Working myself to death.
January 31, 2013 8:00 PM   Subscribe

How do I change my extremely destructive work habits?

I love my job very much, but my work habits are killing me. Without getting too specific, I do a lot of research and writing, and my main projects are highly researched papers, typically 10-60 pages in length. It probably averages out to about 30 pages a month of polished work, although I generally write about double or triple that amount during the process of drafting and revising. I would venture most of my time is spent on research, but I don't keep track. The job is very intellectually stimulating, and, at times, emotionally taxing (for reasons I won't go into). Despite the stress, I find the work more rewarding than anything I've ever done, and I hope that I can keep this job long into the future.

I largely control what I do and when, but I have extremely important, non-negotioable external deadlines. Here's the problem: I can't buckle down until it's almost too late. As a result, I have these short periods of relative calm, followed by a week when I either don't sleep, or only sleep a few hours a night. For example, I had one of these big projects due Tuesday, and from Saturday - Tuesday I probably got in about 7 hours of sleep, total. Also, during these time periods, I shirk all other responsibilities -- family obligations, personal appointments, washing dishes, laundry, EVERYTHING, in order to get my work in on time.

These binge work episodes are obviously a serious problem for a lot of reasons. Primarily, I'm concerned about my health, but I'm also concerned about my marriage, and the fact that I'm constantly one heartbeat away from blowing a really serious deadline. (This was me. For the record, I didn't blow the deadline. But I also worked for 2 weeks straight with barely any sleep and I think it took 10 years off my life. I also had an extreme anxiety/panic attack that scared the shit out of me and my husband. I thought this awful experience would be the catalyst for stopping this behavior, but it's happened three times since then.).

Anyway, one would think that the shoddiness of my last minute work product would solve this problem by getting me fired and/or reprimanded. The thing is, my work product is awesome and I only ever get positive feedback. Part of it is that I demand a lot out of my writing, so even though it's all last minute, I still revise and edit my drafts countless times. Actually, I probably spend more time on these projects than my colleagues, it's just that their work is spread evenly over the course of 6 weeks and mine is over the course of 6 days.

The other problem is that I think my brain cannot complete a project on a piecemeal basis. It's hard to explain, but generally speaking the 9-5 work day is a wash for me. I am derailed by anyone and anything. I have never been able to work on something for an hour and put it down. It takes me at least an hour to orient myself to what I'm doing. I also have a hard time working when there is anything else on my mind-- it could be as simple as a recipe I'm making that night, or a health insurance claim I have to file or an email from a friend I received before work.

And while these work binges are horrific, I also really enjoy them at times. Last weekend I sat on the couch on Saturday morning and didn't move until Monday morning and all I thought about was Project X (because there was no other option!). I had so many exciting breakthroughs and thought of a lot of great things to write. But I find that only happens when I'm totally in the zone, and I'm only totally in the zone when I've spent hours and hours and hours (consecutively) getting deep into the project. If I split it up, it feels like I am starting from scratch each time I approach the work. In a way, this has led to a system where I don't even bother until I know I have no choice but to sit down and work.

I've been working like this since I was a kid (seriously, I pulled all nighters in fourth grade). I thought it would be better when I got out of grad school and got a real job, but I've had a real job for 5 years now and it's only gotten worse. I know this isn't feasible. But I have no idea how to stop.

For what it's worth, I have been diagnosed with ADHD, and I've tried a variety of drugs and dosages. Nothing seems to work. I've also tried therapy. But I'm very successful on paper, and no one takes my problem seriously. ("Well whatever you're doing, seems like it's working!") My husband also thought I was exaggerating until we moved in with each other a few years ago, at which point he realized the full extent of my god awful work habits. He's very patient, but I'm not really interested in testing that patience. I'd really prefer some non-drug, non-therapy solutions.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (30 answers total) 84 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have answers for you but all I can say is that you are me. I do all the things you do and have tried all the same things. I'll be watching this thread closely for answers but if you fee the need to ping me, please do.
posted by special-k at 8:22 PM on January 31, 2013 [5 favorites]

Yyyyyeah, you are me too. I've got nothin', except that being on Wellbutrin helps a tiny bit (gets me started a little faster on a 9-to-5 schedule). But I do my best work in long, sleepless binges that don't seem particularly manic. You're welcome to MeMail me, too.
posted by stoneandstar at 8:26 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've struggled with this approach to writing for some time. There are a lot of tricks for dealing with it, but one that I've found particularly useful is to stop a work session by leaving a sentence half-finished, with perhaps a couple words following it as a prompt. That allows me to return to the project and immediately have a reminder of where I was going; by the time I finish the sentence and follow up on the prompt, I'm back in the swing of things.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:37 PM on January 31, 2013 [8 favorites]

Well, this is me to a tee. Unfortunately, it's not sustainable in the long-term and I'm burnout and going into a different field, which is non-deadline-driven. But I really had to get to that point of not liking my job anymore before I could change anything.

