Confessions of a workaholic

Hi, I’m Miriam. I’m a workaholic.

I face that fact with insight that it is somewhat akin to an addiction. But there is no 12 step program for this (and I’m an atheist so it probably wouldn’t suit me if there was) and total abstinence is not an option. There is little around in terms of evidence-based intervention either. This might be due to the lack of stigma involved in working too much, and the way that having a job at all is a mark of relative success. In fact society somehow endorses overwork, and there is almost a culture of humble-bragging about how much we let work take over our lives. Our phones and computers bring us calls, emails and texts 24/7 and it is hard to know where work ends and our lives outside of work begin.

So let me start by describing the problem: I have too many plates to keep spinning. I take on much too much at work. On top of all the psychology work I am struggling to get on top of the invoicing and the finances of the business (I don’t really enjoy doing that side of things, but I haven’t found a successful way to delegate it yet). I bring work home. I work as if its a hobby by running a website, a blog, several twitter accounts and now a patreon service in which I offer personal development support to early career stage psychologists. I am making an app, developing an online outcome tracking system and writing a book. Plus I talk at conferences and do training. And I do court work. I provide supervision and personal development support. I sit on numerous committees and working groups. I fill my diary chock full of commitments and let the admin spill outside working hours. And I am writing grant applications (I’ve got one, part-written, on my screen at this very moment). But it is not just in work that my workaholism shows. I create little work-like activities to populate my life. We have some investments that I manage. I used to trade on eBay and at sci-fi fairs. Even giving stuff away to charities and freecycle takes time to organise. I do little fundraising activities for good causes. I’ve done up a series of houses (and even helped friends to do up theirs when I have spare time).I grow vegetables. Even the way I shop is influenced by my business brain, so I’m very conscious of relative prices in different supermarkets and I like to get reductions and offers.  There is a half-written novel too (but everyone has one of those, right?).

Since I’ve left the NHS to set up my business I’ve worked many more hours than I did before that. But even in the NHS I’d often stay late to finish admin, and I took on court work outside of my NHS hours. I’d guess I worked 40-45 hours per week then if I averaged it out. Last year I would work from waking up until the kids needed putting to bed, when I’d stop for half an hour to chat and then sing to them, then I’d make a meal and eat with my husband before resuming work again until I couldn’t stay awake any longer. I’d fit in bits of work (and catching up on sleep) at the weekend. There were many weeks I probably clocked up over 70 hours of work. And that leaves very little time for anything else.

I’ve come to think of the space that work takes in my life being like that expanding foam filler you can use to fill the gaps where pipes enter your home. At its worst, every minute of my time that isn’t taken up with something else gets filled with work, or work-like activities. The only spaces that are protected are for the things that I value more than work and have defined really clearly – the half hour in which I put the kids to bed is sacrosanct. As is an evening meal with my husband. If I have made arrangements with friends or family then work has to fit around. On the times when we go out for meals or do things as a family, I try to make sure work does not impinge. I’ve also tried to carve out time to get to the gym three times a week, and only miss this when working away from base or where there is an immediate deadline. Some things that waste a lot of time for other people, I have simply chosen not to do (for example, I haven’t watched any live TV in over five years now). But many things that should be prioritised are not. I stay up late and sacrifice my sleep pattern far too often. I work through meals. I miss out on relaxation time. I haven’t found time for my hobbies in years. I don’t take a full quota of leave. Nor do I have as many holidays as I would like. Plus I’m embarrassed to say I’ve taken reports to finish with on several UK short breaks with my family. Once we went somewhere without wi-fi and I ended up driving around and using the BT hotspots from domestic customers to work in my car for 3 hours to get a report in, because a colleague had sent me their contribution 2 days later than planned and it didn’t meet my standards without substantial editing.

So, given there was no risk of getting fired or not being able to pay the mortgage, why would I give work such precedence against everything else in my life?

I keep asking myself that, and its a tough question to answer. I am not hugely motivated to maximise my income and I’m not competing against someone else. I’ve never had ambitions to drive a porsche or own a huge house with a swimming pool or any form of status symbols – in fact I hate ostentatiousness. I don’t have a goal for turnover, or numbers of employees, to win a particular contract, or to take over the NHS. I just want to do worthwhile work that improves life for people who have been dealt a bad hand, in a way that is delivered to them for free and according to need. I want to spend my working time with people I like around me, and to have shared goals and achievements.

