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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neurodivergence, the creative process

“Too Lazy”? Try Not Lazy Enough.

While writing an article for Medium earlier today, I discussed the importance of rebooting after the hard work of creating.

Matthew Inman at The Oatmeal calls this phase “breathing in.” The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People refers to it as “sharpening the saw.” I think of it as “rebooting.”

Whatever you decide to call it, the fact is that if the quality and/or quantity of your output is declining, it’s probably not because you’re too lazy. It’s probably because you’re not lazy enough.

Image: Blog post title image with post title, URL, and a student resting on top of a tall pile of books.

We All Work Too Much

Yes, of course I’d say that. I’m a confessed workaholic whose addiction has nearly killed me more than once. But here’s the thing: It’s not just me.

Remember the 40-hour workweek? For most US adults, it’s more like 47 hours, according to one Gallup poll. Millennials are particularly bad about overworking, being more likely to agree to take on even more work or to refuse to step away from work entirely even for short periods.

A 2010 LexisNexus study found that many workers reported being on the verge of “breakdown” under the onslaught of information they handled at their jobs each day. In 2010! When the total worldwide data created was 2 zettabytes, compared to 74 zettabytes today!

If the information overload feels like it’s getting worse, that’s because it is. And we’re not doing ourselves any favors by how we treat the value of staying busy.

We treat the state of being constantly busy as a virtue, as if it proves that we’re valuable or our lives have meaning. There is, I suspect, a good reason for this behavior beyond assuaging our own egos as to our worth: Constant downsizing and job loss through automation have proven to two entire generations now that if we’re not constantly doing work, we’re communicating that we can be and should be replaced.

Rest Makes Us More Productive

For centuries, people scoffed at the idea that rest could be productive on its own, let alone make workers more productive. The US’s current work ethic is largely an artifact of our earliest Puritan ancestors, who firmly believed in the rectifying power of constant labor. (The fact that a good portion of them died of starvation during their first two winters in New England may have had something to do with their obsession.) During the Industrial Revolution, “work houses” were created for people too poor to support themselves, on the grounds that they were poor only because they were indolent and a good 16 hours a day of picking tar out of old bits of rope in exchange for three bowls of gruel and a bed of straw would fix them.

The idea that hard work is a virtue and rest a vice is well ingrained into our culture. The more we study rest and work, however, the more it becomes clear that we have our morals exactly backwards.

Research indicates, for instance, that taking adequate rest periods allows us to get more done in a shorter time frame. For example, when Basecamp decided to move to a four-day workweek, the company found that its staff actually got more done in four weeks than they were getting done in five. Researchers who examine the brains of occupied and idle individuals via MRI and similar scanning tools have also discovered that the brain is “working” even when it’s not engaged in a task – and that, in fact, the brain’s “idle time” is essential to its ability to focus on tasks.

The longer I’m in control of my own schedule, the bigger a proponent I am of work time that allows each worker to manage the ebb and flow of their own energy.

I, for instance, tend to work in intense three- to five-hour bursts – and then spend the rest of the day rebooting. In those bursts, I get work done that the market seems to think I’d need eight to ten hours of a workday to do. At least, that’s the impression I get from all the recruiters who want me to apply for jobs that pay exactly what I’m making now, but that demand I be physically present for 40 hours a week instead of 10.

So far, so good. But “productivity” is a virtue generated by our social expectations, particularly in the US. It’s not necessarily a personal virtue – and when applied to personal work, “productivity” can be a real inspiration-killer.

Your personal work needs you to rest, too. Because:

Boredom is Good for Creativity

In a 2014 study published in Creativity Research Journal, Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman tested the effects of boredom on a particular type of creativity known as “divergent thinking.” It’s the kind that helps you do things like, say, generate a bunch of new uses for an ordinary household item.

Mann and Cadman began by splitting research subjects into two groups. Both groups were asked to generate as many ideas as they could for using a pair of plastic cups. Before this task, however, one group was asked to copy numbers out of the phone book; the other was given no such mind-numbing activity.

The phone book copiers ended up generating significantly more uses for the cups than the control group, however. It was as if being a little bored first made the creative mind restless, so it jumped at the chance to do something creative like play with cup ideas.

Mann and Cadman then repeated the study, but with a twist. To see whether degree of boredom made a difference, they created a study with three groups. One group served as a control group. One group copied numbers out of the phone book, as before. The third group was assigned merely to read the phone book. Then, all three worked on finding creative uses for plastic cups.

Once again, boredom helped generate new ideas. And more boredom seemed to do more. The phone book readers came up with the most cup-related ideas, followed by the phone book copiers; both groups outperformed the control group.

You Deserve To Live

If nothing else, take this from someone who actually did nearly die four different times from overwork: You deserve to rest because you deserve to live.


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commentary and current events, neurodivergence

Inauguration Day 2021: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Four years ago today, I studiously avoided watching the inauguration. Instead, I wrote the introduction to Spoon Knife 2: Test Chamber, a volume that seemed even more vital then than it had when AutPress released its call for submissions ten months earlier.

Four years later, I still find the Spoon Knife 2 intro meaningful. Here it is, reprinted in full, for another inauguration day – and the entrance into another test chamber.

National Day of Testing: An Introduction

“You know what my days used to be like? I just tested. Nobody murdered me, or put me in a potato, or fed me to birds. I had a pretty good life. And then you showed up.” – GLaDOS, Portal 2

My debut piece in The Spoon Knife Anthology relied heavily on the mythology of Portal, a video game in which the player-protagonist navigates a series of nineteen test chambers, accompanied by promises of cake and increasingly sinister commentary from a sentient supercomputer named GLaDOS. As the player progresses, completing each chamber becomes increasingly difficult. Breaking out of them altogether becomes unavoidable.

Portal is primarily a puzzle game. The same test chambers that trap the player-protagonist and obscure the final goal also provide both the tools of escape and the necessary practice in how to use them. The moment of escape is devilishly simple but requires quick thinking; the game’s ending implies exactly how far one can test the chamber.

For several months after submitting my first Spoon Knife piece, the concept of the “test chamber” intrigued me. “My Mother, GLaDOS” was my first tangible test (of the) chamber, the first time I’d committed some of the rawest and most gaslit parts of my childhood to print and the first time, outside the safety of my therapist’s office, that I had ever criticized the malignant programming that tested me. I played with the concept of the “test chamber” for several months before generating the Call for Submissions that produced responses in the form of the poetry, fiction, and memoir that appear here.

The writers (and editors and publishers) of the book you now hold in your hands all have this in common: we all diverge in some way(s) from the normative, the expected, the acceptable. We’ve all been pathologized, scrutinized, corrected – often, in horrible ways.

As I write this, the United States finds itself in a new test chamber, one whose outputs will inevitably affect the rest of the world. Those of us who find ourselves already marginalized, like the authors represented here, will suffer first, but we will not suffer alone. All of us need the tools of defiance and resistance.

The Spoon Knife Anthology gives its readers the chance to name demands for compliance when we see them, and to try on the means of defiance and resistance. In Spoon Knife 2: Test Chamber, we explore what happens when those tools – and others – are applied to a particular purpose or demand. We test the chamber in which we find ourselves, and in so doing, we find the power to subvert it.

Dani Alexis Ryskamp
January 20, 2017


For more literature on compliance, defiance, and resistance, visit autpress.com.

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