Let me start by saying this will take a bit to unpack. It took a week’s worth of writing sessions (three times a day, so 15 sessions!) to sort it out.
Where to start?
Last week, I was discussing healthy eating habits with someone who is in recovery from an eating disorder. We were talking about a concept called intuitive eating, listening to your body to learn how to respond to its needs rather than to your mind, which has absorbed all sorts of unhealthy messages.
I wondered aloud, “How, if you never learned healthy eating patterns, can you trust your intuition?”
The consensus: It requires a lot of compassionate exploration, self observation and, of course, crying while lying on the kitchen floor.
Side note: You might not want to hear this, but I often find that programs related to recovery from toxic and/or unhealthy patterns are relevant to writing and academia. Toxic relationships are toxic relationships after all. #Awkward
I went straight from the overeating conversation to one of my Unstuck Writing in the Pandemic sessions, which incorporate short bursts of work with coaching on the obstacles and challenges raised by the day’s participants.
For this particular session, I asked participants to ponder this question: “How do you know when you have overworked?” Understanding that just like the question of overeating, overworking requires SIGNIFICANT excavation of often deeply buried thoughts and motivations.
Now, I do this kind of coaching in every single session. And whether the topic is perfectionism or imposter syndrome or boundaries or anything else common to academia, participants are QUICK to jump in. There is always lively discussion.
But…. When I asked about overwork, the silence was deafening.
It was so quiet that I could almost hear the screams inside each participant’s brain: STOP TALKING ABOUT THIS! I HAVE WORK TO DO!
It was quite a thing. And when they finally started talking, they shared how hard it was for them to even recognize overwork as something they were doing at all, let alone recognize its symptoms.
What we finally got to as a group was a list of physical, emotional and psychological symptoms that clued participants into over work. These included: headache, crabbiness, inability to concentrate, agitation.
I left them with homework: Define overwork in their own lives.
So if you are resisting even considering the question, rest assured you that you are not alone.
The same day, totally unrelated, I was reading about how when we repeatedly set a goal or deadline and miss it, we lose touch with ourselves.
In Unstuck, I talk a lot about how when we say we are going to do something and don’t do it, we lose internal integrity. We don’t trust ourselves.
This language is a small shift from not trusting ourselves to losing touch with ourselves.
Somehow for me that shift in language releases a bit of judgment that might be associated with the “trust” phrasing, and opens up space for compassionate curiosity. Rather than “I don’t trust myself” the engagement moves to “Who am I in relation to deadlines and boundaries?”
It’s worth noting that this doesn’t make missing a goal feel any better, but it can make facing it less punishing. Rather than saying to ourselves “You failed! Now I don’t trust you!” we can be compassionate and curious. “Hey, I lost you. Where are you?”
Cue the second meeting of the day. Different group, same set up. This time I prefaced my question(s) about overwork with an observation.
“Today we are going to start to look at overwork. The goal is to work our way back to where we pushed past our limits. We can’t learn to set a boundary we won’t blow past without knowing our healthy limit.”
BUT, right now that line is so buried under the detritus of blown boundaries that there is no finding it without measured excavation.
So, here is the first question: How do you know you have overworked?”
Again, to a person, the indicator was physical, mental or emotional.
Next question: “Do you know when the overwork started?”
“Let’s modify that question: What are some of the sentences you have heard in your head when you didn’t want to work?”
The answers” “This is too much.” “I can’t handle this.” “I am soooooo tired.” “I need a freaking break!”
(You will notice these are not the same as the voices that tell you that you don’t know enough or are not up to the task. That’s a whole other topic!)
The interaction showed me that THIS is the place to begin excavating. Way back when you told yourself, this is too much, but your solution was to push through. The ignored “complaints” may be the best marker, even before the physical or emotional symptoms.
Third group of the day. Same set up. Except after they shared their symptoms, I added this:
“Here’s the thing. Those physical symptoms are outcomes — headache, crabiness, agitation — of ignoring an earlier warning. Think of it like your car. You don’t just end up broken down on the side of the road. You ignored the indicator light for how many weeks before that happened? So, the indicator light is the little voice that said, “I’m so tired.” “I need a break.” “This is just too much.” Listen to it before you’re broken down.
As you think about what your indicator light is, you can begin to excavate the line where you push yourself past healthy.
As you become familiar with that line again (In other words, begin to recognize the self you lost contact with), ponder the question I posed to the next group: Where can youI work less?
And if reading that made you guffaw at the ridiculousness of the question, you are, again, not alone.
And, I am not joking.
The solution to overwork is to work less.
And because we both know that simply working less is unlikely, try engaging these three questions as you are able:
- How do I know I have overworked?
- Where is the first indication that I am pushing past my limits?
- When I get that first indication of overwork, where could I choose to work less?
I didn’t expect them — nor do I expect you — to be able to answer these questions immediately. For everyone who chronically overworks, the answers are buried under years of allowing outside circumstances to overwrite our intuition. Academia is literally built on this impulse. Like intuitive eating, discovering what is healthy work for you requires a lot of compassionate exploration, self observation and, of course, crying while lying on the office floor.
Two final notes:
- Doing this work does not mean you will never overwork or that there won’t be times that you push past the limits for a short period of time. Like all things Unstuck, the insight is not about NEVER DOING IT WRONG AGAIN; it is about reclaiming agency and choosing rather than being shoved around by unexamined external demands.
- For many of you it is easy to dismiss the idea of overwork because you have had (or are in the midst of) periods of not working at all. Instead you are writhing in shame, THINKING about work, or more precisely beating yourself up for not working. This is actually no different than overwork in its impact on your system. I encourage you to ask the same questions, but this time, about the shame around not working or not working “enough.”
I welcome your observations and insights.