commentary and current events, neurodivergence, the creative process

Thoughts on Managing Work Addiction

Here in the US, we are obsessed with work. We consider it among the highest virtues – if not the highest. We automatically ascribe the “hard worker” trait to anyone we consider successful, and the corresponding “lazy” trait to anyone we don’t. And we persist in these beliefs despite reams of evidence that billionaires don’t actually work harder than the middle class, but the working poor do.

I’ve written about my work addiction before. I continue to write about it precisely because it is the end result of a society that applauds working oneself to death. “Workaholic” is not a badge of honor; it is a sign that something has gone very, very wrong.

I went into rehab for chronic pain in November 2015. It ended up being rehab for my work addiction as much as anything else.

Five and a half years later, I have mostly accepted that my work addiction is a chronic condition. It will never be cured. The urge to overwork myself will always be present to varying degrees; I will always be managing it within the context of the rest of my life.

Now, for instance.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve noticed myself backsliding on the whole “keeping work under control” thing. I find myself too fried from work to have a conversation with my spouse. Household chores have gone un-finished because I used all my energy on work. I’m increasingly snappish when ordinary, normally joyful things like a friend’s visit or garden work “get in the way” of working. I’m starting to think of the rest of my life as “getting in the way.”

Those are all red flags that it’s time for me to reconsider how I’m doing this whole work thing.

Image: Blog post title and URL on stock photo of laptop and coffee.

Managing a work addiction is difficult for several reasons. First, it’s more like managing a food addiction than a substance addiction. Total abstention isn’t an option. Humans need work, not merely in the “I need money to live” sense, but in the “I need to put effort toward meaningful goals in order to stay mentally healthy” sense. For addictions to essentials, there is no “just say no” campaign. There is no easy solution to spoon out.

Second, a lot of the resources for managing work addiction are not helpful. Advice like “reset your priorities!” or “hide your smartphone!” simply will not cut it for people (like me) who use work to hide from deep-rooted trauma. Often, work addiction advice reads like it was written by someone who (a) has never been addicted to work, (b) can’t quite bring themselves to advocate laziness, or (c) both.

So what does work?

In my experience, managing work addiction requires attention to three different areas, which I call “boundaries,” “alternatives,” and “issues.”

Boundaries

Because total abstention from work is not an option, I need strong boundaries around my work time. I work during work time and I do not work during not-work time.

Often, the most obvious symptom of backsliding is that work is creeping into not-work time. I’ll just go another half-hour! I’ll pick this up again after dinner! Writing a thirty-tweet thread about this topic isn’t really work; it’s socializing!

Maintaining boundaries requires brutal honesty with myself. And I say “with myself” because, even though my spouse often notices when my boundaries are slipping, I do not rely on my spouse to tell me about it. This is my life. It’s my addiction. That is my work, and those are my boundaries.

When I catch myself backsliding, Step 1 is always a reaffirmation of my work boundaries. It’s a re-commitment to really turning off the computer and walking away when Work Time is over for the day.

“Reset boundaries” is always Step 1 because it’s the easy part. The other two are harder.

Alternatives

When I stuff all my work back into the Work Time boundaries, I find myself with an awful lot of free time. Especially during the pandemic, when many of the activities I normally use to fill this time were suddenly off limits.

One of my preferred Not Work Time activities pre-pandemic, for instance, was going to the gym. I went to the gym not because I specifically love the gym, but because I cannot work at the gym. I can only gym at the gym. Going to the gym, then, provided an easy way to enforce the work/not-work boundary while also providing an alternative to work.

Since work is not an option during Not Work Time, I need alternative ways to deal with the issues I was using work to deal with. These alternatives cannot be work in disguise. They need to be something else.

This one is hard when the addiction in question is work, because that addiction doesn’t limit itself to our usual definitions of “work” as “the thing I do for money” or “the thing connected to my title at this organization.” Work addiction will happily feed itself on just about anything that constitutes the pursuit and attainment of a meaningful goal.

Here, too, self-awareness plays a key role. If a Not Work Time activity starts to feel like work, I abandon it. I left a kitchen deep-clean half-finished last week because it started to feel like work.

My preferred alternatives include exercise, reading, video games, gardening, and cleaning. I love writing, too, but I took that one off the list on purpose – writing happens during work time, because it can so easily become work. The goal is to find alternatives that do not feel like work and that can’t easily disguise work.

The third step is the hardest of all.