I think the things that motivate me to work hard are complex and interwoven. Part of it is my heritage, and the stories about the importance of work that have carried through the generations in my family. My dad rebelled against expectations to be a doctor, and has always been creative, which is a much harder niche in which to find success (he has written many children’s books and has latterly become a skilled photographer). He spent much of his working life as a house husband, dealing in antiques or doing jobs he didn’t like, and had a lot of time off with ME like symptoms when I was a kid. My mum has always been a hard worker and the main provider in my family. My maternal grandmother was a hard working single mother in an era and cultural group where there were not really single mothers, and remarried unhappily but wished she hadn’t (and probably impressed upon my mum at some level the value of supporting yourself and marrying for love). Plus my heritage is as an immigrant squared – my great grandparents/grandparents were persecuted Jews who earned their way up from nothing when they fled from Russia to South Africa, and then my parents came to the UK and built a new life here from scratch. There is a high value placed on taking advantage of the opportunity for a good education that people take for granted in the UK, and there are many examples of the value of hard work. The family is very well educated (my dad is the only one who didn’t finish his doctorate) and has implicit ethical rules about the kind of work that we do. I’d think about these as stepping up to the challenge, and seeking to advance knowledge or make people happier, rather than maximising profit or power. There is a definite drive to achieve, though no-one would explicitly want to pass this on to me and I know they would want me to prioritise happiness.

Another part is my moral values, approach to life and personality. Being a psychologist is core to my identity, but so is a sort of entrepreneurial view of the world. I approach everything with curiosity and a desire to problem solve. When it comes to issues that lead people to be less happy or achieve less than optimal outcomes, I genuinely love the process of formulating what is going on, designing innovative solutions that might be effective, evaluating whether they work and disseminating the results. I gain satisfaction from the intellectual challenge, being able to influence practise. I like getting positive feedback for good work, feeling that I have been helpful to others or had a positive impact on systems or decisions. I like the fact my reputation means I am constantly in demand – interestingly in the public sector a waiting list feels like a sign of failure, of not keeping pace with demand, whilst in the private sector it is a marker of success as people are prepared to wait to see you, and the demand for your services exceeds your capacity to supply them. I also feel that people who are gifted with the resources of resilience, intellect, empathy and knowledge should put them to good use, and that the value of my life and the legacy I leave behind will be the impact I have had upon the happiness of others. I’m not a perfectionist, but I do set myself high standards. Finally, it is hard to turn down work that is so badly needed or that you feel might be done poorly in your absence. I know that sounds grandiose, but I’ve seen really bad examples of court reports that led to ill-informed decisions, and it adds to my sense of responsibility to do things well.

I also think that the nature of being self-employed, and of feeling responsible for employees has added to my pressure to work. I feel like I need to put the effort in to establish the business, to ensure we have enough cash flow to pay everyone, and to feel I am pulling my weight. I also feel there is something difficult about turning down work that pays amounts of money that seem almost obscene when compared with what some of the population have to live on. Doing this kind of work is such a privilege compared to having to work in a factory or doing hard physical labour or monotonous office work, or having to do voluntary work experience to claim their benefits. I compare myself to someone trying to eke out £150 of job seeker’s allowance to pay for a fortnight of food and fuel and think how bizarre it would seem to them that I had turned down work that would earn that in just a couple of hours. Or I compare what I earn now to myself as a graduate psychologist earning £9500/year and self-funding an MSc from it. I think about how that extra money could keep on the assistant who really needs the work, or pay for us to have a holiday, or a cleaner, or how far it would go if donated to a charity.  It just seems so ungrateful and lazy not to be willing to do the extra work in that context.

It is also to do with how I think about my own work. I always try to help others and say yes to requests unless I have a reason to say no. I’m dreadful at thinking “oh it will just take me a couple of hours” and taking on new responsibilities without being realistic about my existing commitments. I don’t put sufficient value on my time. And I hide the amount of work I do from others (and myself) by flexing my working pattern. I’m a night owl. I can work until I get things done, into the small hours of the morning taking advantage of the quiet solitude that gives me, and being self-employed and having a sympathetic partner I can often work a late start into my week or lie in at the weekend to catch up. But it makes me tired/hungry/cold (which are all very connected for me) and sabotages my daytime activities if I do it too much. From lying in rather than being up with the kids in the morning, to being grumpy and half-focused during interactions later in the day, there is always a price to pay. But my tendency to put things in to this quiet time, or to need it to catch up with things I have taken on means that I don’t stop at bedtime, and I certainly don’t stop in time to wind down for bedtime. I don’t think it makes me a very good role model. My kids ask why I am up late at night, or sleep in during the morning, and I feel embarrassed that I haven’t organised my time better. My colleagues are used to me taking work home and end up adding things to my calendar to fill up all the gaps, reinforcing the pattern that the 10 hours it takes to write a court report is outside of my working hours, and that no admin time is scheduled for writing bids, contributing to committee work outside of meetings, catching up with email or making calls.

