Are You a Playaholic?

Are You a Playaholic?

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Mental Health

One balance I find especially tricky is work versus play.

From the many, many articles written about workaholism, it seems I’m not alone. However, when reading these I often feel like an alien learning about another species. I know that, technically, anything can be addictive—but work, really?

Why aren’t there any articles on the opposite impulse? What about my secret fear that I might be addicted to anything-but-work?!

At times, I’ve felt trapped by my desire for leisure. Work feels crushingly heavy, and my mind longs to be literally anywhere else. I feel guilty and deficient—other people are apparently unable to stop working, and here’s me struggling to start.

Then, at other times, I’ve been so lost in work that I get why all those articles about workaholism exist. But I’m curious about that instinctual sense that, left to my own devices, I would find it far easier to become addicted to learning, socializing, resting, and playful creation.

Sometimes it seems as if I’d happily do anything, as long as it’s not productive!

Of course, pure fun is never useless. But when we’re stuck in a long period of only caring about playing games, or talking with friends, or learning Hindi, or painting model figurines… and nothing that’s useful in that moment… let’s call that playaholism.

Is it possible that I’m a latent playaholic?

A note on terminology

Before we go any further, I admit that I’m being cavalier with language. When I say “workaholic” or “play-aholic,” I mean “an unhelpfully skewed balance between work & play,” and not the serious addiction which the “-aholic” suffix usually implies.

While a serious addiction might require professional assistance to resolve, there may be changes we can make if our balance is a little skewed, and those changes are what I’d like to explore here.

What’s going on when we want to play (or work) all the time?

It’s good to fill our lives with fun. In fact, I’d go further than that: a life of fun and leisure seems like a worthy aim. So I don’t want to add to any unnecessary guilt we have about our leisure time. Downtime is critically important!

But like a dog left alone with too much food, we have to resist any impulses to gorge until we’re sick.

I believe a healthier balance can be found by exploring:

  • Our instincts
  • Our reaction to those instincts

Our instincts will often try to tell us when we’re getting the balance wrong. For example, does clicking “next episode” on Netflix bring us joy, or guilt?

But that’s not enough. We have to go one level deeper, and ask “is this joy/guilt justified?”

We might have convinced ourselves that we don’t deserve any leisure at all, and even the slightest break would be guilt-inducing. Or perhaps we falsely believe that our work is of no value, or that failure is guaranteed, and that no joy could come from anything but leisure.

Each of us is different, and our circumstances are unique. So each of us must consciously examine our feelings, as well as the beliefs which underlie them, for ourselves. Here’s some ideas which might help:

1. Examine your motivations—both positive and negative

What feelings are motivating your desire for work/play? Can you identify any feelings which motivate avoidance of the other?

For example: “I’m avoiding work because it makes me anxious, while play makes me relaxed.”

(There’s a fun trap in which we convince ourselves that both this and the opposite are true. There’ve been times when I’ve struggled to either work or play because whichever I chose, I’d be convinced I should be doing the other.)

2. What underlies those motivations?

What are the beliefs which give rise to those feelings? For me, underlying beliefs vary wildly, but I’ve found that, at times:

  • Play stresses me out and makes me feel guilty because I believe I haven’t earned it
  • Play relaxes me because I believe it’ll give me more energy to work in future
  • Work makes me anxious because I’m afraid I’ll fail (or even succeed!)

Sometimes one belief overwhelms the others, sometimes a little internal war takes place between all of the contradictory beliefs.

It may help to go deeper by asking why of each belief. For example, “I play all the time because there’s no point in working”: perhaps asking why this belief exists may reveal a deeper-still belief that “…because I screw everything up” or “…because all work is meaningless” or something else.

We have to understand what’s driving our feelings before we can begin to change them.

(This process can be emotionally taxing, and may touch on deep issues. You might want to seek support from friends, family or even professionals.)

3. Seek new motivations

Once we’ve found the beliefs underneath our feelings, it’s time to reframe them.

Again, there’s no easy universal process for this. But a new perspective on each belief is usually possible.

At a particularly dark time in my life, I had a conversation with an old friend about a project they were working on. It was a nerdy conversation about modeling the physics of the atmosphere, and I found myself suddenly energized. I realized it had been months since I’d found anything that interested me, and I’d started to believe that there was nothing out there that I could care about anymore.

The moment of engagement was enough to dislodge that belief, and while I never did anything specifically with that project, I was able to find other projects that I cared about.

How can you challenge your existing beliefs? Can you find a counterexample? Or a new source of excitement and energy? This is easier said than done—but perhaps one small change could be a good start.

4. Beware “joyless play” (and “joyless, unproductive work”)

As if to perfectly illustrate my own work-aversion, moments ago I tabbed away to idly browse Twitter, where I immediately saw a t-shirt saying “I’m not lazy, I’m just highly motivated to do nothing.”

The relevance to this article gave me a jolt, and I instantly realized that I was deriving zero pleasure from this idle browsing. I was just joylessly scrolling.

I knew I’d be ultimately happier if I finished writing, so here I am again: back, and re-engaged.

In short, if you’re not enjoying play, ask yourself why. Is there something better (more fun, more productive, whatever) that you could be doing? What’s stopping you from doing that?

Finding balance between work and play can be tough, particularly as the boundaries between each are becoming increasingly blurred. That’s why putting effort into this internal work is so worthwhile: it pays off in extra productivity, and happier play. Next week, we’ll explore what a life that’s in balance might actually look like.