Issues

I can set boundaries around my work time. I can find alternate activities to fill my time when it is Not Work Time. Yet neither of these activities is going to last on its own unless I also do the hardest of the three steps in managing my work addiction: Determining what issues are triggering my drive to overwork.

Often, the issue in question is stress-related. Unsurprisingly, this past year was tough.

What issues in 2020 could possibly have been causing me additional stress? It is a mystery?? /sarcasm

When I first started dealing with my work addiction as an addiction, the issues I was avoiding were almost always CPTSD flashbacks. Over time, as I’ve worked through the trauma in therapy and in my daily life, I’ve run into fewer instances where I am overworking in order to avoid looking at some piece of past trauma.

I cannot stress how important this step is, however. Boundaries and alternative activities are a cast; they keep things in place and help prevent further injury. Addressing the underlying issues is the healing part.

This is where I feel a lot of advice about work addiction falls short. Often, it gives people things to blame that aren’t the actual underlying issue. “Oh, you’re really addicted to success, not to work” is a common one. Or “you’re not addicted to work, you’re a perfectionist.”

Those may be issues some people struggle with! Nevertheless, it seems irresponsible to me to bring them up in the context of an addiction. Addiction Brain and Trauma Brain will both grasp at anything in order to avoid dealing with the root of the problem. Tossing them an excuse to gnaw on is, ultimately, less helpful than suggesting there is an underlying cause for work addiction and it is worthwhile to seek out what that is – with professional assistance if needed.

If there is a cure for my particular work addiction, I have not found it. All I have so far is the ability to manage it. So far, though, that’s kept me alive. So far, that’s been enough.


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commentary and current events

Q1 Blogging Roundup: Everything I’ve Blogged This Year So Far

Is Daylight Saving Time kicking your tail right now? It’s definitely kicking mine.

There will be more Actual Content(TM) in this space next week, I swear. In the meantime, please enjoy this roundup of all the blogging (here and on Medium) I have done so far in 2021.

Image: Blog post title image with title and URL, and a photo of a person blogging on a laptop.

On Writing

Beginners: A “Writing Strategy” Isn’t What You Think It Is: Lots of beginning writers ask for my “writing strategy,” by which they mean “how do you actually get a book out of your head and into your publisher’s hands”? What they mean is “what is your process?” A “writing strategy” is something else – something just as important as a process (or possibly even more important).

How to Write Realistic Legal Objections: TV and movies have schooled generations of Americans on how legal objections work, and not for their benefit. Here’s how to avoid using objections for dramatic effect and how to start using them like an actual lawyer would instead.

How to Fake a Conlang: Need some words or names in a made-up language, but don’t want to make up an entire language? Here’s how to make it look like you invented an entire language when you did not.

So You Need to Name a Fictional Character: Here’s how to find names that really reflect your character’s personality or traits, rather than simply being names you chose randomly from a baby name site.

Here’s Why a Plagiarism Checker Won’t Save You From Plagiarism: Plagiarism checking software can’t actually detect all types of plagiarism, and it also flags many things as “plagiarism” that aren’t.

How to Submit to an Anthology: I break down how to read a call for submissions and respond to it, step by step, using the call for Spoon Knife 7 (which is currently open!).

How to Tell if an Editor is About to Steal Your Book: Does something about your editor just seem…dastardly? Here’s how to tell if your editor is about to bring out the Giant Book-Stealing Laser.

On Working and Creativity

What Are Employers Paying For, Anyway?: Workers automate their jobs, then agonize over whether to tell their employers. And for good reason.

The Atlantic vs. My Impostor Syndrome: I thought I’d never be good enough to write for The Atlantic…until I did it.

What’s My Creative Process? This. And It Works: Here are the ten steps I follow for creative work, from idea generation to final product.

What It’s Like to Be Addicted to Work: “Workaholic” was once a source of pride for me. Then it nearly killed me.

“Too Lazy”? Try Not Lazy Enough: Over and over, studies demonstrate that humans do our best work when we have plenty of time to mess around and play. Yet that’s precisely the kind of time we deny ourselves out of fear that we’ll look “too lazy.” What is going on?

Niralanes 101: Welcome to the Language I Built a Novel Series Around: So much of what happens in my novel series depends on understanding the conlang I wrote the series to support. Here’s how to start navigating it.

24 Books Every Beginning Witch Should Read: Everyone wants to start their witchly journey by reading poetry to candles. Here are 24 books that can make you a lot better at that – or explain why it’s not the best place to start.

