Guest post: What if my hobby — what I do for “fun” — is being a workaholic?

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Greg Crowther.

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Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about work-life balance — in particular, about its continuing absence from my life.

This is not a pandemic problem per se. Since the arrival of COVID-19, my young children have continued to be in the excellent care of my mother-in-law, and my job — teaching biology to undergraduates — has not changed that much. The lack of balance in my life is my fault. Or, in non-pejorative language, this is something that is within my power to change.

Again and again, I devote unusually large amounts of time to certain work-related tasks, leaving less time for sleep, exercise, family, friends, and so on. You name it, I’m neglecting it (at least intermittently).

If this lament sounds like a humblebrag, well, I don’t mean it as such.  I don’t like the health-neglecting, people-neglecting version of myself, and I’m about to get professional help.

One might think that I could just decide to work less; after all, academics do not need to work 60-80 hours per week to be successful. But here’s the dilemma: the optional time-sucking tasks are ones that I greatly enjoy and would hate to give up. It’s as if my most fulfilling “hobby” is sinking lots of additional time into my favorite peripheral aspects of my job.

For example, as a biology instructor at Everett Community College (north of Seattle), I’ve been told repeatedly that I don’t need to publish anything to get tenure. Yet in February and March I poured dozens of hours into writing a pedagogy paper (now in press) because I had a good idea for improving biology tests, and I enjoy expressing myself in writing, etc. etc. The decision to write the paper seemed rational, and I don’t regret doing it, but it added greatly to the stress of transitioning to all-online teaching at the end of winter quarter and spring break.

Then last week, I spent a half-day reviewing a paper for a science education journal and another half-day creating a music video for a 13-second mnemonic song for my anatomy students. More interesting, worthwhile tasks that are not requirements of my job and that I didn’t really have time for.

I think these examples capture the situation pretty well. My strong enjoyment of teaching biology — generally a good thing — spins off, tornado-like, into side projects that I seem unable to control.

No one should feel sorry for me for having a life in which I choose (more or less) to fritter away my time on such things. All the same, the problem is real; I’ve been living with it for years.

As I head into therapy, I’d welcome any thoughts that others have on staying on the right side of the line between healthy devotion and unhealthy obsession.

21 thoughts on “Guest post: What if my hobby — what I do for “fun” — is being a workaholic?

  1. Greg, great post.

    I’m similar in some ways – I write books (!) in what might be my “spare time”. I’ve never worked those silly 80 hours weeks! But sometimes I choose to work more than 40, because I love what I do. I refuse to be shamed for that – as long as I’m still having time for my family and friends.

    • Just want to add a quick corollary that seems unspoken in your reply. While you and Greg are similar in some ways, you’re different in one very important way–whether or not you find the current balance of work and non-work in your life manageable! You, it appears, do, and Greg does not, and I think that’s crucial to make explicit, because (a) we’re all different, with different experiences, hopes, and dysfunctions and so this difference in how you both feel about your work-life balance would be worth addressing even if you both had exactly the same “activity budget” and (b) this gap, I think, is where shame often grows. Shame that is rooted elsewhere, somewhere deep, blossoms in these sorts of comparisons. So I want to say, hopefully for the benefit of other readers and perhaps both of you, that there is no shame in feeling at peace about your choices whether or not they differ from the “norm” or from “standard advice,” and equally, there is no shame in feeling like your choices and compulsions are unmanageable and in fact you are brave for acknowledging that. The acknowledgement is the first step on a path of change.

      • Thank you, Ambika. Steve surely posted this in part as a show of support — he also sent me a nice email — but the distinction you draw is correct and important.

  2. I have no advice on this, but I don’t think you’re at all unusual. Much of academia, especially scientific research and trying to publish, has the attributes that make so many other activities “addictive”: unpredictable and variable rewards. You might get a great result, or you might get nothing. Your paper might get great reviews, or not. High profile journal, or not. I often feel the same way, and lately I’ve realized that many of my own hobbies share these attributes. I spend hours hoping to find a pristine arrowhead, a large patch of morel mushrooms, a big fish, or a glimpse of a rare bird. Each outing that results in a success makes me want to go again…but so does each outing that results in failure!

  3. I really see myself in this post. I must say though that my previous workplace helped me a lot to find more balance, I had a great network there and it was easier to find non work related activities. Now that I moved again, I slid into the workaholic routine once again. However, as you said, I know have more side projects that end up eating my time, to the point that I sometimes find myself procastinating what I’m supposed to do by doing what I was not really meant to be doing. So if you’ll decide to write I follow-up post on how your quest to find balance went, I’ll be here reading it 🙂

    • I think this is a great and important point about how the frequent moving in academia is one major road block to work-life balance. Its hard to keep the life balance side going when all but immediate family keep getting stripped and needing to be reinvented with every move. Sometimes (at least for me) it feels easier to just let work take over than reinvent life once again. I don’t have a lot of solutions but I increasingly think the moving is a huge subterranean problem in academia that is not getting talked about enough (albeit many do talk about it).