Your Turn

How do you keep your work-play balance? Share your thoughts and stories with the community in the comments.

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at, his mental health blog, and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.


  1. Ginger says:

    This is a great article. I picked up on many points I need to think about again. It’s tough, but we really should look at why we do or feel things the way we do. 3 ideas came to mind that I know have dragged me down from time to time. Similar to those mentioned.

    1. My work’s not good enough compared to everyone else.
    2. The work’s not important enough/serves no purpose when you think about the vast scheme of life.
    3. This i find the worst – I’m useless so the work I do will be the same and nobody cares.

    I think it’s important to see if these feelings are stemming from just being jaded for the moment, having the ‘blues’, or is it a real depression? Then we can take the proper steps and balance to fix it.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thanks Ginger, and yes – examining WHY we feel the way we do is tough but necessary. I love that you were able to identify those beliefs underlying your attitude to work – I hope you can find a way to dissolve or reframe them in a more positive light, and that it brings you some more joy (whether through play, productivity or both!)

  2. jonathan says:

    Wow, this came at a very pertinent time in my life! I think recently have given up on my ability to even be productive but your article reminded me of how deflating and unsustainable of a belief that is. Thanks for the perspective, Neil :)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Ahh I’m so glad it came at the right time. Even noticing we HAVE that belief can be a huge step, as it allows you to challenge it – even if only in small ways at first! Good luck :)

  3. Zara Pradyer says:

    Thank you, Neil.

    Reading your essay, I recognized so many of my habits, attitudes, excuses and, worst of all, justifications, that at least I don’t feel solitary in my indolence.

    I am now going to go away and think. But, not too much, after which I hope to ‘do.’

    Wishing you much joy and fulfillment, Neil.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Haha, I love that recognition of “thinking, but not too much” – as a chronic overthinker I know the feeling exactly! I’m pleased that we’re both not alone in our habits – wishing you joy and fulfilment too :)

  4. Swarna Kadagadkai says:

    I love this article so much! Such great insights. Thank you for this. I hope you have a wonderful day.

  5. K.C. says:

    Hi Neil,
    As always, a great article. My dilemma is not finding balance, it’s finding either the right work environment doing what I like/ love and or being able to get the financial means to support my creative endeavors that by the way don’t take thousands of dollars but do take more than a hundred. Oh and did I mention that this transition has been made all the more challenging by the fact that I had been out of work for 4 years battling Cancer and had not really established a ‘career’ by that time. As a result of my financial situation had to move back to my hometown where I vowed never to return and it’s not been the life changing experience I was hoping for…at least not yet.
    And the thing is is that all the signs have been pointing to this as being the year that I turn the ‘proverbial corner’. I just don’t know when that’s going to be and I need it to happen like yesterday.
    Still Hopeful AKA K.C.?

    • Neil Hughes says:

      That sounds very tough KC – that’s a lot to juggle! Major life changes, career establishment, and health issues… it sounds like ‘merely’ handling it all is a HUGE accomplishment in itself. I’m happy you’re getting that sense of turning a corner – after a couple of tough years myself I’m feeling the same for 2019, so hopefully many good things will be coming your way very soon. (Sadly none of us can improve the past, but wishing you a much better present and future!) Good luck :)

  6. Maryske says:

    The situation itself doesn’t really apply to me, I think, but I got something very important out of this column: the joyless play.

    As a job seeker, I spend most of my waking time on the computer. However, in the end you tire of all the job seeking, and you start doing other things on the computer.
    However, it happens regularly that in such cases, I’m just clicking around youtube or something like that, without actually *enjoying* what I’m watching. Partly it might have to do with the guilt (I should be looking for job openings etc), but at least it made me think: when what I’m doing on the computer is supposed to be fun, but I’m not enjoying myself in the least, I had better turn it off…

    To be honest, altogether, I’m beginning to feel a bit like screen junkie these days. This past weekend I have very consciously left the computer *off*, and I, who never had trouble finding anything to do in my life, suddenly didn’t seem to be able to think of anything fun to do that did *not* involve the computer.

    I think I’ll be continuing the computerfree weekends. Plus, thanks to your pointer, I’ll try and be more conscious about actually *enjoying* myself when I’m supposed to be doing something fun on the computer.

    So thanks, as always, Neil!

  7. Silvia says:

    Great article Neil, it’s good to know that I am not the only one struggling with this, I’ll try out your suggestions

  8. Kacie says:

    Very thought-provoking. I think my “play” motivators are learning, wondering, problem-solving, creating, and planning. My job requires mostly busy work, and it irritates me because it forces my brain away from thinking and wondering, and makes me waste my brain power on boring, repetitive things. This is the first time I’ve been able to put that into words!

  9. Eswar says:

    Hey Neil Hughes,
    Nice article. This article was more like my inner self speaking to me. We have conversations in our head, right. It was reading one such conversation. I too am crazy about games. I feel like it puts in a zone where I forget myself and I’m focused on the game. So much so that I lose track of time. In fact, I feel like time is flying fast when I’m playing.
    So, thank you for reminding me of my love.

    With regards to the balance, although I wanna play every day, I can’t because of a lack of company and resources. However, I try and make it point to play every alternate day. I have to do it because it lightens up work pressure for me and therefore I can work better. Most importantly, it puts things in perspective, I start to find some wisdom in loosening up while playing.

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