This psychotherapist and former workaholic teaches you how to get back your sanity

Can’t stop answering emails after work? Do you pride yourself as being the last one to leave the office, even though there’s nothing to do? No boundaries between home and the office? Want to stop the madness?

#chill: Turn Off Your Job and Turn On Your Life, is a new book by Dr. Brian E. Robinson that focuses on short bursts of meditation and lessons in mindfulness to stop the cycle of overwork.

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Robinson, a licensed psychotherapist with a practice in Asheville, NC, is a recovering workaholic that has written extensively about work addiction. His book, however,  is for everybody — useful for anyone from a go-go perfectionist overachiever to the tech-obsessed soul who wants to learn how to unplug after work and focus on work-life balance.

He spoke with Ladders about his book:

Ladders: Your book is aimed at workaholics but I read it, and it seems like it could be for anyone, especially today that we have this modern, very highly technologically-connected workforce that has trouble shutting off at the end of the day.

Robinson: Actually, I wrote it for everybody.

I spent a lot of time writing and researching this whole idea of work-addiction and workaholism and I’ve written other books and articles about it. This book is for workaholics, but it’s for anyone on the continuum – the workaholic might be the most extreme. People are picking it up and saying, “Gosh, I’m not a workaholic but this certainly helps me,” because I think many of us, if not most of us, are struggling with the blurred lines because of the technology and the pressures that people are feeling they’re under, some of which we put ourselves under.

My goal was to extend it to everybody … It can be a stay-at-home mom or stay-at-home dad. It can be someone who’s fully employed. It can be a volunteer and even a retiree.

So the book is really about being able to be mindful and pay attention and slow down a little bit, so we can live longer and live happier.

Ladders: You wrote about your experience as a workaholic. What kind of work were you doing then?

Robinson: I was at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte… I went through the professorial ranks and that’s when I was in the throes of my own work addictions before I even had a private practice.

I was teaching counseling in the Department of Counseling, Special Ed and Child Development. I was just so immersed in it. I had no clue. You know, when we’re in the water, sometimes we don’t see the water we’re swimming in.

Ladders: What drives workaholism or things that can turn you on to workaholism?

Robinson: Well, a true dyed-in-the-wool workaholic is not unlike an alcoholic, actually. The trajectory of the addiction is very similar and, in my own situation, there was a time when I would hide my work because my family would complain, just like an alcoholic hides a bottle.

I was working day, night, weekends, holidays, just working all the time. What I realized, in my own recovery, is that it gave me this high. And what a lot of workaholics do, it helps them assuage anxiety.

A lot of it has to do with control of dealing with uncertainty and unpredictability. And then it becomes a medication. It’s used to hold that anxiety at bay when the fear of the unknown or not knowing what’s gonna happen.

That profile doesn’t fit everybody, but many of the people who are not workaholics are often dealing with perfectionism or that little voice in their head that says, “You have to. You must.”

Ladders: What is a chilled life or a chilled worker? And how do you get there?

The way I define it is someone who is “drawn” versus “driven.” What I just described to you was my being driven from either an internal source like the voice in my head that says, “You’ve gotta be in control. Something terrible’s gonna happen if you’re not,” or on the outside, where you have deadlines or you have a big business or a boss who’s standing over you saying, “You’ve gotta get this done.”

Even if it’s not there, sometimes we bring that to the work. Even if you’re not a workaholic, some people experience their boss or their supervisor as a parent and that results in a replay of what happened in their own childhoods. So that’s “driven.”

Now “drawn” is the opposite. It’s inside-out instead of outside-in. And so a chilled worker would be someone who is able to come from their own internal peace and that takes some work to get there. It’s people who – they don’t just speed through. They’re also aware. They’re mindful, I guess is the best way to say it. They’re mindfully present of the people around them and what’s going on inside of them and they’re able to regulate internally how they respond to either that inner voice or that external pressure, instead of allowing themselves to cave into it.

Viktor Frankl wrote the book “Man’s Search For Meaning” about his experience at Auschwitz and, basically, the book says the reason he survived is because the Nazis could not take his will.

What a quote from it says is, “Between the trigger or the stimulus and you’re reaction to it, there is a space.” And once you find that space, you’re able to be there more. In that space, he says, you have a choice, and when you’re choosing how you respond to a situation instead of just automatically reacting, you’re free.

[That space] could be anything … I know that’s a long answer, but… A chilled worker is someone who’s able to stay in that sweet spot, that chill spot.

Ladders: I wanted to ask you about open-awareness meditation, one easy form of meditation you mentioned in the book. So why does that help us?

Robinson: The more you do it, the more you build that space. It brings you into the present moment. It actually, on a neurological level, puts you in your, what we call the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the opposite of the sympathetic. The sympathetic is your fight or flight. That’s where fear and anger and reactivity is and, over time, basically, you’re training the brain. I don’t have to react just because something happens that I don’t like. I’m able to stay calm and deal with it from my – we call it the new brain instead of the lizard brain.

You’ll notice people who meditate regularly will say, “Gosh, I don’t have those hot buttons anymore. I’m able to respond more rationally when something upsets me.”

Ladders: It seems like they’re something you can do even in the middle of the workday at your desk?

Robinson: Oh yeah, and I recommend five minutes. When I mention meditation to my clients or when I’m speaking, people throw their hands up, “I can’t do another thing. Don’t even go there.” And I say, “Hold on. I’m talking five minutes.” Because when people hear meditation, they think of the 70s. And they just immediately write it off.

So I say, “This is portable, it’s free. It will change your life.” Five minutes a day. If you want to do more, fine. And that’s what I do. I do five minutes a day and I sit and do one of the meditations in the book, and just focus on my breath. In through my nose, out through my mouth.

And over time, it regulates your reactivity and it helps you be in that chill spot more. Five minutes is doable between sunrise and sunset.

Ladders: Going from workaholism to wherever you are on the continuum, what does a better, more chill version of ourselves look like overall?

Robinson: There are eight C words and when you’re in that place, of course, the whole idea of that chill spot is there’s a sense of calm. There’s a sense of clarity. There’s connection – more connection with yourself and with people. There’s a greater sense of confidence and courage – courage meaning you’re more willing to stick your neck out, not in dangerous ways but maybe do things you wouldn’t have ordinarily done and you grow from it. So that’s what courage is.

And then there’s creativity. The creativity gets unleashed when we’re calmer. Most people who are creatives, and certainly writers, will often say, and this is true of me, my creative ideas come not when I’m struggling and trying to make them come, but when I’m in the shower or moving furniture. Because you’re more relaxed and you’re not forcing. So the creativity emerges. And compassion. Self- compassion as well as compassion for others.

So that’s a chilled worker but it’s also just someone, even if they don’t have a job in the workplace, as a mom or a dad, a chilled parent. Or a chilled retiree.

And one of the things I say in the book is, if we can be a little more forgiving of ourselves and other people, again that helps you immerse in that place, the sweet spot, the chill spot.

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