Waltzing with the Workmonster

Hi, my name is Sarah, and I’m a workaholic.


It wasn’t meant to work out this way. Back in the eighties we discovered the “workaholic” syndrome.

At the time I remembered thinking it was nonsense. The theory, at least according to the experts, was that workaholics came into work too early, left too late and the reason they were doing this was some mumbo jumbo about avoiding your family and the emptiness of your own soul.

In fact, they classed workaholism at the same level as alcoholism, as a coping mechanism for the anomie of modern life, or what have you.

I still think it’s a load of hooey. Look, I came of age in the early eighties. I remember the tight labor market and the hero mode most intellectual industries worked under. My husband was in computers. He was expected to work till he dropped or the project was done, whichever came first. People who didn’t pull for the team were often let go.

Then it occurred to me that this workplace climate and the expectations might very well have encouraged workaholism.

You see, at least according to the experts, the problem is that workaholics are always “on” but their rate of return for the time invested gets smaller and smaller.

You’ve all known this person. He comes to the office before everyone. He leaves last. He is always insanely busy. But when you analyze what he’s done, it’s almost nothing.

And that’s where I found myself this week – and many weeks throughout the year. I’m always working, but I’m not accomplishing my most important tasks — to wit, finishing novels.


Then I thought back to the first time my husband had any say in a group’s management. No, he wasn’t the manager, but his manager was a friend. And Dan convinced his manager that “code written after three a.m. will need more work to repair than if it had never been written.” The group started a policy of going home – at latest – by seven p.m., unless there was a dire emergency — and that couldn’t be more than twice a year. Also, they installed a policy of not working weekends.

What followed was that in a company where “hero mode” and working around the clock was normal, this small group became the miracle workers.

Thinking about this I realized how I fell into the workaholism trap.

Oh, sure, I don’t have a boss shouting down my ears about what I need to be doing and when. Except I do. Because I’m a freelancer, I’m paid by the piece, I have commitments to my blog subscribers, and, oh, yeah, I’m a housewife and mother as well and I don’t make enough to pay someone to do that for me. On top of that – and this is when my life went into a spin – we added indie publishing, which is a whole set of new skills I need to learn.

And there – right there – lies the rub.

You see, I’ve often described my writing process as being divided into responsible adult and hyperactive child. The responsible adult knows what project comes next. She chases the hyperactive child – who wants to write a sonnet! No, an article! Wants to design a game! No, really wants to write a screen play! – around, makes her sit down and write the book/story that’s due.

The process is so exhausting that it not only takes me more time but also more effort to “chase myself around” than to actually write. But if I didn’t do this, I’d never finish anything.

Now, that gives the impression I’m “always on” because sometimes the negotiation with the inner child goes something like this “If you let me read just one more page, I’ll do your fracking novel, okay?” And just as I’m letting her read the page, I get interrupted. Which means I’m set back another ten pages. Because the inner child will get petulant.

The problem is throwing indie into this mix. You see, the inner child – the utter abominable brat – is fascinated by new and shiny, and has a desperate need to prove herself capable of anything. This means that if you throw new processes/problems at it, particularly if there’s a touch of art to it, she won’t be able to let go.

For the last two weeks I’ve been having trouble letting go of cover design (which I’m THIS close to mastering) to actually write.

But I can’t just do it by brute force as I usually do. You know “if you just let go of this and finish the novel, you can play later.” The cover process does, in fact, need to get mastered. This is not make work, but stuff that needs to be done.

I’ve tried penguins – oh, sorry, Charlie calls them tomatoes which is the classic for the pomodoro method combined with Getting Things Done – but my inner child is really good at ignoring penguins when she’s in pursuit of the shiny new way of doing things.

So… I find myself always on, from early morning to late at night, and getting nothing finished.

Part of the issue is that my office is half of my bedroom, so when I wake in the middle of the night with a brilliant idea, I can stumble to the computer and try it out.

This can’t go on. Self-evidently this can’t go on.


Over the years I’ve broken this cycle sometimes by changing my place of work, sometimes by changing my schedule, sometimes by going away for a whole week and writing in some place.

Right now, for various reasons – mostly money, but also cat’s cardiac issues – I really can’t do that.

Taking a walk, which has worked for both Charlie and me in the past is not something I really relish when Colorado is under deep-freeze.

However, the workmonster has to be tamed. And I need to finish the overdue novels, before my editor kills me.

Here’s what I propose to do in the coming week: I’m going to walk to work every morning. I.e. after checking my email, putting up my blog post and being sociable on Facebook, I’m going to put on my heavy leather coat and the snow boots and walk around the block twice, then come “into work” where I will not do social media or blogging, and will (just) work. I will walk to lunch at noon, by doing the same two blocks, then back.

I’m hoping the walk conditions my brain to thinking it’s a “different place.”

Walking “back” might be a little more complex as seven pm is dark out here and very cold. I might have to treadmill back, which I despise, and probably won’t have the same effect.

The other thing I’m going to try is what I used to study for finals in college. I’m going to promise the inner pest compensation, if she’ll let me work. You know “We work for an hour, and I let you play with covers for an hour. But you have to quit after an hour, or you lose your play privileges.”

Will it work? Something has to work. I can’t be always on and getting nothing done. In negotiating with the work monster, it’s a matter of learning to lead it.

* * *

Charlie here, and the truth is that I’m so burnt out this weekend that I’m surprised I can write anything more complicated than “uh, yeah, what she said.”  And in fact I stopped there for a while waiting to find out what the next sentence would be.

Sarah and I are clearly both what Barbara Sher calls “scanners” — people for whom the new idea, the new thing to be learned and the new idea to be explored are always seductive and exciting, and after learning the new thing or exploring the new idea, it sort of loses its juice.

Of course, scampering off after the new idea like a kitten playing with the red dot is the very antithesis of getting things done.


The project box.

The one useful thing I did do yesterday was go through my pile of “this is a few pages about some idea” notes and sort them into recognizable projects. Of which there are, at last count, 17. Which I don’t think is the whole thing yet, there are some articles and assignments that are still in other notes.

Of course, this is a useful thing: it does, as GTD suggests, get them out of my mind and into one place where I can look at them. And whimper.  Some of them are quite old — there’s a piece in handwritten form, actual manuscript, called “To Grok ‘Grok'” that’s at least several years old. Another — um, make it 18. No, 20. Okay, so anyway — I just remembered another couple of things — the point is that I’ve got a huge backlog, and I know Sarah does too. Turning that backlog into finished product is the problem. (And Sarah just reminded me I don’t have any of my novel ideas in the file yet!)

Sarah, I think, just hit something important with this when she pointed out the classic problem with overload: if you try to do too much, your efficiency goes down. I am still having trouble with two basic things: successfully picking and allocating time to a few things so there’s recognizable progress, and recognizing when I can keep working only at the expense of losing efficiency.

I need to talk to my boss about my workload.  The problem is, my boss is me, and I tend not to be very sympathetic with myself.

[And Sarah says: “I like it. And my boss is a stone-cold bitch.” Which is more or less what I meant too.]