the point of becoming a martyr who finds they never have time for their own work. This is tied to the idea that workaholics are always seeking validation; they think that people will only value them if they always agree to help them.

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High performers have the confidence to know that it’s okay to sometimes say no, and their work benefits for it because they never fall into the trap of wasting all their time doing other people’s work. They agree to help when they can, especially if it’s something important, and don’t focus on making themselves look important by constantly over extending themselves.

Workaholics secretly like being overburdened by work, and appreciate coworkers who help by adding to the pile: being needed helps them feel valued, the extra work keeps them busy, and busy people are important people. Feeling out of control is something they both hate and thrive on, as they tend to focus on the things they can’t control rather than the outcomes they can control.

The idea that the fastest route to being noticed and getting a promotion is to arrive early, leave late and work intensely inbetween is a dangerous misconception; employers who expect that constant level of work are forgetting that it’s better to have well rounded and well rested employees who can actually maintain that lifestyle. Some industries require working harder than others, and certain projects may mean everyone has to embrace their inner workaholic for a while, but if you’re starting to forget how to be a person outside of your job then you’re probably going too far; and besides, there’s no point getting that promotion and then burning out just months later.

Do you think you might be a workaholic? Do you know someone who is? Perhaps you used to be and you stopped? Let us know your experiences in the comments section below.