      • Yup — I too lose sight of this sometimes, but, as a reminder to myself, Margaret Kosmala laid out the moving-related issues quite well in her 2016 Ecology Bits post “I am unwilling to relocate again (and it will probably cost me my academic ‘career’).”

  4. Thanks for this post. For those of us who are lucky enough to enjoy our work, it’s interesting to think about what different people see as “work” or “leisure” – and it is clear that there’s not a hard line dividing the two. For example, my partner is a botanist who spends his free time planting native plants in our yard and botanizing when we go on hikes. He clearly doesn’t think this is work (nor would his employer!), but it is work-related. So, relatedly, I’d be curious to hear about what other activities you can find that are satisfying in a similar way to the ones you describe, but are just a little further removed from your actual job.

    • Thanks, Claire. One of my other main hobbies over the years has been long distance running. Pretty different, and very satisfying to me. However, I often feel as though I have to do it really well/seriously or it’s not worth the hassle. So I seem to have certain obsessive/perfectionist tendencies independent of my professional work.

  5. Pingback: Blogging about mental health | My Track Record

  6. I often feel inclined to devour (and keep notes and try to memorize) everything that comes under the scientific light: from new essays on the Ottoman period in 17th century Greece to a book about the Mongol empire in the medieval period, an article summarising the ecology of Panthera onca (a species I will probably never encounter in my life) and anorther one discussing new methods on how to combat floods in California.

    Practising ecology is demanding; it asks for information from variable sources and inspiration from unrelated fields. As my learning mentor Barbara Oakley would probably say, this is how our diffuse thinking system operates. Assisted by this speculation, I feel justified.

    Yet, the devil’s advocate in my head claims that this is all done because I love story-telling (and story-reading) and I am amused by how scientists argue and come around with data. The worst, I like feeling knowledgeable. And occasionaly I do this to escape from boring household chores.

  7. Greg, thank you for this honest and vulnerable post. I’ve been working through something comparable lately, as part of a broader project of healing and recovery, and I’m grateful for this opportunity to share some of what I’ve learnt. I hope you and others might find it useful!

    I began much-needed therapy about three and a half years ago, and my first therapist used a model of therapy called Internal Family Systems. Basically, you imagine yourself as made up of a family of parts, who have each been formed in different ways and hold different traumas. You think and feel through your challenges as conflicts between these parts, and work to resolve these conflicts between parts and heal the parts’ traumas. I mention this because I’m going to write below about my “logic part”.

    Until three years ago, I lived a life where my brain was inhabited almost entirely by my logic part, leaving not-enough room for other parts (mine happen to be feelings, connection, desire, and justice; a delightful early step of IFS is getting to know who your parts are!). Living through only my logic part was a coping mechanism in the face of childhood dysfunction. But unlike many coping mechanisms, this one is rewarded by a capitalist society and its perverse and inhumane incentive structures. My logic part enabled me to thrive in science classes and then in academia, even as the rest of me grew less and less happy with little room to breathe. But it was difficult to make room for the other parts, it felt impossible to drop this coping mechanism. For a while, I managed to find ways to bring my other parts into my work—I think this is why I also grew to be a social justice advocate/activist, and do research that melds science and feminism. But that wasn’t sustainable.

    So for me, bringing balance into my life has involved healing the traumas of each of my parts and healing the relationships between them. I’ve done a lot of therapy with four different therapists (each with their own styles!), read a gazillion books and listened to as many podcasts and followed as many Instagram accounts on trauma and healing and recovery, joined a twelve-step program (happy to talk more about that by email, since part of twelve-step programs involves not talking about them too publicly)…which is all to say, healing can be found in a lot of different places and your path will look like no one else’s, exactly.

    I’ll end this extremely long comment by sharing three things that helped me specifically with bringing my logic part into the fold of recovery:

    1. Reboot, by Jerry Colonna. A book about the author’s work-related crisis, and subsequent recovery. Parts of his venture-capitalist focus are off-putting, but stay for the deeply probing questions he suggests you ask yourself. The one that still lives in me is: “How are you complicit in bringing about the conditions of your life that you say you don’t want?” I read this in a two-person book club with Didem Sarikaya, after our first year on the job market nearly destroyed us and our friendship, and we both found the book incredibly meaningful for how we approach our work and our relationships with co-workers, including each other!

    2. This episode of Last Days, on trauma and addiction: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/lemonada/last-day/e/66939515. The podcast host comes to a realization about her own relationship with work through this conversation, and I happened to listen to it as I was struggling with that same thing.