I can suggest mindfulness meditation - but I know the all-consuming power of the deadline, the lack of sleep, the lack of time to do anything but work - and how it all feeds off each other. Each time I have a deadline I say 'this time I will do it different - I will force myself into a normal routine' - and it doesn't happen.

So I don't think there is an answer - I think you just keep doing it while you love it, and, at some point, you will get to stage where you hate it and you cannot do it anymore and you find something else.
posted by heyjude at 8:40 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

The problem is that you have a work habit that excites you, focuses you, and has made you very productive and frankly, that seems to be a part of your identity that you are proud of (you've been doing great with this since 4th grade!). If you're serious about changing this habit, you have to figure out a way to solve all those problems with a new regular-schedule method.

As I see it, there are a couple of options.

One option is to simply accept that you cannot produce at the same level of quantity and quality that you are producing at now if you work at a normal rate. And you simply prohibit yourself from doing otherwise, by announcing very publicly to your husband and maybe others that you will not binge work before a deadline, and that if it isn't done before then on a normal schedule, it simply will not be done at all.

If that is enforced, you may flounder for a project or two, but then the fear of losing your reputation and/or your treasured job may kickstart you into finding creative new ways of getting things done.

The question is, of course, whether you have the stomach for this.

Another option is to somehow try to reproduce the pain and excitement of deadline on a more regularized basis. E.g. set up a very rigorous table of goals on a day-by-day basis that you have to race to complete, but in a given time -- say, 8 hours. And you're not allowed to spend any more time on it outside of that.

Though again, who's going to enforce this schedule? It's tough. If you're willing to enforce it yourself, or get your husband to help, or set some sort of substantive penalty that you're actually afraid of, great. Otherwise, you may not really want to change as much as you say you do, and that, unfortunately, is a problem with no reliable solution.
posted by shivohum at 8:53 PM on January 31, 2013 [7 favorites]

I worked like you up until about halfway through grad school. There was one time I even sleepwalked into a McDonald's after having stayed up over thirty hours working on a paper.

Then a couple of things forced me to shift. First, I realized that caffeine was giving me migraines and had to stop cold turkey. That, and having kids that wake me up at 6:00 am no matter what has made the "work binge" no longer tenable.

Reading what you've written, I'm not certain that you've completely given up on the romantic side of the roller coaster (sliding in last minute; getting positive feedback anyway; feeling in the zone). Do you really want to change this? Even when you talked about how awful the recent experience of not getting any sleep for two weeks, it was a bit like a humble brag.

Have you read the book Procrastination? I read once when I was 18, and another time over ten years later. If I remember right, one of the major themes was that coming in under the wire is an effective way to break the equation of work=expression of worth and ability because it throws the wrench of "if only I had more time. What you see here doesn't truly reflect my full potential." And you're getting good feedback now, even considering the circumstances. That makes the possibility of really finding out your potential even scarier, because it must be sky high, right?

Anyway, the Procrastination book explains these trains of thought better than I can. What has helped me the most, actually, is to let go of the idea that I can only sit down to write when I'm inspired. The book How to Write a Lot is good for arguing this. And also that left to my own devices, I will wander off. So I use apps like Freedom, Anti-Social and Vitamin-R to block the internet and stick to a 9 to 5 better by breaking my work down into smaller 15 or 20 minute chunks.
posted by umbĂș at 8:53 PM on January 31, 2013 [20 favorites]

This is me. The only thing that works is rebooting my body by taking some time off.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:04 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you can take care of the gaps between binges, binges might take care of themselves. In other words, you can't sustain a round-the-clock work effort every day forever. So you are recovering from these binges, presumably (as I tend to when this happens to me) by NOT working for a few days or longer, at least not on anything related to what you binge-worked on.

Then you find it harder to get back into the groove, so it takes you that hour or more to get your head into the project again, and you feel like you need a long stretch to work on it because of this, and then the cycle repeats itself.

