Decompression, Or, A Couple Perspectives on Workaholism
It's been a good weekend, with lots of sleeping in and no drudgework at all. Absent the pressure-cooker mentality I tend to find myself a little listless and bored, especially in the recent aftermath.
When you're a small child, the most boring day in your life is the day after you go to Disneyland. It's a very high high, tons of stimulation, really kind of incredible if you think about all the psychic energy that gets built up by the whole Disney cultural complex. Anyway, the next day you're one strung-out six year old, and you don't even really understand what's happening.
The trajectory of my adult life has grown up around projects. Productions, plays, parties, road trips, websites, campaigns... all variations on the general theme of engaging in an ostensibly focused effort to Get Something Done. At their best, they're like little births; creative miracles born in the spastic passion of inspiration and carried to term with love, craft and care.
At their best or worst though, projects tend to leave me with that same Disneyland hangover. The stress and attention called for to see things through the last mile are (ideally) some of the highest functioning times we experience as human beings. Afterwards, our metaphysitcal children born, grown, gone, and possibly even dead, we wonder what to do with our lives.
-War- Crisis Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning
The boom-bust psychology of project-based living presents a very real series of pitfalls. The post-peak decompression is very often an unpleasant and inarticulate state of consciousness. Unlike intentional rituals of spiritual purification -- which also tend to revolve around some peak experience, but have well-tested frameworks for what comes before and after -- finishing a project (again, like going to Disneyland) is more often than not mentally framed as nothing more than a normatively good achievement. A notch in the belt, a feather in the cap, a ladder-rung clumb, at minimum some business out the door, something your parents would smile upon you for having achieved.
This narrative is deceptive. Nothing in it hints at the un-reality of "being done" or at the thousand challenges embedded in completion. It leaves us woefully unprepared for the sudden void that follows. At a time when we're supposed to be Better Than Ever, we find ourselves empty, confused. We want to get back the good feeling, or at the very least we want to get away from this bad one. It's a hangover, and like weekenders going for a bloody mary with brunch, the usual answer for us binge-oriented workaholics is to light into another project.
For many high-functioning people who live at the top end of statistical measures of human capacity, especially those who find themselves embedded in organizations or ongoing efforts of some real or imagined importance, this gradually evolves into a semi-permanent state of crisis. You start by working through your weekends to meet some critical deadline, and the next thing you know you're (possibly subconsciously) planning on it all the time. You go from "performing well under pressure" to someone who requires and expects pressure to perform at all.
As someone who falls into this pattern via the putative pursuit of effectiveness -- the first several steps at least are all about being proactive and getting things done -- I'm forced to recognize the utter inefficiency of where this mentality leads. I've slept under my desk before, and in the big picture it's never really been any more productive than disciplined and focused effort would have been. More damningly, at least to the supposed pragmatic goal, it has limited my ability to cooperate effectively with others.
Indeed, total devotion to a project is quite often a cover for sloppy planning, procrastination, distraction, a lack of focus and coordination. You may work 100-hour superman weeks, but what are each of those hours really worth, and how long can you keep this up, and can you really do it all on your own? If you're truly concerned with effectiveness in life and grasp the span of time's arc, you have to seriously consider these questions in light of the years. Without presuming to speak for all of humanity, for most people and pursuits I suspect the honest answers are "not a lot," "no" and "no."
This leads to a second great truth of Workaholism, which is that when you're sleeping under your desk you're not sleeping in your bed; when you're working through your weekend you're not being a social animal; when you stay late at the office or bring work home you're not spending energy and attention on your personal life.
If you're like me and you acknowledge that all of the above have happened, you must at least consider that there's something more going on than a screwed up working process. Life may be out of balance.
When I was recently in Portland for a day of semi-forced vacation, coming in after spending the night at O'Hare airport thanks to the brilliant bureaucracy of United Airlines, I got a good chance to hang out with my friend Tommy. A few years ago he came into a little cash and quit his proto-bourgeoise office job -- Quiznos for lunch whenever he wanted -- spent some time unemployed, and is now pursuing a much more self-conscious path in life, and is vastly happier for it.
