I have to learn how to…

I have to learn how to better manage my time. Not to do more -- to do less.

Do you think I'm a workaholic? I think I've been heading in that direction. Dr Barbara Killinger, a clinical psychologist gives this definition; "A workaholic is a person who becomes emotionally crippled and addicted to control and power in a compulsive drive to gain approval and success." That sounds frighteningly familiar. And I answer "yes" to most of these questions. Not good.

I know that from the outside, it's probably always seemed like I'm a workaholic -- for the last ten years, at least. Y'all see my to-do lists, and I've gotten a lot of comments from friends who think I work too hard, or who say that they're surprised by how much I get done. A couple of them have even said that it makes them feel inadequate, or like they aren't working hard enough. And I'm always startled, because what isn't clear in those lists is just how much time I normally spend every day goofing off.

For a long time (in the Ph.D. and in the MFA) I didn't have a day job. And in the year I was tech writing and the year I was adjuncting, I had an incredibly flexible day job. And I've mostly not had a daily commute, which has saved me at least two hours every day, compared with most people I know -- not just with the travel itself, but with packing up, with getting dressed (many days I don't bother), with having an hour-long lunch built into the schedule. So even when I've had a long list, even when I've felt time pressure or been on deadline, I've also had plenty of time just to enjoy life. To watch four hours of tv a day. To read a book or two. To cook as many of my meals as I feel like. To sit with a cup of tea and browse the net. My miserable years doing grunt temp secretarial work, waking up and wanting to burst into tears at the thought of going to work, calling in sick often when I wasn't, because I just couldn't face it, getting fired for taking long lunches -- all of that has made me really appreciate the luxury of my life.

Or rather, the luxury of my life as it used to be. Because this last year -- this last year, it's gotten out of control. Everything I'm doing is good. It's all productive, whether it's writing or teaching or starting new programs with the SLF or creating DesiLit or putting on a lit festival. I don't want to give any of it up. But sometimes it feels like I've forgotten to leave myself time to breathe.

I'm hoping this is just a temporary effect of being stupid enough to schedule finishing a book, academic job hunting, teaching in a new department, writing a novel, a month-long trip to Sri Lanka, buying a house, moving house, throwing a huge party, book tour, all in addition to the rest of my life, all in the same year. I can't believe I actually did that. It's three years worth of stuff, all squeezed into one year. There have been some family crises too, which I couldn't have predicted, that have also eaten up some time. But the things I could've predicted -- I don't know what I was thinking. It was as if I thought that there was infinite time, that I could just keep adding things to do and somehow, somewhere I would magically find the time I needed to get them done. That I would just get more efficient, more focused.

Instead, I've found that when I really do pile on too much, I get less efficient. I get stalled, I space out, I burst into tears, I go into serious avoidance mode and re-read the same three Bujold novels over and over. It's as if I'm telling the front of my brain go go go and the back of my brain is digging in its heels and yelling stop! And the worst of it is that with all the great stuff that's happened in the last year, that's continuing to happen, I'm often failing to enjoy it.

I've probably spent at least half an hour crying every day for the last two weeks. Not for any real reason -- just an inability to cope with stuff. Kevin asked me last night, in the midst of last-minute planning and stressing out, if I'm actually going to enjoy this party we're throwing. And I didn't know. Which is idiotic. What is the damn point, if you don't enjoy it? What's the point of any of it, if you aren't getting some kind of satisfaction from it?

I don't want to imply that I'm miserable -- I'm not. Mostly not. But for much of the last year, I've felt like a strand of hot gold wire that's been pulled thinner and thinner, so taut that at any second it could snap. I need to learn how to release the tension. I'm not sure I know how, or even if I do know, if I can bring myself to do it.

For example, I keep thinking that my novel is due in August. Kevin said last night that there was no reason to stick to that -- Bob said it was okay to push it back. Bob said that a month ago. But still, I'm constantly feeling like I ought be writing because the novel is due in August. I should just say it's not going to happen, and push the deadline to the end of the year -- and I'm incredibly resistant to doing that. I found myself saying to Kev, "Well, maybe I can still finish it by the end of August." Why? WHY WHY WHY???