For me the solution is to work on a given writing project every day, several times a day, for about a half-hour each time (or more if I feel like I am in the groove), but not to miss those minimum requirements for any reason whatsoever. When I first started doing this, I even made myself do those couple of half hours each weekend day as well. You'll find the frequency means you really do stop needing so long to get back into your "flow" state, because you never really left off. And you probably find you think a lot of great ideas in between those bits of actual work time too, because your brain carries on in the background. So you get to keep one of the benefits of your previous binges without the insanity of the long hours.

The key is that you don't have to stop yourself from binge-working once you've started one of your half-hour timeslots - keep going all night if you really want to - but you have to keep the next appointment the next morning or whenever AS WELL. Eventually the binges feel unnecessary and maybe counter-productive, and they just stop.

The only thing I still struggle with when I am on this system is getting started on a new project. Once I've started, I can make myself do that next half hour in the afternoon or tomorrow morning, and so on. But I do procrastinate on getting started for the first time. Sometimes it has helped to overlap two projects, so that as one is winding up, I start using one of my non-negotiable half hours per day on the new one. That way it feels kind of like I am "cheating" on my other project (which I am usually sick of by then), and getting away with something, which helps with motivation.

Finally, google around and read more about "flow". I think you might be deliberately delaying starting in order to put yourself in a situation where the intensity of the work induces a "flow state". But there are other ways to get there.
posted by lollusc at 9:17 PM on January 31, 2013 [15 favorites]

I have written for money although it isn't my main gig. But I do freelance work generally and have learned that if I'm putting off doing a job it's usually because I've got a concern, sometimes explicit and sometimes subconscious or subliminal, that something is wrong with it. Either I don't have all the material, or something hasn't been explained properly, or in some fundamental sense the project is ill-conceived or there's a conflict buried in the basic premise.

Some of these things are easier to fix than others.

The key thing is to get all the stuff together that you need well before the deadline is staring you in the face. My experience is that you can work up to the last minute safely if you need the pressure, but if you discover at 3 a.m. before the deadline that some key information or item is missing (which you should have asked about or set about finding weeks ago), then you really do risk fucking up.

So that's what I do. I make sure I have all the stuff and that any questions I have are answered. I remove the barriers that stop me getting to work. The rest is the more boring stuff about doing a bit every day so that the task doesn't scare you so much.
posted by zadcat at 9:36 PM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would say that your concerns about your health are very real, by the way. Since becoming a copywriter about five years ago, I've put on a bunch of weight (I used to be a teacher, so stood up for most of the day). I have a couple of other health problems. Truth be told, I would like to be a gardener.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:46 PM on January 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

You need to break your work up into smaller deadlines, and you need someone to enforce them.

When I was going through something similar I had an arrangement with my girlfriend where I would send her an email every day at 5 with what I'd accomplished that day.

I've also worked on systems with my supervisor where I've made myself a weekly checklist on Monday and reported back with what I'd checked off on Friday. My boss didn't really care if I didn't get everything done, but the accountability worked.

Maybe the best thing that I did was making 5 pm quitting time, period. Make "dinner at home with husband" a thing that happens no matter what. Artificially limiting your hours will keep you focused -- remember that work expands to fill the time that you make available for it.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 10:24 PM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

I find a few things that help:

1. Needing to leave work at a certain time. This really does force me to get done sooner. Those extra revisions where you're putting out great work? It's better than it needs to be. You are choosing to "perfect" your work over spending time with family, sleeping, taking care of yourself, etc.

2. Making the last thing you do in the day or week be documenting what you've done and how it compares to what you expected to do. The actual documenting isn't important, but knowing it's coming up is. At 2 PM on Friday when you realize you haven't done half of what you thought you were going to do that week, or at 3 PM on any day when you realize you have to leave work in just 2 hours and won't be done with (item you thought you'd have done), it can be very motivating to try and crank out at least something.

3. Developing tricks for getting 'in the zone'. Leaving some notes to yourself or leaving a sentence unfinished in writing is a suggestion above along those lines. For me I find I do a great job of focusing on a project once I pick up the loose threads and remember what was interesting about it, but I tend to procrastinate on that. So I need to shut off my other options to procrastinate or jump between projects, and just force myself to try to pick up this one project that I need to do. Maybe shut myself in a conference room at the office, or turn off the internet/phone - once I've spent the time going back and reading over what I've done so far, or writing a list of requirements for the project, or writing the first few sentences of the document, usually there's something bugging me that I need to fix or change or add and then I can really focus.

So these are all things you can try. Hope one of them helps you!
posted by Lady Li at 11:29 PM on January 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

Forgive me if I'm way off here, but does part of you maybe really want to fail, so that you can finally take the pressure off, and are you maybe almost deliberately sabotaging yourself by waiting until the last minute?

