I often say that the switch in my brain that should tell me when I’m sated with alcohol — the one that helps other people stop drinking after they’ve had their socially acceptable two glasses of wine at their friend’s art gallery opening — is busted.
I celebrated six years of sobriety on March 17, 2019. I call myself a “non-practicing alcoholic,” but back when I was very much in practice, my expertise was in binge drinking. I craved nights out at the karaoke bar with friends who’d wouldn’t judge me for drinking another vodka soda if I was the one buying the rounds. But after the bars closed for the night, you could still find me dancing alone in my living room with a bottle of vodka in my hand. No one to celebrate with, and nothing to celebrate unless you were impressed by my ability to fall asleep in my clothes.
When I finally admitted that the negative consequences of my alcohol addiction outweighed the lie to myself and others that I was just “having fun,” I chose to abstain entirely from alcohol rather than to drink it in moderation. In my mind, I wouldn’t have to worry about my faulty “off” switch if I never started in the first place.
From one faulty switch to another.
Workaholism is often praised as “commitment” or “tenacity” for one’s cause. Addiction expert and physician Gabor Maté describes the confusion of passion with addiction well here: “Passions can be very consuming of time and energy, but they also feed your soul, your sense of being alive, your feeling of wholeness as a person. Addictions provide fleeting pleasure or gratification, but never leave you satisfied.”
I need to intentionally work to prevent my fascination with productivity from tipping the scale into addiction because my same “stop after two drinks” switch is also faulty here. I do not naturally experience the satisfaction of being “done” with work.
Unlike drinking, which I can choose to abstain from, I consistently swim against the seductive current of workaholism.
I was forced to admit my workaholism when I developed chronic pain in early 2017. For the first year and a half of my pain timeline, sitting was excruciating. I was devastated, mostly because I based my self-worth on the quality and quantity of work I produced at my desk. Work was something I’d always been praised for, and I rarely said no or turned down an opportunity. Unlike drinking, which I can choose to abstain from, I consistently swim against the seductive current of workaholism.
Unfortunately, workaholism comes in many forms. Here are three ways to identify if that is what is happening to you, as it happened to me.
1. Lost Control:
In Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them, researcher and self-admitted workaholic Bryan E. Robinson defines workaholism as “an obsessive-compulsive disorder that manifests itself through self-imposed demands, an inability to regulate work habits, and overindulgence in work to the exclusion of most other life activities” (3).
Author Annie Grace interviews Dawn Nickel (creator of She Recovers) about workaholism in the podcast The Naked Mind. Nickel says we should call workaholism “do-aholism” because we get obsessed with DOING things, not just working. I resonate with this, because when I put in 12-hour days zipping from one task to another, my consistent “doing” rarely leaves me leftover physical, emotional, or mental resources to be present in conversation or movement.
Coach Tomas Kejzlar discusses burnout and workaholism in his interview with Management 3.0’s Happy at Work podcast. He notes that workaholism is not something that hits us out of the blue; it’s something we slowly build up. To illustrate, he describes how he used to check and respond to work emails at midnight and on vacations, even though he told his colleagues that they should not be overworking themselves. Similarly, Bryan E. Robinson admits that he literally once snuck his work on a vacation by hiding it in his car and then worked on it secretly after he lied to his family that he was going to take a nap.
My experience with chronic health issues forced me to admit that my workaholic tendencies were no longer options if I wanted to remain functional throughout my day. What I needed was a manual on/off switch that blended slow living with mindful productivity.
As I practiced “slowductivity” methods, I developed that manual on/off switch for work. I noticed my perspective on my self worth shifting. I started to make choices about when, how, and where to invest my time and energy, rather than saying “yes” to every opportunity. I set boundaries with the intention to allocate my time and energy and spoons to things that lined up with my personal values. I committed to learning how to love myself, even when I felt frightened by shifting the needs of my body. I took breaks.
Below are three ways to begin to have a better relationship with work.
Step 1: Use Tools to Set Boundaries:
Time management researcher Kevin Kruse recommends a “pulse and pause” method for taking breaks. This method suggests that we work for a predetermined period of time (pulse), then take an intentionally timed break (pause).
A popular pulse and pause technique is the Pomodoro method, where you work for 25 minutes, take a break for five, and then take an extended 15-minute break after four sets of this method. I love the pulse and pause technique because it provides external rules and trains me to step away from my work when a timer goes off.
Step 2: Watch Out for Gray Areas:
Dancer and educator Marlee Grace writes about work gray areas in How to Not Always Be Working: A Toolkit for Creativity and Radical Self-Care. She notes the tightrope we sometimes walk when our work and our hobbies overlap: “One of my favorite ways to take a break is stretching, light movement, and yoga. But, again, dancing and movement are in so, so many ways my work in this world… I have found that movement without expectation… can be freedom from working — working in the job sense, that is.”
When we do this grey area work that is also “fun,” we don’t truly rest, so it’s important to ask yourself, “Am I really taking a break?”
Step 3: Limit Your Tech Use:
I am also guilty of taking a “break” from one work task by working on a separate work task.
When I have the urge to check email during a Pomodoro break, I remind myself to physically leave my desk and walk into another room, do light stretches, drink a glass of water, or simply practice mindful breathing for five minutes.
These practices, these tools, are my manual on/off switch. Although I can abstain from alcohol, I can’t abstain from work.
But in June of this year, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease. The symptoms and the side effects from the medication I’m on mean I need to rest even more than I did before. Thankfully, I’ve learned that pushing myself to extremes doesn’t serve me. I wonder if I’d had this awareness about myself when I was drinking if I’d have been able to recognize the false glamour of blackout dancing alone with a bottle at 4 am.