Ironically perhaps, my internal sense of myself is of a lazy and disorganised person. It has been interesting to me to have friends, colleagues and online folks reflect how they perceive me as hardworking, organised and successful. The contrast between my sense of self as never doing enough, and the external perceptions that I do more than is necessary is something I have been increasingly reflecting on. I recognise that my pattern of work is quite masochistic at times. I’m also aware that my expectations of myself are unrealistic and can’t be sustained. Overworking means I end up feeling like I end up with no down time, or at least very little that is entirely disconnected from my professional role or being a mum. I sometimes hit a kind of gridlock where there are so many demands I don’t know where to begin and end up doing none of them! And, like the emotional burnout I wrote about in an earlier blog, this has to stop.

A previous supervisor once talked to me about needing balance between multiple roles as a professional, a parent, a partner and a person. I’m trying to take stock and to chase work back into working hours so that I can focus on the other roles. I think they get more and more neglected as I go down the list. But kids grow up fast, and time with loved ones is precious and shouldn’t be put on hold for some imaginary future point at which there is more time. And I need to also find better ways to care for myself, so that I am happier and have more emotional resources to share with those around me. No more postponing going to the optician or physio. No more working through lunch, and no more super-late nights. I need to set aside time in my diary for all of my work commitments, including those that are currently invisible, and to prioritise better amongst what I take on. Instead of being pulled in all directions I need to work out where my highest point of contribution and greatest enjoyment are, and concentrate more of my efforts in a single direction. I need to have firmer boundaries and say no more often.

I read an article recently about a man who was diagnosed with cancer and given a very poor prognosis who then made a very positive response to treatment. When his cancer was treated and doctors said he had returned to a normal life expectancy he said that the experience had given him an unexpected gift – the insight that time is a precious and finite resource. He recommends that everyone thinks about what they would do if they had only a week to live, or only a month, or only a year, or only five years and identifies their priorities for this time. He points that at best we only have the remainder of our lifetime to live (in my case, probably another 50 years) and that now is the time to do the things that are the most important. So many people on their deathbed look back wish that they had recognised what was really important while they still had time, but we have this time ahead of us, and the option to choose to use it wisely. So whilst I have time, I am going to work out how I want to spend it. And that doesn’t involve work filling up all the gaps in my life. I suspect it involves more cuddles, more singing, more making things and cooking. More time socialising. More walks in the countryside. More holidays and travel. Regular exercise. Relaxation. Going to watch gigs, films, comedy and shows. Finishing my Adventure Diver certification. Making a mosaic. Laughing.

Work isn’t really so important. It doesn’t have the right to crowd out all the fun.

Sifting through the hoard

Over the years I have watched “a life of grime”, “my hoarder mum”, “life laundry” and “how clean is your house?” and saw hoarders on TV whose homes were filled from top to bottom with the detritus of their lives. The homes were unhygienic and bursting at the seams. Some were infested with insects, mice or rats. It was obviously problematic. I’ve read and been curious about how some people reach the point they just can’t throw anything away.

I’ve done assessments with families who live in dirty cluttered spaces, filled with what is perceived as rubbish by outsiders but to them are mementos of loved ones who have died, have some intrinsic financial worth, or are imbued with sentimental value (or in the case of one or two people with more unusual thinking, with feelings that would be hurt if they were discarded). I’ve wondered why they can’t see the risks this is causing for them and their children, and realised how habituated we become to our own environment.

And each time I empathise because I can see some of those traits in myself. I collect things like art deco pottery and art nouveau metal or glasswork. My husband collects vintage Star Wars toys and retro video games (along with containers overflowing with consoles, cables and controllers). I have boxes and jars filled with ribbons, buttons, shells, stones. I have various hobbies that accumulate future materials (from pyrography to mosaics, silk painting to silver polymer clay, to making glass jewellery and other small items in a miniature kiln). More than that, I don’t like to throw things away if they could potentially be of use to someone.

I justify some of it with intellectual rationale. I loathe wastefulness, and the disposable consumerism that characterises the modern age. I can’t bear that everything has become disposable, is burning up the planets resources in manufacture and then going into landfill at an ever greater rate. I’d much rather reuse, repair and recycle whenever possible. I want to teach my children about being frugal, and about finding enjoyment in creative activities rather than consumption. The dress that tore has such pretty fabric that could be used for another project. Last year’s Christmas cards can be clipped with pinking shears into this year’s gift tags. The pretty wrappers from these chocolates could go in the making box to use in craft projects. The trousers you’ve grown out of should go to the charity shop.