If you had a ten-years-off-your-life panic attack barely two months ago and this has happened three times since then, in other words you are having major crises every two or three weeks, then it is not a question of if but when you hit the wall. You asked how to stop? Just wait, it will happen, but violently.

Fit is important in therapy. Maybe you were unlucky last time. Consider trying again?
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:31 PM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

I work from home and have suffered the same problems as you. Putting work first in binge style and letting everything else fall apart. I do think habits are changeable.

I feel on top of it now, breaking things down into manageable parts was the first step. I get a lot of enjoyment out of planning out my work and it really helps me make it through to the end of the project without breaking the 9 to 5.

I get distracted easy so I use a countdown timer of 60 minutes and reward myself with 10 minutes leisure at the end of each block. The timer gives a very small version of that rush you get working against a deadline.
posted by DOUBLE A SIDE at 3:37 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sounds like you are an adrenaline junkie. The "high" is caused by self-inducing a fight-or-flight response by intentionally engaging in stressful or risky behavior, which causes a release of epinephrine by the adrenal gland. Adrenaline junkies appear to favor stressful activities for the release of epinephrine as a stress response.

A lot of people in this country, particularly in academia, are stressed out. I view it as a choice, as no one is putting a gun to one's head to work under these conditions.

You are getting a reward out of this behavior, so it's going to be difficult to stop, but not impossible. I don't know how old you are, but I think middle-age and children can have a big impact on this addiction. Middle-age is often a time of burnout for many people who have worked this way for a couple of decades, as it's not generally sustainable physically or emotionally. Children will force you to delay your habit and push your stress level over the cliff, thus forcing you to make a decision about managing your work and stress in more sustainable ways.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being an adrenaline junkie, but it's clearly losing its appeal as you realize that it is controlling you, just like any other addiction. And like any other addiction, it's going to take a monumental shift in how you feel about the quality of your life and what you are willing to do to have more healthy lifestyle. You possibly will need to either hit rock bottom (where ever that is), run out of resources to get your fix (become ill, lose your job, possibly preceded by losing your marriage), or wake up with an epiphany before any of this happens. I'm no expert in humanity but I don't think it's any secret what pathways addicts take on their road to recovery.

Think about the rewards you get from this addiction and focus on how they aren't ultimately really serving you well.
posted by waving at 4:02 AM on February 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would look for a different job (it doesn't have to be in a different field) where the culture of the organization stresses a healthy work-life balance. You could search for organizations where the typical work week ends after 40 hours and employees aren't expected to do extra work in their free time. There are work places like that out there, and they're wonderful.
posted by Nematoda at 4:23 AM on February 1, 2013

Get a pet and have your husband absolutely refuse to take care of it so you have to leave work and relax with it.

I used to work like you do, and I still love love to work like that because it's a long immersion and at the end you have this thing you've written/built/organised. I learned to pull overnighters when I was in Grade 6 with coffee pots, and to this day, I get such a thrill setting up my desk to work overnight and into the morning for a weekend sprint - all those hours to work uninterrupted and then crash into sleep, wake up with new ideas and work some more!

When I had kids, I was forced to take on a regular schedule and restricted my work sprints to when my husband was around to handle the kids and house. I would not suggest having kids for this, but a pet could be enough to force you to put structure into your day. Don't do it unless you have someone as a back-up for the pet if you can't handle it - maybe start by taking a friend's pet for daily walks.
posted by viggorlijah at 4:31 AM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

The most dangerous thing you're doing is not sleeping. I hope to God you're not ever driving while sleep-deprived, as well.

If you do nothing else, make a hard and fast rule that you will sleep at least 7 hours a night. Your lights-out time is midnight (for example), your getting-up time is not before 7am. Don't take ADHD meds after 8pm, and if you have trouble waking up, set a pre-alarm for 6am, take your meds, and go back to sleep. If you won't remember whether you took your meds or not, put them on the nightstand before you take them, and put them on the floor afterwards.

That won't change everything all at once, but it will change a whole lot.
posted by tel3path at 5:10 AM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

The "you must write at least x half-hour chunks and more if you like" really does work. My girlfriend has started using this technique to work on fiction writing and, like you, has a very hard time getting started.

She's been writing reams and reams since the rule started. (also, the penalty for NOT completing the mandatory writing session is smashing her most prized possession which we cannot afford to replace in front of all of her friends on her birthday, so there's a bit of added pressure there..)
posted by zug at 6:08 AM on February 1, 2013

Oh, this is simple.

