The crazy lady cops to the crazy

crazy frog (puppet) on a tiny dirt bike

Dan Owen loves it when I write about my workaholism.

So this is going to be a banner week for Dan, something I’m happy to give him, for all he gives back via his thoughtful comments, and who knows? Maybe, just maybe, if I can chip away at some scaly mass getting in the way of me and a foothold, maybe it will be a banner week for me, too. Because for as trenchant as my workaholism is, and for as much as many 12-steppers would insist that obviously, I’m getting something out of it or I wouldn’t be doing it, I insist, INSIST, I tell you!, that there is a way out of this to a happier me. To someone who, it is true, enjoys work with perhaps more fervor than many, and still to the exclusion of many things, but not to the point of obsession.

There is always, usually, a way out of here. It’s more likely that there may not be one way out of here, if you’re talking tactics, but the central way is most certainly some shift in thought. For example, my way of feeling, my approach to the kind of work I was interested in doing too much of, changed in pretty much an instant, during my hospital-bed epiphany (which I spoke about at last year’s Ignite). But while there have been other shifts in realization that took longer, my transition from being okay with applying my stupid workaholic engine to writing ads for The Man to not being okay with it, for example, the shift to new work itself, or a new way of being, or a new set of habits, has always taken a while. Rome wasn’t re-engineered in a day.

Both Dan and Piper bring up one critical component of this re-engineering: checking the yardstick by which I’m measuring accomplishment. Fair enough. I’d say I’m aware of the disconnect between my idea of reasonable and that of someone who is, well, reasonable. This year, I had my annual goals list vetted by a compassionate but critically-thinking friend; last year, I had my then-coach do the honors (who herself has a touch of the workaholism, and who declared my original plan unrealistic). This year’s list required less retooling for reality than last year’s, and so far, I’m also much more on track than I was last year, both of which items I’m calling progress.

I believe the real progress lies in two things: first, my willingness to openly cop to this as something that’s not working and that I want to change, then trying stuff that stands a reasonable chance of working. While I’ve been copping openly here on the blog for years now, there are years and years (and years, decades!) before then where I not only denied it, if you brought it up to me, I’d have told you that was insane. My father was a workaholic; I knew what workaholism looked like.1

Second, I am objectively happier. Sure, there are many contributing factors, including the epiphany, but there are some key differences that point to my being able to back off this work b.s. now and then and have fun: for starters, a group of women friends, which I never had before, and not only choosing to be with them, but initiating many of the get-togethers. My old modus operandi was just to glom onto whatever friends my S.O. of the moment had, letting him initiate the scheduling. Now I cultivate relationships, and enjoy the tending of them, maybe not to the extent an extrovert would, but I’m not an extrovert! The flip side of this is that I also grab “me” time whenever the hell I feel like it, something I never felt entitled to do before. So, progress!

Ongoing visualization of a five-pound bag and the amount of shit that will fit remains a challenge, though. Piper’s method for handling this is intriguing, but feels effortful to me. I’ve timed things, how long it takes to write a post, a newsletter, to clean the kitchen, to run to the post office, to no avail. The times are too variable. Slightly better has been to play with time allotments for things, as several commenters suggested. This has been marginally more helpful, but man, I have a capacity for denial even with this: I’ll completely overlook the physical drain something that’s emotionally exhausting will take, and end up with stupid-long lists.

What it boils down to is something that I really hate to look at, but is exactly what Dan seems to suggest is inevitable: what do I really want to do? Because that, I’ll manage to get done. I take care of what I have to, eating and sleeping, keeping body and soul together, and what I “have to”, this blog, mostly, and connecting with people I’m interested in about the topics I’m interested in. Like most smokers, I quit smoking when I wanted to, and not a moment sooner. I went on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet when the choice was between that or hard-core meds with deleterious long-term effects, not months before, when I was just uncomfortable.

These books I say I want to write? When I really want to, by this logic, I will write them. I’ll quit writing so much here, and start writing more there. Maybe my refusal to let go of this idea of me writing a collection of essays on one theme is just another form of clutter. I’ve been cautiously, cautiously watching Hoarders lately, as they put up new episodes, and it’s a little scary, seeing the outward manifestation of interior chaos and clinging. I recognize myself on that OCD spectrum, and fully cop to both my blessing/curse of seeing potential in goddamn everything and my reluctance to call chapters closed. Part of why I’ve been stripping away, stripping away, stripping away mercilessly (albeit slowly) at my physical and digital clutter issue is that I recognize this inability to make decisions about stuff-stuff is adversely affecting my ability to make decisions about life-stuff: there’s a side of me that’s still seven, and that wants to live in four different cities (at once!), with five different men, or none, as a ballerina/shrink/college professor/Mike Royko/hobo. Okay, that’s an exaggeration: I never wanted to be a ballerina.