We Shall Overcome: A Creative Commons licensed arrangement for concert band.

On the World We Live In

We’re Worried About Student Performance. We Should Be Worried About Student Survival: Students can’t learn, online or in person, if they’re hungry or homeless. Too many of our students are both.

“Cancel Culture” Didn’t Cancel Dr. Seuss. Capitalism Did: The decision to stop publishing six Dr. Seuss titles was purely business.

“Happy” Quarantineversary: The obligatory “a year ago I was” post at the one-year mark into my personal COVID-19 Experience(TM).

Inauguration Day 2021: Looking Back, Looking Forward: Over half a million of us did not survive Trump. Here’s what we need to do next.

On Forgiveness: How do we move forward when the person who committed a wrong against us will never redress it themselves?

Three Unusual (but Potentially Useful) Approaches to Insurance: Sometimes weird risks need weird coverage.

Why You Should Keep Your Cat Indoors: Not only is it safer for them, but they really love it, too. Three cats weigh in on why Indoor Life is the Best Life.

Silly Stuff

The Worst Thing I Ever Did in a Video Game (So Far): I had The Sims 4 for, like, five minutes before it proved I am the worst human being who ever lived.

Everything You Never Wanted to Know About the Ferengi: Why do people constantly ask me Ferengi questions on Quora? Anyway, here are my answers about Star Trek’s greediest little alien weirdos.

Here’s How Many Calories of Turkish Delight Edmund Pevensie Ate: No wonder he was in such a bad mood.

Best of the Blog: My Top 10 Most-Viewed Posts of 2020: Here is a link in a linkpost to a post full of links.


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commentary and current events

“Happy” Quarantineversary

The date varies a little depending on where you were last year. But you already know which date I mean. The date everything changed.

Image: Blog post title image with photo of two people wearing masks outdoors in the city.

For me, the week of March 8, 2020 was a week of preparation and apprehension. My state’s lockdown orders went into effect Friday, March 13. My last day in the gym was Tuesday, March 9; I skipped wind band rehearsal that week, so my last time with the ensemble was Tuesday, March 3.

I’d spent the previous Saturday, March 7, putting a Class A winterguard on the floor in our pursuit of what, at the time, we all expected to be a solid state championships run. Maybe not a medal-winning run, but one we could all be proud of for a Class A guard in its debut year on the floor.

Winterguard competitions tend to be packed. We sit shoulder to shoulder in the bleachers; we perform in poorly-ventilated gyms; set up and tear down are a mad scramble of a dozen or more people in close quarters, gathering equipment and folding or unfolding a 40-foot by 70-foot tarp in the two to three minutes (total for both) we get to do those tasks before we take a penalty for delay of show.

Even at that last competition, I felt apprehensive, but nothing seemed real yet. I knew what was happening in Italy; I’d seen the Bay Area shut down just days before; I knew we were next. But I didn’t really understand on a more than superficial level what that meant. No one did. We’d never lived through it before.

I planned this post months ago, while making my blogging schedule for the year. At the time I thought it would be easier to write. After all, we were ten months into this pandemic. We all knew the ropes, right?

Now that The Week Everything Changed is back, I realize–again–how I have underestimated this pandemic. I’ve underestimated the house of mirrors time-travel aspect of trauma–again.

This is not an easy post to write. This is not an easy day, or week, for me to be living through. In the process of changing everything to Pandemic Mode, I have spent the last year more or less in a constant present. The past, so different from the pandemic, served no useful reference. The future became un-plannable and therefore unknowable.

Today, though, I see the past like it’s here again. I relive moments of The Week Everything Changed, when Before Pandemic was still normal and During Pandemic was strange, quiet, terrifying.

I’d say “otherwise, this is just a normal Monday,” but I don’t even know what that means. Not anymore.

The pandemic has not been entirely terrible for me. I’m still alive, for one thing; 525,000 Americans, 2.59 million people worldwide, cannot say the same. I’ve had time to breathe, to figure out my priorities, to set goals and to question whether everything I ran around doing pre-pandemic needed to be done by me and what it cost me to do it.

I don’t even want to talk about how bad this pandemic has been for the U.S. We know. We watched it all fall apart under the opposite of leadership. And as promising as the latest stimulus bill is in many ways, it’s not going to repair the damage that has already been done. It can’t. So many things are irreparable.

I’m not sorry we forced the world to slow down. I am sorry it cost so much.

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