I was also an early fan of eBay and Freecycle, and realised that almost everything has value to someone else. So I would sell items worth more than the hassle of posting them out to the buyer, and freecycle everything else. From the extra items of pottery I picked up at car boot sales, to clothes we grow out of, to the wood flooring that came up after we had insurance work done in the house it would find new homes. We’ve sold books, toys, video games, collectables, antiques, electronic items, pushchairs, car seats, cots, jewellery and furniture. We’ve given away spare fence panels, a lawnmower, a microwave, two TV’s, a hi-fi system, bags of used jiffy bags, metal car ramps, two sofas, carpets, even 56 baby fish from our pond. We take clothes and toys to the charity shop every 4-6 months. And the amount that went into the bin reduced. I also changed my shopping patterns to include reduced items to prevent them ending up going to waste, and to try to reduce the packaging used. We also try to recycle as much as possible of our rubbish (our council collects paper, card, plastic containers, metal, glass and garden waste and we compost food waste in a “hot bin” to fertilise our home grown vegetables).

The problem is that my heap of clothes for taking up, taking in, letting out or repairing outpaces the time available for me to sew. The collecting of the hobby items exceeds the time I give myself for creative projects. The piles for eBay and Freecycle grow when I don’t have enough time to spend on that kind of internet busy work, and we haven’t quite got the hot bin working optimally (by which I mean that in the year we have owned it we are yet to produce any viable compost, perhaps because we have not added enough shredded paper and chipped bark to keep it aerated). And I end up keeping things I love even when they are pretty much worn out and we can afford to replace them, from a favourite top where a hasty encounter with a door handle punctured the sleeve to comfy but scruffy shoes. My disposal threshold has become too high.

Steadily over time the amount of stuff we aren’t using in the house has increased. But we are lucky to have a fairly big space to live in, and plenty of hidey holes for storage, so this hoarding has not been so obvious. We also have high standards of hygiene and the wealth to supplement our own tidying up with weekly professional cleaning, so this doesn’t feel like the kind of hoarding that I’ve seen on TV. We just have places in the house that are filled with stuff. There is a heap of slightly or un-used hotel toiletries in the upstairs bathroom because I don’t like the idea that they would be binned by hotel staff if I didn’t take them home. I have various repositories of lovely smellies and candles that seem to accumulate whilst we use more pragmatic alternatives. There is a chest in my bedroom of fabric, and boxes of threads, buttons, ribbons and beads. There is a filing cabinet in the garage filled with art glass, and an old sideboard filled with items for my future mosaic project, along with the tools and junk that garages usually accumulate. The extra bedroom has become a den filled to the brim with video gaming stuff. There are boxes in the loft with art deco pottery item that don’t quite fit the collection I display in a cabinet in the front room. There is a collection of StarWars toys in what used to be the airing cupboard. I have a box of my old school work in the loft, and boxes of the art work the kids have made. We have seven bookcases full of books, plus half a cupboard of activity books and magazines that haven’t been completed. The dining room holds piles of items we are planning to sell on eBay or Amazon, or give away on Freecycle, along with craft materials and books we haven’t found a place to put away. And in the lounge there are heaps of paperwork that need filing and things that need taking to work, or returning to the place we bought them.

Its too much. And it is beginning to feel contrary to the logic that made it accumulate: Things need to be useful, not kept for the sake of it. So, starting this weekend, we are going to go through the whole house top to bottom and clear out the clutter. This time, to make sure we do it properly, all the contents of each room are getting heaped in the middle and then put away. Each item can only stay if we use it or love it and it has a place to go. Things that we love but that need fixing can only stay if they will be repaired before Xmas. Everything else needs to go in the bin, or on freecycle, or to the charity shop ASAP.

Its another reminder of how the dividing line between pathological and functional is blurry, and often a matter of socio-economic status and which side of the table you sit. In a tiny home without the help of a cleaner this would be a problem level of hoarding, in my lifestyle it isn’t, just as the hedge fund trader can fund a drug habit without the pitfalls so common amongst users of the same substance in poverty. It seems to me that hoarding is a basic human survival instinct (to store what might be useful if next season is not so abundant) that doesn’t translate well to the modern context, where supplies are available 24/7. Perhaps some people have stronger triggers to hoard, like not wanting to let go of a loved one who has died by dealing with their possessions, or have different perceptions of the standards that are normative in terms of clutter and cleanliness in the living environment. But it is clearly another trait that exists along a spectrum, with a somewhat arbitrary threshold at which is is considered a problem or symptom of poor mental health. And it reminds me once again, that there but for fortune I could be receiving rather than providing mental health services.

So here I sit, overwhelmed by the chaos that is normally hidden in the storage holes of my life. I’m already embarrassed by the sheer volume of stuff involved. Crates of excess coat hangers, hundreds of elastic bands, pens and mouse-mats promoting medication, heaps of recyclable packaging from parcels, toys related to developmental stages the kids have long since passed. But its a therapeutic process to sort it out, and I think it will be a psychological as well as physical weight lifted when it is all gone.