It’s crazy-making, the ability to see potential in things. It leads to lives full of crap and devoid of a central thing, okay, maybe two, that really matter(s).2 I know more about this than I wish I did right now, I’ve been on both ends of this problem. Maybe I’m delusional, thinking that my continued pursuit of a solution to the problem is anything more than a workaholic cat chasing its own tail. Maybe I should cut my losses, find the lowest-common-denominator workaround to the problem, workaholics anonymous, which does exist, and sign myself up.3

One final thought (for now) on this mishegoss: while I’m happy to have read 52 books in less than 52 weeks, and while I almost certainly would have been a bit disappointed had I made it to the end of 52 weeks without having read 52 books, I really am happiest that I’ve managed to build reading back into my life. Really and truly. I am happy to be reading books again, because I enjoy it. I am happy to be reading them still, though I’ve more than fulfilled my “obligation” to myself, and I expect to continue enjoying reading far, far beyond these 52 books and however many weeks.

I’m proudest, however, that I’ve been able to stop reading books I didn’t want to finish, after 10 pages, 50 pages, even 100 pages. That I didn’t for a moment think “OMG I HAVE 100pp INVESTED I CANNOT STOP NOW AIIIYYYIIII!!!1!!” I am reading what I like, because I like it, that is healthy, I think, but it was my crazy-ass, OCD-oriented mindset that got me back to this nice place of being.

That, I think, is not crazy at all. Or maybe it’s just crazy in the “good” way.


1I didn’t, of course, any more than I knew what Crohn’s looked like. My workaholism presented much differently than my father’s did, just as my Crohn’s presented differently. He was all Joe C-Suite and shallow conversations and diarrhea! I was all starving-artiste and meaningful dialogues and constipation! COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. (Not.)

2Here’s how crazy-making it is: when I watch Hoarders, I want to train as a professional organizer who specializes in compulsive hoarding disorders!

3By the way, if anyone has experience with this organization, I’d be very interested to hear about it. And yeah, I get the ano

Image by moffoys via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license. From this “Crazy Frog” Filckr set, which will almost certainly make you laugh, which is good for you whether you’re a workaholic or total layabout.


  1. I still don’t know if I’m a workaholic, but I do know that my relationship with my work looks scarily like a bulimic friend’s relationship with food. LOVE it sometimes. CRAVE it sometimes. STUFF MY FACE sometimes. Can’t stop. Then. ABHOR it sometimes. AVOID it sometimes. FEEL GUILTY sometimes. Can’t start. Panic when I can’t control it. Elation when I’m the dominatrix.

    1. Did you read the diagnostic list of 20 questions? Worth a peek, if only for the chuckles. I’d have serious doubts about hanging out with anyone who *didn’t* feel at least three of these, some of the time.

      Our love/hate cycles sound similar. I have two types of not-working: the high-level procrastination kind, where I’m still doing something, just not what I’m supposed to be doing; and the kind where I park my ass in front of a monitor and mainline narrative drama.

  2. I like this insight: “These books I say I want to write? When I really want to, by this logic, I will write them. I’ll quit writing so much here, and start writing more there.”

    Also, I like this insight: “Like most smokers, I quit smoking when I wanted to, and not a moment sooner.”

    And I like this one: “Ongoing visualization of a five-pound bag and the amount of shit that will fit remains a challenge, though.” (The use of this particular metaphor is also rather revealing. The five-pound bag would be your … day, wouldn’t it?)

    I like this observation: “my way of feeling, my approach to the kind of work I was interested in doing too much of, changed in pretty much an instant, during my hospital-bed epiphany.” But I’m not sure I like what follows: “the shift to new work itself, or a new way of being, or a new set of habits, has always taken a while. Rome wasn’t re-engineered in a day.” Not because it’s not true, but weighing both beliefs equally is a kind of equivocation. When I hear myself equivocating like this (as I do almost daily), I know I am in the grip of fear. Pursuing two contradictory goals simultaneously is not a recipe for satisfaction.

    I really like this statement of purpose, though: “I believe the real progress lies in two things: first, my willingness to openly cop to this as something that’s not working and that I want to change, then trying stuff that stands a reasonable chance of working.”

    Here’s a link to a TED Talk:

    There are many aspects of this talk that I love, but among them are her complete rejection of incremental change (I suffer mightily from this), her voluntary confrontation with her own fear, and her abandonment of complicated justifications. In the end, she decided simply that she wanted her obituary to read differently than it was going to. As levers go, it was rather puny, but it was sufficient to move the boulder off the plateau and down the hill. Yes, that would be the same boulder she had, up to that moment, spent her life pushing up the mother***ing hill.

    One of the things I admire about you, Colleen, is your dogged persistence. That’s one of the reasons why it’s painful to read about how quickly your eyes pass over your accomplishments to linger so lovingly on your own failures. You are clearly equipped to do whatever you set out to do. Anyone who counts 40 pages and puts a post-it on it to concretize that morning’s goal is on top of the problem, regardless of whether the short-term outcome is satisfying or not. People like you have to be physically restrained from being competent.

    Also, any skilled professional will tell you that failure is the great teacher. As a carpenter who listens to a lot of stories from professionals and amateurs alike, I can tell you that amateurs tend to talk about their successes; professionals talk about their failures. Those are hard-won lessons. When a smart, self-disciplined, self-aware, hard-working person says – out loud! In public! – I set out to clear my plate by a reasonable hour and I failed, my ears perk right up. This is problem-solving. So what exactly is the problem?

