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, the creative process, writing

How to Work From Home If You’re Not Used to Working From Home

Today four universities in my home state announced a temporary shutdown due to COVID-19. A number of U.S. businesses are arranging for workers to work remotely, rather than risk coming into the office or commuting on public transport.

Working or studying from home takes some adjustment if you’re not used to it. I made my adjustment back in 2009, when a medical condition prevented me from leaving my house – sometimes, for weeks at a stretch.

I’ve worked from home for over ten years now. Here’s what I’ve learned about doing it successfully.

how to work from home

Create a Dedicated Workspace

It’s tempting to sack out on the couch when you’re working from home. (I’m on my couch right now.) Working where you relax, however, can have two negative effects: It can distract you from work, and it can make relaxation time feel like a chore.

Instead, create a space to work in. If you’re lucky enough to have a separate room, use it. If not, set up a desk or a card table or a corner of the kitchen. Put a TV tray at one end of your couch and use that end for work; when not working, sit on the other end.

The goal is to have a place you can do your work and store work things (papers, your laptop, etc). Choose a place you can focus on work and that you can walk away from when work time is over.

Schedule Your Work Time

Carving out a space in which to get into “work mode” is important. Carving out time to do the same is just as important – if not more so.

You may not need to stay on your ordinary work schedule while working from home, especially if you typically have a lengthy commute. It is a good idea, however, to stay on a regular work schedule that parallels your ordinary schedule. You’ll be available to co-workers and clients (see below), and you’ll be able to retrain your brain into a work/home schedule more easily.

Try to work during the same block of time each day. Alert your family that you are working and are not to be bothered. Don’t respond to things like the front door or personal phone calls while you’re working. You wouldn’t be home to answer the door if you were at the office, and you’re still not available during work hours even if you are physically home.

Communicate With Your Team (More)

One of the biggest things that surprises new telecommuters or remote workers is how much more electronic communication is necessary when you don’t work in a face to face environment.

Communicate with your boss, co-workers, staff and clients even more than you think you need to. Get into the habit of sending a check-in email at least once a day, updating others on your progress. If you lead a team, make the check-in a part of everyone’s work day.

Communication also helps maintain relationships. You’ll be able to help co-workers adjust to working remotely, and you’ll maintain the human connections we’ll desperately need should COVID-19 seriously destabilize social and economic functions.

Use Multiple Channels

To boost communication, use or recommend using multiple channels and types. Skype, FaceTime, teleconference calls, shared Google Docs, email, text, Slack, Messenger, WhatsApp, and the like are your friends in a remote-work situation.

Each of these tools performs a different role, and the combination of roles can help a team complete tasks they might struggle with on any one channel.

For example: I’ve worked with a remote content marketing team for nearly two years now. We communicate daily via Slack and email. We meet on GoMeetMe, and we work in shared Google Drive files when we need to collaborate on particular tasks.

Each of these channels performs a specific function that would be clunky over any other, if not outright impossible. Emailing documents back and forth is a nightmare compared to working in a shared Google Doc. Having voice conversations really helps us with idea generation as a team and helps us support one another (and I say this as someone who struggles with auditory processing). And I appreciate that the pet photos and bad puns stay on Slack, where they aren’t cluttering up my inbox.

We have more tools and channels for communication at a distance than we have ever had before in human history. Apply the strengths of several to help keep yourself and everyone else on track.

Back Up Your Data – And Yourself

Automatic backups are ubiquitous these days. If you typically work with an office computer or tablet, chances are good that your company has some kind of automatic backup system in place, in addition to the ones embedded in programs like Google Drive and Microsoft Word.

At home, however, you may need to do your own backups. Keep all your work information backed up to an external drive, if possible. Use a thumb drive or an external hard drive for large projects.

In addition, it’s important to “back up” yourself. Should the worst occur and you find yourself infected with COVID-19, you may end up requiring hospitalization or at least extensive bed rest.

In this situation, you may need someone else to contact your boss, co-workers, or clients in order to let them know what has happened and how you are doing. Make sure someone trustworthy has a way to contact someone on your work team. For example, give your spouse your boss’s email address or phone number.

The goal of working remotely is to reduce your chances of contracting or passing on COVID-19. Ideally, you won’t need a backup person – but it’s best to have one just in case.

Clean Your Devices

Our laptops, tablets and cell phones are surprisingly dirty – more than your average pet toy or toilet seat. Washing your hands religiously doesn’t do much good if the first thing you touch is your germ-ridden keyboard.

I’m certain my keyboard was one of the dirty ones. I know exactly when my toilet seat was last cleaned with bleach (this morning). My laptop? I also know exactly when that was last cleaned: Never.

(Well, almost. I fixed that before I started writing this post.)

Fortunately, there are plenty of online guides to cleaning laptops and other devices. If yours has been to the office or commuted with you, clean it as soon as possible.

Walk Away At the End of the Day

Last but not least, when you’re done working at your newly-remote or newly-telecommuting position at the end of the day, leave work behind.

Leave work behind physically, by shutting down your laptop or tablet, depositing it in your workspace, and physically leaving that space (even if that just means shifting to the other end of the couch). Leave it behind mentally by focusing on other tasks, like making dinner or playing with the dog. If a work task continues to bug you mentally, write it down and put it on your work pile to deal with in the morning.

One of the great disadvantages of working from home is that it enables us to work all the time. Because we can work all the time, we start to think we should.

We should not. Working nonstop is unhealthy: physically, mentally and emotionally. If all you do is work, you can’t be fully present for your own needs, much less for those of your friends, family and neighbors – people who will need each other, and whom you will need, if things get worse.

Set a schedule that includes your quitting time for the day, and stick to it. You can tackle the next task tomorrow.

Working from home takes some adjustment, and it’s not ideal for everyone. By planning ahead and maintaining good communication, however, you can ease the transition and protect your own and others’ health at the same time.


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