"For a workaholic work becomes the axis around which everything revolves, and is different from somebody who simply works hard and enjoys what they do. External forces like deadlines can force you to overwork but the workaholic's drive to overwork comes from within. They are compelled to use all their time productively, and feel even in their free time feel they should be working on some chore, project or productive or educational task. "Even as I'm accomplishing things, I'm thinking about all I'm not getting done. I live with this sense that things need to be done every minute of the hour. And every minute I'm not doing something I feel disappointed in myself," says one businesswoman."

The funny thing is, all through grammar school, high school, even college, I was an underachiever. My evaluations always said does not live up to her full potential. Well, Sister Mary Ligouri, if you could just see me now...

This morning, I went up to the deck, I watered some plants, and then I sat in the shade (on the bare boards, because we have no patio furniture yet) with my cup of tea and a book, and for half an hour I just read. I enjoyed the breeze. I tried to be still. After half an hour, I felt too restless to continue; I came back downstairs and made breakfast and did dishes and put away the rest of the groceries and started doing paperwork again. Maybe it's a start?

I don't know.

11 thoughts on “I have to learn how to…”

  1. I think half an hour is certainly a start. It does often seem like you have half a dozen (or more) balls in the air at one time, but you seem to be handling them all, and it’s quite remarkable. But if the stress of it is making you cry every day, then yeah, maybe removing some of those responsibilities might be a good thing. Or maybe not removing, but delagating, for things like the SLF and DesiLit. You have a lot of friends out there, Mary Anne, and I’m sure they’d be willing to help out if you asked.

    It even might be worth hiring an assistant for a short time if you can afford it.

  2. I’d love to hand some of it off, but there are two problems:

    a) I’d need to take the time to train someone — which clearly is worthwhile long-term, but is hard to fit in short-term

    b) I need people to be interested in it

    With the SLF, I think I have enough of a pool of interested people — all the urgent things are now being handled by responsible folks, and when I have a little time to put out a call for people to handle some of the other projects, I think they’ll turn up. (The SLF forums, the small press co-op, and the tech exchange all need new blood to really watch over them and get them active; we’d also like to get that mentorship program up and running — so ideally, four people to find and train.)

    With DesiLit, I don’t think there’s quite enough interest yet to have a critical mass of volunteers, enough to hand off a lot of the work. I believe there absolutely will be, but it may take a few years.

    As for a paid assistant, it’s a lovely thought, but we can’t afford it right now. Maybe if the book sells very well. Right now, all our income is budgeted for mortgage, etc. Ditto for an occasional cleaning person, even if I could convince Kevin that it wouldn’t be morally reprehensible.

  3. Mary Anne, the only thing that remains is the quality of the book. Nobody remembers if you made your deadline or not. They remember the book itself and how it performed. If you’re not going to have it in August, tell them now and all will be well.

  4. A longtime friend of mine has a motto: push to failure. He schedules himself into everything he considers important or fulfilling or fun. Everything. And he’s a powerhouse, sure — I get the same feeling of bewilderment from hearing about his schedule as I do sometimes reading this journal.

    But there’s a secret implied element to “push to failure” that makes it work as a lifestyle instead of a recipie for self-destruction: when failure approaches, you choose what’s going to fail and fail it gracefully, sometimes even successfully. But far be it from me to say that it’s easy to give yourself permission to do that; there’s a reason why, when I try to live by that motto, I end up just feeling like a failure.

    Oh, and one other thing:

    I go into serious avoidance mode and re-read the same three Bujold novels over and over.

    Can I suggest a change of comfort-reading? Because, Miles Vorkosigan? Work. Aholic.

    (Occupation fiend. Crisis junkie. Compulsive autoflaggelant, but with tasks. Addict. And I’ll tentatively assert that Bujold approves of Miles’ addiction, or at least writes it to sound admirable and fun.)

  5. Jeez, Dan, you’re totally right about Miles and I NEVER NOTICED. How bizarre.

    Barbara, I know, that’s what Kevin keeps saying too. Surprisingly hard to accept, though. One can only imagine what would have happened if they had said ‘write it in six months’…

  6. As you know, my life is filled with lots of things to do and unfortunately many of them are unpleasant and draining. You just wrote me and said you were impressed by my strength and relative good spirits. I can’t say I’m always sanguine, but I am coping better than I feared.

    Here’s the rest of my response.

  7. Man, I had a bad moment when I forgot which background tab I’d opened which link in, and thought “these questions” might have referred to this.

    Hang in there. Try not to start too many new organizations before breakfast.

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