One of the realizations he related when we were talking on this subject was that part of what drove the workaholic cycle for him was the fact that his non-work life contained countless things that were both unpleasant and entirely out of his control. By contrast, his work was something he could excel at and complete and feel in charge of, that he could win.
I immediately understood this. Life's events are a much more dicey and uncertain series of contests, often resisting any notion of resolution. For instance, in my own mind that monday: Will this girl call me back? No? Can I call her? Yes, but since she's not calling you back it probably won't help. You're just going to have to feel this way and wonder. Welcome to no control, brohan.
This question of control jives very well with what I know from my research into addiction. One of the more powerful metaphors I came across was that of the doorway/shelter: in essence, addictive behavior functions as a portal into some alternative state of consciousness, and also an escape or respite from whatever is difficult about "normal" life. Or maybe the opposite order of events. In either case, it's a cyclical interrelated thing, and one of the critical factors in what makes something addictive is that the results of the behavior become predictable.
In other words, although it seems counterintuitive -- largely because of the warped way in which mainstream culture interprets drugs -- addicts very often assert control over their life though their behavior of choice.
Regardless of whether one inhabits the speed-freak yo-yo pattern of a project-based life or the steady maintenance rhythm of a low-hassle cubicle job, it's easy to let this creep in and take over more and more of your energy and attention, to become the primary feature of your existence. This usually happens because other things aren't, or aren't going well. That's something to consider.
Bringing It All Back Home
For my own part, I know I'm quite lucky to have a job which rewards me quite handsomely for my exertions. Owning a business is like that. There's a nice payoff in it for me, though perhaps this only enhances the seductive qualities of work. In any event, work-junk can deliver real benefits to my life, and if I manage my habit well it could really "work out," as they say.
Yet that said, it's a hard thing to wake up and realize the truth of an addiction. The first step is admitting you have a problem, etc. I often tell people that my one true vice is caffeine. In the realm of drugs I'm used to enjoying a couple beers or scotch in the evening, and when it's readily at hand I will supplement that with bit of hashish, but these are things that come in and out of my life without creating any real disruption by their presence or absence. Kicking coffee puts me through real physical withdrawal, but more importantly I don't feel like me without it.
I've never even tried to kick work. The closest I think I've come is Vagabender, but that was an enormous project in its own right. It was recreational, but it was also work in the sense that it required sustained and not entirely pleasant efforts to keep rolling. I have no idea the kind of withdrawal I'd go though, or what I'd feel like. It probably wouldn't be pretty.
However, one of the other great takeaways from my addiction studies is that I don't take part in the reflexive disdain that our culture promotes by default. Beliefs are habits of action, and so are addictions. That gets right to the crux. Some habits are better and some are worse, but very few can be judged one way or another without a real look at their context, the multiple overlapping factors that drive us.
So, I don't necessarily even want to quit drinking coffee -- though I would like whiter teeth -- and I don't think I'll ever stop living my life around projects. I recognize the whithering of the rest of my life when work takes over, but the question is not how to "get clean." Clean is an illusion. "Healthy," however, is something to consider. Physically I don't have too many worries there, but psycho-socially I have to admit real concerns for myself and my future.
There are simple common-sense things you can do to be healthier. You can go to the gym. You can eat better foods. You can floss. Socially you can spend time with your friends and family. You can tell other people truths about your life, share in the great fraternity of human experience. You can take in great and small works of culture. You can explore the natural world. You can have relationships.
For all those things, you must make space and time. You must set aside energy and the will to focus, at least enough to get you through the door, maybe more to keep you out there.
This is harder than it sounds. If you're coming off some kind of junk you're likely to find yourself at least a little numb. You may find yourself changed, marked, disinterested in the things from which other people derive meaning. It may be hard to relate, and the temptation to go back to what you know will be ever-present.
In time, with luck, the mind and heart will open and other habits of action will emerge. New and healthier beliefs will take root, the out-of-control nature of Life now an adventure rather than dark and stormy shitpile. In time, with luck, and hope.