Portrait of a Workaholic

Angry red notification bubbles pepper my devices. Tupperwares of leftovers go uneaten in the fridge. A stack of colorful, empty folders sits on my desk, waiting patiently for me to get my shit together. The coffeemaker is perpetually filled with coffee, the primary substance I consume.

This is life as a workaholic.

I’ve written a lot about burnout and productivity, and I have a confession to make: I’m not good at taking my own advice. I sometimes work for hours at a time with no breaks. I don’t leave room in my schedule for relaxation, chores, or even meals. And I pack my to-do list as full as possible in desperate search of a future that I haven’t fully visualized.

I could blame it all on being a freelancer and the 24/7 need to hustle, but the fact is that I’ve always been a workaholic. I’ve always been addicted to work, craving the thrill of Getting Things Done and the sweet feeling of validation. Today, I realized that I’ve been too busy to even put the toilet paper roll on the holder. It sits on top of the toilet, mocking me. And for good reason. Recently, I’ve punished myself for daring to break away from my laptop and use the bathroom.

Afterward, I stared out the window at the rain, appropriately falling to match my mood. A few realizations came to mind, and with them a pressing need for change.

Perhaps it’s capitalism’s influence that I constantly think of my worth in terms of my marketability. “How many dollars per hour am I worth?” is a question that a freelancer can’t avoid. It’s nice to set that rate, especially since I spent years working for $7 an hour under retail managers who gleefully told me how worthless I was.

I wanted more for myself, and not just money. I was an idea-haver reared on the American Dream. I believed strongly in the power of work, but it was hard to break away from the bootstrap mentality that placed all responsibility in my hands. As a child, my ambition drove me to compete in everything from spelling bees to Accelerated Reader leaderboards. As an adult, I somehow let this drive sublimate into work(aholism).

I’ve always poured my heart into any task I’m handed. While I’ve been praised for my passion, I realized this summer that not everyone appreciates that. My “supervisor” at my last 9-to-5 told me that I didn’t demonstrate that I cared about my projects — the very projects that I’d been pulling overtime and weekend hours to get done. I know that she was projecting her own insecurities, but I still took it very hard when she let me go. How was it that my passion hadn’t equaled success?

The problem with that job, and with most of my jobs over the years, is that I didn’t set boundaries. I let my job title define me. I let my 9-to-5 shape my life. I put my dreams on the back burner in the name of “just getting by right now” or “getting my ducks in a row.”

Now, as a freelancer, I have abandoned all boundaries between work and life, between my market value and my sense of self-worth. I’m well aware that I need to set more boundaries, not fewer, but I can’t seem to take that mental step.

Perhaps this isn’t a bad thing. How many employers and clients want someone who can handle a “fast-paced workplace”? I’ve been told countless times how fast I am. But this “quality” is born of workaholism, and I’m no longer sure it’s something I should be proud of.

I used to be a terrible procrastinator, crippled by my fear of failure. In college, I was the type to wait until the last minute to complete my work. I always turned it around in time and got good grades, and eventually, I trained myself to “work best under pressure.”

Now, I’m better at having a varied schedule, even if I’m not taking breaks as I should, but I’m still willing to skip a workout or meal if it means getting more done. “One more article,” I tell myself. “Send a few more cold emails and you can take a break.”

The break never happens. I simply switch gears to something else.

As I contemplate my endless to-do list and wish that I could just sleep for a day or two, I realize that I have a choice. I could continue in this vein, warding off burnout with tiny breaks and exchanging boundaries for a feeling of validation. Or, I could get off this rollercoaster I’m on and establish some firm guidelines for myself.

I need time to decompress. I need to stop worrying about maximizing my productivity and start creating space. Space to daydream and brainstorm. Space to socialize and relax. Space for work that doesn’t dictate my life.

It’s up to me to break my addiction to work and build my self-esteem around something besides my marketable skills. And once I do, I think that true success might be just around the corner.

Want exclusive weekly stories and the inside scoop into my writing journey? Join my mailing list.

Written by

Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list: http://eepurl.com/gD53QP

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store