You're the type of person who likes excitement and adventure and doing fun things that make you feel great. Like most people, yes? You like to feel the rush of successfully doing something that is hard. That is a human thing. We love adventure, we love excitement, we love novelty, we love to triumph over adversity. It makes us feel like we're powerful, that we're strong, that we're doing something important that only a few people could do. It's empowering! It feels great!

Here's your problem, though: you're so good at writing research papers that it isn't hard any longer.

So you make it hard, by waiting until the last minute. You add challenge. A risk of fucking up. Then you rise to that challenge, and then that is exciting! In other words, the only way you can get any enjoyment out of your job it is to keep pulling your own ass out of the fire you jumped into. This is why people play games, and you've turned your job into a game by adding "artificial difficulty."

I know you say you love your job. I think it's not your job you love, it's the excitement of beating the artificial difficulty that you yourself add to the job. Unfortunately, that particular kind of artificial difficulty you've added is not healthy -- not for you, and not for your employer.

You need to do one of two things. You either need to start playing games or some kind of sporting event or something that is hard and challenging, and thus getting your excitement in some other place ... or you need to get a new job.

This is okay!

We are not robots programmed to do one thing for the rest of our lives. We are dynamic, adaptable intelligent creatures always seeking novelty and challenge and personal growth and a meaningful existence.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:16 AM on February 1, 2013 [11 favorites]

There is a certain romance to how you are approaching these tasks--you get fully engaged with the creative aspects of writing and that can be exciting (and as you've noted terrifying). There are certain things about the process of writing, however, that are predictable and scheduleable. This is especially true when you are writing the same kind of document routinely. Perhaps breaking down all of the little tasks you need to do and approximately how long it will take you to do them will help you stay focused. I can get distracted when I'm in procrastination mode and having a list of "oh yeah, this is what I'm supposed to be working on" really helps me.

For example, when you have a particular topic, you will need to research X, Y, and Z. So you have a list where you can tick off researching X, Y, and Z. Maybe you need to interview some people to get additional information, that's another tick. When you sit down to write the paper, you will need a rough outline of the typical structure of these research reports. In my experience they typically have the same general sections/breakdown. Each section is a major tasks and sub-sections are minor tasks. You can also do this by topics and sub topics if your documents aren't as regimented as mine are. (Again, this can just be a list.)

This is not romantic at all. The benefit of at least writing down the expected tasks you have though, is that when you're thinking about that recipe for dinner, you can refocus your attention because you know you need to be researching topic Y, which you just confirmed on your list of tasks for this paper. You also know that you can probably get a good start on writing the introduction or the outline for topic X because you already researched that. You can leave yourself little notes about where you left off and/or where you want to pick back up to help reorient yourself more quickly when you're ready to jump back in.

One thing that is critical to maintaining deadlines, especially for procrastinators, is to build in accountability for smaller milestones. This means setting up a meeting with a colleague to review parts of the document a few times before it is due. This could also mean sending status reports to your manager with details about where you are and a draft of the document at regular predefined intervals. If your manager isn't holding you accountable for anything but the final deadline, you should build in more accountability to keep yourself on track. Quite frankly, if I were your manager this is exactly what I would do when you started missing deadlines like you did last November.

I have traditionally been a procrastinator and since I started a job where regular responsible accountability was built into the project management scheme I have thrived. I can't tell you how much this has made working on projects where I could have easily sabotaged myself the way you are sabotaging yourself, so much easier for me. Yes, it's probably less dramatic and exciting, but when you are under tight deadlines and feeling stressed you will have a process to fall back on that helps you be less manic and maintain a better work/life balance.

Good luck!!
posted by Kimberly at 6:56 AM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

You remind me of Chefs I know, stay with me here I know it sounds weird. There job is a lot of very quiet prep work and then 2 hours of complete and crazy chaos with huge adrenaline rushes and excitement and as much as they all bitch and moan about the stress that's the thing they love the most. Getting to the edge of chaos and then pulling it off at the last minute is exhilarating. I get the feeling that like most Chefs I know, you get the same rush from the pressure, how ever self inflicted. In your post you sounded almost proud of yourself.

I don't think any advice people can give is really going to help until you decide if you really do want to stop the last minute adrenaline rushes or not. They say that is why so many chefs drink, not that I think you will start drinking, but that the rush is a hard high to live without.

Ideas that might help you, before you start a project sit down and break down all the work into the time allowed. Maybe when you see where the small part you are doing at the time fits into the whole, and keeping track of it will help you, as you say you like to do the whole thing at once.

