How to Get Ahead at Work Without Becoming a Workaholic

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I watched Wolf of Wall Street recently, which inspired several flashbacks to my days in finance, working in the pit for a large bank. Seeing those crowded trading desks and excited sales traders reminded me how hard most of those people worked to try to get ahead.

Probably too hard.

While I’m sure many firms dealing on Wall Street did their fair share of after-hours partying, I never saw it. Mostly because it seemed that hardly anyone ever left the office long enough to get up to much mischief. The first people in the office were almost always among the last to leave, and I remember witnessing more than a few contrite phone calls to spouses and loved ones, as my co-workers canceled on yet another dinner, birthday party, or family vacation. Sure, there was probably a lot of money on the table, but was working 18-hour days really the way to success?

Fortunately, I have also worked with a few successful people throughout my career who managed to keep climbing the corporate ladder without stomping all over their personal lives in the process. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from them over the years on how to achieve success at work—without selling your soul.

Lesson #1: Gain a Loyal Following

Having co-workers, employees, or team members you can turn to at work is great for a lot of reasons—but it’s also an ideal strategy for helping you accomplish more than you ever thought possible.

Take one of my old bosses, for example. She had worked for the firm for over a decade and knew everyone’s job inside and out. She was a great mentor and easy to work with, and she always came to bat for us when we needed her.

As a result, the team was fiercely loyal to her. If one of us saw her staying late, we’d ask her how we could help, so she could go home. If she had to give a presentation or leave town for a conference, a handful of us would jump to help her prepare or cover her workload while she was out. The team was so loyal to her that she rarely had to ask us to do anything—we almost always offered first. As a result, we were one of the most efficient, successful teams in our division, and no one had any doubt it was due, in large part, to our fearless leader.

Having loyal employees who will go above and beyond to help you is something you couldn’t achieve on your own, no matter how many nights and weekends you worked. Yes, you’ll have to put in some extra hours and effort up front, but once you’ve proven yourself to your team, their loyalty will already begin to pay dividends.

Lesson #2: Outsource

This concept is nothing new, but for those of us with specific ideas on how a job should be approached, it’s a difficult one to put into practice. But, ignore the benefit of outsourcing (or delegating) and you’ll quickly find yourself burning the midnight oil.

Take my boss, a few years back, as a cautionary example. He was a perfectionist and had high standards for the work our team produced. Those high standards naturally rubbed off on the rest of the team, and before long, we were fully capable of performing all our duties to the highest standard. Unfortunately, our boss had a difficult time letting go and would often micromanage us so severely that he eventually just took over our projects himself. By the time he was finished, he was behind on his own work.

Thankfully, my boss eventually realized he had to start letting go. He started out by delegating the tasks he knew he couldn’t finish, and before long, he was comfortable outsourcing larger projects. Once the work was more evenly distributed, he was happier at work — and finally had the time to actually manage the team.

If you’re starting feel like your work is taking over your entire life, it’s probably time to start thinking about outsourcing some of your responsibilities. Start with smaller tasks, and gradually add more responsibility as you become comfortable with the results. Just make sure you don’t micromanage the process, and before you know it, you’ll have more time to focus on your professional growth—and, you’ll be a lot happier at work.

Lesson #3: Make a To-Do and a Done List

I’ve always been a big fan of lists, and they’re an especially important ingredient for attaining workplace success while minimizing your workload.

Not only do lists help you keep track of what you need to accomplish, but they’re also a great historical record of what you’ve achieved. I’ll never forget a conversation I was having with a boss years ago, when he admitted he didn’t really know what I did on a daily basis. I politely excused myself and ran to my desk and grabbed my trusty notebook. When I returned, we sat down, and I flipped through over a year’s worth of daily lists, detailing everything from large, long-term projects to daily deadlines. He was impressed with how much more I was doing, and when our year-end comp discussion rolled around a few months later, I had no objections to the raise I had asked for.

Lists will keep you organized and on track when you’re overloaded with work, but more importantly, they’ll serve as a historical record of how awesome you are. And when you can point to a list that shows exactly what you’ve accomplished — well, then you’ll have to worry less about making sure your boss knows you’re clocking 12 hours each day.

Lesson #4: Redefine “Success”

One of the saddest sights I’ve seen in my career is of an executive holed up in her office late at night on a Friday before a long weekend. There was no doubt she’d become a massive success at work—but, well, that was about it. She worked tirelessly and never allowed herself any time for fun or relaxation. As a result, she was perpetually tired, and as far as the rest of the team could tell, she no longer loved the job she’d sacrificed so much for.

On the flip side, there was her colleague we’ll call Betty. Betty was just as successful, however, she made a point to create and uphold strict work-life boundaries. During working hours, Betty was a machine. But, when quitting time rolled around, she was out the door and never looked back. Management respected her efficiency, her team loved working for her, and her family still recognized her face.

In my book? Betty got it right. You probably can’t enjoy your job if you’re overworked and exhausted—and the more you enjoy your work, the better you’ll be at your job. If you set boundaries, have a life outside of work, and take time to recharge whenever you can, you’ll likely find you’re much more productive—and successful—from 9 to 5.

Success comes at a price, there’s no doubt about it. But, how you pay that price is up to you. Follow these tips, and you’ll find success is well within your reach, and you’ll still have the health and energy to enjoy the fruits of your labors.

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