    3. The book Listening Well, which I wrote about here: https://ambikamath.wordpress.com/2020/04/06/notes-on-listening-well-the-art-of-empathic-understanding-by-william-r-miller/

    • Wow. Thank you for all of this. Lots to digest, but the part that is resonating most strongly with me at the moment is your mention of your “logic part” and its encouragement by our “capitalist society and its perverse and inhumane incentive structures.” I feel *very* conflicted about American society’s emphasis on individualism. On the one hand, as a kid, it felt great to figure out that I could be a great success (according to the usual metrics: grades, prestige of college, etc.) via hard work, intelligence, etc. On the other hand, I think this framework made me self-centered and selfish in ways that I am still struggling to overcome this day.

      • Yes! And it’s all so pervasive…the things that brought me to this realization include (1) feeling like my field, behavioral ecology, is stuck in a very capitalist interpretation of behaviors and (2) organizing with UAW5810, the UC postdocs and academic researchers’ union. I’m currently reading “The Dialectical Biologist” by Richards Levins and Lewontin, and work on multilevel selection by David Sloan Wilson, which gives me so much hope for a way forward from inside of evolutionary biology.

  8. Excellent topic, Greg! I found myself at the crossroads you have encountered, when I was in my late 30s and 40s. Friends, family, hobbies etc all fell by the wayside as I became completely absorbed by my research and scholarship. While I achieved many of the goals I set for myself professionally, “the gauntlet” took its toll on me, and then some. I was for the most part a very successful and very unhappy person. I can’t tell you how many times I uttered “I hate my life” under my breath- as I wrote the latest grant proposal, flew to the latest conference, revised the latest manuscript and reviewed the latest paper…

    “I hate my life”… I don’t know if you’ve reached that point of desperation, Greg- and I hope you have not. It is a very unpleasant way to live.

    One day, I asked myself the question of what I’d like to see on my tombstone, were I allowed to see it… The following phrases were not among my most preferred: “He was a good employee,” “He scored 1200 on his SAT,” “He published 1000 papers,” “He had a six figure income”… Well, I could go on, but I guess you get the point. In the end, I did not want my legacy defined by my vocation, or my professional accomplishments, or by anything with a concrete/tangible value. None of that mattered to me, in terms of who I wanted to be, even though my behavior would have indicated otherwise.

    Baba Ram Dass, the American guru, passed away last December. He had what I would describe as a rich and fulfilling life. Not long after his passing, Wikipedia listed his value (i.e., net worth) at $100,000.00. Really? Would you want your tombstone, or for that matter any posthumous tribute defining your legacy as such? How could Baba’s life be reduced to such a cold and lifeless calculation?

    Eventually, I came to realize that it is not what I do, but rather how I do it that matters most. The way I live- whether I am a nuclear physicist or landfill scavenger- is what defines me. I have no legacy to be concerned about, no benchmark to obsess over, no ladder to climb so long as I focus upon the how, and not the what.

    I realize this all sounds very esoteric. But I found it to be true and transformative.

  9. Thank you Greg for this post. I think it is so important and healthy to bring a word like “workaholic” into the discussion of the academic lifestyle and acknowledge excessive work hours as possibly a problem, potentially a serious problem. Its not just that working lots of hours a week is not needed. Its that working lots of hours a week can be unhealthy physically and emotionally and can ruin ones life. That’s obvious to some people, but it wasn’t obvious to me (or I think many academics – we tend to be especially delusional on this point). I had a period in my adult life where identifying myself as a workaholic was an important growth step. Like you, I enjoyed any given hour of my work, yet it added up to too much. I too sought professional help and I also ended up finding wise amateur help (http://www.workaholics-anonymous.org/). I learned a lot about myself. And a lot about society (workaholism is the one societally encouraged addiction…or at least I came to apply that word to it). Ironically probably for most readers here, this was before I went into academia (I was in business consulting) and going into academia was part of my healing process. And I still work hard although on average less, and sometimes still work a long week (although again less frequently), but it feels totally different. Best wishes on your journey. As the first set of comments highlight, there is no one right answer, just what works for you. And I know from personal experience that when it is not working for you, it can be incredibly painful.

    • Thanks, Brian. If I may… Once you were able to identify yourself as a workaholic, was there a critical next step (admission, insight, or resolution) that you recall also being important and that you are able to share?

      • I think getting real/honest about negative consequences on myself and loved ones was key. Once those blinders were off motivation to change was strong. Then came the longer process of understanding what payoffs I was getting and what fears I was avoiding out of that behavior. In brief feeding ego and avoiding feelings of inadequacy (and for me just plain avoiding sone feelings) which is probably pretty typical but everyone has their own distinct flavors of that. Or to put it in completely different terms learning to separate my self worth from my accomplishments which certainly included interior work but also as you already implied also included exterior work to realize just how many places I was getting the opposite message from. I’ll reach out by email tommorow.

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