Start the day reviewing, editing or simply rereading what you've done before, that will help what you are doing that day feel more connected to what you have already done.

Break the project down into lots of little mini projects that need to be done every day, maybe even allocate a little more that you can comfortably do in a day so that you can have that buzz of a little added pressure that you seem to like.

Maybe break down what you are trying to get down before the big cram session at the end into smaller chunks. Say for the next project I will get x done before crunch time, the project after that I will get x & y done before crunch time and slowly improve, trying to improve everything at once, especially when I think you think you need the pressure to do good work, is a good way for you to set yourself up to fail. When you can see small improvements and feel the positive effects of them you will be more encouraged to keep on trying.
posted by wwax at 8:29 AM on February 1, 2013

I completely get the need to be in the zone, and if I can't get a big block of hours to work on something, I feel like it's pointless to try to work on it at all. What has helped me has been to very assertively block out substantial chunks of time, at a minimum several hours, so I can focus on the project and really get into it.

So I'd suggest that you ruthlessly block out and guard big blocks of hours starting well before the deadline, and turn them into mini-binges. Each mini-binge must produce a deliverable that a third party must approve. Make the deliverable a challenge if you need the adrenaline rush. During your mini-binge no one must interrupt you and you block all distracting web sites.

You mentioned that you're not sure how you're spending your time -- how much is research, how much writing, etc. I use RescueTime to honestly (and alarmingly) tell me exactly how much time I spend dinking around and how much time I spend producing something.

I've told RescueTime which sites and programs to consider "productive," and I have a goal of four "productive" hours a day. It's much easier to reach that goal if I assertively protect that chunk of time -- no email checking, no Metafilter, no answering the phone, no "research" that is really just wandering down interesting side trails. It's a mini-binge, and when I finally see that green checkmark next to the four-hour goal, then I can relax a bit.

After you've used it for awhile, the program also tells you what times of day you're most productive, compares your efficiency to that of other users, and gives you other interesting (and to me, competition-inspiring) reports.
posted by ceiba at 8:35 AM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is a comment that's probably not very helpful, but anyway . . . I have operated this way for as long as I can remember. When I got to graduate school, I actually went and saw an academic counselor about it because I was so worn out from trying to produce seminar papers in 48 hours and couldn't conceive of getting a dissertation done that way. The counselor went back and pulled my college and grad school transcripts, and I think she even talked to some of my professors. Her conclusion? This is the way that I work, and it has always been successful. And I'd be better off accepting it rather than trying to change it. So my advice would be to anticipate the binges, take great care of yourself outside of the binges, and stop fighting your natural inclinations.
posted by fiery.hogue at 8:47 AM on February 1, 2013

To the OP:

You mentioned that you can only work in certain ways - you can't just pick something up and stop, you have to be immersed in it, often for hours or days at a time.

The only thing I can say is the words of advice Bill Valgardson passed on to aspiring writers in creative writing workshops.

What he said was, in order to combat writer's block, you need to tell yourself:

"Writing is easy and fun for me."

Basically, you have to fool yourself, and it seemed to work for him.

I don't think you should have to just accept things as the way they are. Time management is a critical key for success. As we can see (in my own case for example) poor time management has very drastic consequences.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:03 AM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

shivohum's analysis is pretty great, imo.

Are you working from home? That kills me... so many distra - hey, look! a bunny!

So renting a monastic cell to work in might help. Has to be well away from the house, though.

The dopamine hit of pulling off the impossible work binge must be awesome. All that stress followed by all that reward... no wonder you're doing it again and again.

As a techie, I'm a big fan of Agile. The nearest real-world equivalent is Getting Things Done. But the essence of it is pretty simple: buy a bunch of index cards, chop your work up as small as possible, and write each task on an index card. Put them up on the wall in priority order. Each completed task is a little hit of success, and if you've sliced your tasks small enough, you get a steady trickle. Your work may not lend itself to this approach, of course.

posted by Leon at 9:35 AM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have ADD and medication helps a lot. What also helps is having a regular schedule. As much as possible, go to bed at the same time, and get up at the same time, every day.

You're a good writer; write more. Being in the habit of sitting down to write every day at the same time will help. Every day, write for at least 2 hours, even if you don't feel like it. It can be answers on, blog posts, comments, whatever. Give yourself a reward for accomplishing the writing, no matter what it is. And a penalty if you don't do it. Then start doing your work as the writing. If possible, break the work into components, and make a project plan, so you can reward yourself for progress as you go. Like any skill, you can practice to improve your ability to accomplish work regularly.
posted by theora55 at 2:10 PM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

For the record, I didn't blow the deadline. But I also worked for 2 weeks straight with barely any sleep and I think it took 10 years off my life. I also had an extreme anxiety/panic attack that scared the shit out of me and my husband. I thought this awful experience would be the catalyst for stopping this behavior, but it's happened three times since then.

Are you kidding me? I remember that thread. You were in absolute crisis. You said: "This is the lowest point in my life". I was so afraid for you. And yet, this has happened three more times since the end of November? Holy god, that's only 2 months ago! I've double-checked the date of your other post in disbelief about six times now. You cannot live this way.

I used to be you. My life was thinking and writing, and I could only write under the condition that the muse was with me, or I was in the zone, or the writing was doing itself, or whatever you want to call it. If it wasn't written from that place, it wasn't 'enough'; the work just wasn't going to be good enough and so there wasn't any point in writing it at all.

I burned myself out with stress. I had a nervous breakdown (severe depression and anxiety) in grad school and was diagnosed as bipolar (and I want you to know that chasing an adrenaline high is typical hypomanic behavior). I left on a medical leave and never returned. I have never fully recovered my health. I lost my dream of being an academic or writer. But I cannot live that way anymore. I'm in a completely different field now. I am no longer a perfectionist. I have seen people who were persistent in effort overtake those who relied on a mixture of 'talent' and 'inspiration' - overtake them both in success and in happiness.

I was about to say that I don't want to scare you, but to be quite honest, I do. If you keep this up, you will almost certainly hurt yourself badly. Yes, your health can be destroyed. Yes, your marriage can fall apart. I don't see how you can possibly deal with raising a child if you have to be utterly, completely focused on your writing for days or weeks at a time (although I don't know it that is a goal of yours).

If you want this to stop, you must lower your standards. You have to learn to force yourself write whenever, not just when you are in the zone, or feeling genius, or whatever. Your stuff won't be as good. There will be a drop of quality. You will notice it, but I'm willing to bet that other people won't. The quality will improve over time, as you get used to writing in this new way. You will still have moments of great insight, but you won't rely on them and chase them obsessively, working yourself up into a state just to have one.

I'm really sorry you are grappling with this. I hope you won't be ashamed to post anonymously again if you need to. Good luck.
posted by kitcat at 9:09 PM on February 1, 2013 [8 favorites]

Some of the above comments have me re-evaluating my work habits! I started a decline into this more last-minute work style at one point when I missed a couple grad school classwork deadlines and ... nothing happened. Makes it hard to trick yourself with made-up deadlines as is one of the common suggestions for avoiding procrastination. I've gotten a bit better again recently. Some things that seem to be helping for me, or some ideas that I thought of while reading the other comments:

1. Getting sufficient sleep. Keeps me more emotionally balanced, as well as helps me focus on stuff better. The emotional balance part helps moderate the risk/reward issues people have mentioned above. The better focus helps me get back into my work each day more quickly. (Regular exercise and good nutrition help as well, but for me, sleep is really the major thing.)

2. Have a regular thing that you have to get up for each morning to help maintain a regular sleep pattern. It's best if this is something that you can really look forward to. Maybe a yoga class with a relaxation/meditation exercise at the end if that's your style. It might be helpful to combine this with my next suggestion.

3. Do something (mentally) challenging each day, but make sure that it is something with strict time limits. I haven't done this regularly or intentionally yet, but notice that good things happen to my state of mind and work habits when it happens by accident. The activity could be something like a Go lesson and game from a Go master; or a reading seminar with other folks where you work through a challenging textbook, journal article, philosophical work, or similar - something more than just a reading group, something where there is the challenge of actually learning something complicated, but structured in a manner where there is no expectation of you reading ahead or doing extra "homework" outside of the seminar meeting; if you read/write multiple languages, translating a work of literature or poetry. The goal here is to get the sort of mental challenge that other posters are suggesting your last-minute work habits are providing, but to get a little bit of it regularly every day. Start with something unrelated to work, and then transition (as one of the other commenters said regarding keeping a more regular writing schedule) to a similar scheme for work tasks. Then add more work tasks, etc. Hopefully this will give you that jolt of challenge, excitement, and accomplishment on a daily basis; and getting used to getting that on a daily basis will make it less pleasant to have the breaks between manic work phases, and thus easier to spread work out more evenly, maybe?

4. The thing that has helped me the most makes more sense to me now in the context of how other commenters have framed this discussion. Basically, over the past few years I haven't necessarily de-romanticized the intensive work experience, but I have increasingly (and now to an almost equal extent) romanticized the habits of working more regularly each day and taking time to care for myself and my relationships with others. The key is that I've been able to frame this in a broader political narrative, rather than thinking of it just as taking care of myself. You mention that your work is at times emotionally taxing, so I'm guessing that there is a component of fighting the good fight to your work that makes it feel important, and helps you feel like part of an important, larger goal? My work is sometimes like that too, and that's the sort of thing that motivates me. Add in gendered issues around taking care of others versus taking care of self, mix, and serve. Yeah. So for me, what has helped has been thinking of my work as labor (albeit labor that I enjoy many aspects of and think is important), and situating it within a socialist critique of capitalism, alienation of labor, the influence of capitalism on community and personal relations, etc. In that context, my taking time to care for myself and my relationships is not just something I'm doing for me, but it's a push back against forces of class-based oppression in an epic struggle for a better society. Well, okay, I don't think about it on quite that grand a scale on a day-to-day basis, but that's the sort of romanticizing I'm talking about. There have been some metafilter threads about eg. Russell's defense of laziness and similar issues that might be helpful if this sounds like a way to romanticize healthier work habits that would work for you. I'm sure there are other stories and contexts you could use instead if this doesn't work for you. The Slow Movement, including, for example, Slow Science might be a good place to start. (*)

5. Continuing in the kind of political vein though, one thing that is interesting, to me at least, is that some differences in work style do seem to be related to socio-economic class differences. Having projects that give you the freedom to procrastinate and work maniacally at the last minute to meet a deadline is a particular feature of certain types of professional work, for example - particularly intellectual professional labor. Working long hours to finish a project is often a socially lauded thing to do within this class, and people see it as indicating a strong work ethic. On the other hand, putting in your hours regularly every day is a very strong part of one of my parent's work ethic, coming from a more working class background. Yeah, getting the project or task done is important, but this parent would disapprove of the break from work necessary to recover from such last-minute binges, because that is not working regularly putting the time in every day. Anyway, this may or may not be helpful to you, but it might be useful to really think about the ethics/morality around work that you were taught growing up: what was seen as indicative of a good work ethic, and what was seen as indicative of a lazy or bad work ethic. If that's playing into your willingness to set aside everything else in your life for work that is enabling your procrastination, realizing where this comes from is an important step in maybe forming newer, healthier beliefs about work ethic for yourself. (Erm, so, I think about this in a political context, but I'm vaguely aware that there are other frameworks (religious, secular psychology/therapy contexts, etc.) that would still enable you to investigate and re-evaluate your beliefs around work-ethic/morality if this doesn't grab you.)

(*) Not everyone is in a sufficiently economically privileged position to intentionally limit their labor to reasonable outputs. If I may step up onto this soapbox, there's an obvious tension here that it's important, for our own sanity and setting reasonable goals and expectations for ourselves, to note. Work expectations in modern capitalism are often so high that they leave us little time for maintaining and strengthening our relationships to loved ones and to our community in general. It is these relationships that are the best, strongest safety net against taking the sort of economic risks that most people face if they try to push back against the capitalist push for ever increasing work output. If we're already on that treadmill, then we might not have the community resources to take the risks required to make time to develop those community resources, thus we need to work even more in order to ensure our financial stability and safety from economic risk all on our own without the help of a supportive community. It's definitely a catch-22. It's okay if all you can do is take baby steps in the direction of a saner work/life balance; it's important to have high hopes, but also to set realistic goals, and to celebrate those seemingly small goals when you accomplish them. Maybe making sure that you eat a meal with your partner/family every day, where no one is distracted with work or other things and you just focus on each other may seem like a minor thing, a small goal. But often there are a lot of obstacles that can make this quite difficult; so be kind to yourself and celebrate all your achievements on the road to healthy work habits and work/life balance.
posted by sockpuppet13 at 8:33 AM on February 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

OP, not sure if you are still reading but if you are: I know you posted this question anonymously, but I'm intrigued by your description of the work that you do and wondered if you could send me a message- via the mods to maintain your anonymity- with whatever level of detail and generality you feel comfortable with about what your job is called in the professional nomenclature. I'm in the midst of a career overhaul and am trying to identify fields that involve the kind of analytic labor that you describe, and I'd love to have any information on a possible next step career-wise. Thank you for any information you feel able to offer.
posted by Corrective_Lenses at 4:08 PM on February 3, 2013

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