    When you tell me that you set out for the East Indies – 52 books in 52 weeks – but ended up discovering America — “I’m proudest, however, that I’ve been able to stop reading books I didn’t want to finish—after 10 pages, 50 pages, even 100 pages,” I can only say, bravo! 52 books in 52 weeks – that’s a hack; mastering the skill of not wasting your time reading something you don’t want to read: that’s a life skill. Sometimes writers write to find out what they’re writing about. Maybe you’re hacking your productivity system to figure out what it is you actually want to accomplish, not how much more of what you don’t want to accomplish you can get done by a reasonable hour.

    So, with that, highlighter in hand, let’s go back to the original question: “I’m looking for hacks. Soliciting hacks! Or ideas, solutions, tricks—whatever you want to call them, as long as they’ve worked for you. They can be front-end hacks—i.e., things that I could do in the earlier part of the day, to ensure that I get my plate cleared off and feel okay stopping at a reasonable hour.”

    If I were your therapist, I would ask you this question: “Yes, but what is it exactly that’s not working for you?” Like all smart, articulate people, you’ve created an argument that is so highly contingent that it’s hard for someone to keep from following you to the specific gate in the garden you want to exit through. I’m inclined to go back, over and over again, to the basic assumptions – in the same way that you went back to your most fundamental assumptions about who you are, how you live, what work you do, how you want to earn your living and spend your time, when you were laid low by Crohn’s.

    As David Allen likes to ask, “what does done look like?” If you were at maximum productivity – plate cleared by a reasonable hour – what would that actually look like? As you’ve perceptively observed, it’s all very well and good to set a goal of one blog post a day, but if you’ve picked a blog post that by any objective standard will take three days to complete, what is it that’s not working? That you didn’t accomplish a three-day task in one day? That you failed to recognize a three-day task when you put it on your plate? That failure leads to the eating of cheeseburgers? That you remained happily “working” past “a reasonable hour” when your goal was to “stop” earlier? I’m running out of quotation marks. If the goal is to be in bed reading by 8pm, why are we talking about how to get more done before bedtime? You know what has to be done here.

    If you say, “I won’t be happy until my plate is cleared,” or, even worse, “I won’t be happy until my plate is cleared by eight p.m.” you’re defining the problem in a zero-sum way that carries a big price. That doesn’t make it wrong, or bad, just expensive. Right now, bowel permitting, you get to choose whether to buy satisfaction for that price. But perhaps there’s another transaction that might be more satisfying to enter into, one that might feel “okay.” You’re in blogland right now, so if you ask for hacks, you’ll get hacks. In my world, I trade carpentry work for money, so I’m always very careful to define very, very clearly what work I’m agreeing to do for the money and what work I’m not agreeing to do. Otherwise, it’s easy for there to be misunderstandings among very nice people. Many years ago, a wise carpenter told me, “if you estimate a job will take your crew one day and it takes them two, the problem isn’t with your crew; it’s with your estimate.” Are you being clear with yourself, or are you having a misunderstanding with yourself?

    1. Damn your eyes, Dan Owen.

      Once again, an almost bewildering amount of food for thought. I’ll probably chip away at it a bit more next week, since it’s much on my mind and deserves careful thought. (This particular post cut into “other” writing time, an irony that requires no underlining. Oh, wait—too late.)

      Here’s where I know you’re correct: I am being fuzzy and inexact right now. With my thinking. With my promises. With persistent, greasy fears stuck on windows, on the tops of ceiling fan blades, behind the commode. Or maybe the analogy is this: I’ve been burning so many candles to light up the joint, I’ve created dreary, dark-making deposits of soot in the corners and on my display, obscuring my vision.

      One other thing I’ll share now: I don’t share everything here. I share a lot, but not everything. I couldn’t, for one, but I wouldn’t. Some of what you are calling me out on, I roll around in my own brain. Much of it—esp. “what would ‘done’ or ‘enough’ look like?” I go over regularly with my shrink. We chip away, we chip away.

      I am beginning to think that the biggest part of what’s not working for me is (don’t laugh) looking outside of myself for answers. The more I let the real me hang out, the better-quality answers I get and the more relaxed I feel. I care less about the kind of stuff that keeps me up when I’m fretting. Comparison is of the devil, or however Mark Silver says the Sufis phrase it.

      Finally, so we’re clear, while I am still hard on myself, I’m nowhere NEAR as hard on myself as I was. And I do celebrate victories. I do! I just don’t sit in them for long. And I have an unnatural aversion to public horn-tooting which sometimes must make me look like the biggest sad-sack, self-loathing freak on the internets.

      One foot in front of the other. Thanks for the thought-food. You’re aces, kid.

  3. I’m just really glad you said you didn’t read what you didn’t want to just to reach your goal! I’m reading “The Geography of Bliss” right now, and it isn’t making me happy. But I’m 62% through, according to my Kindle, and didn’t want to give up now and not be able to count it! But really! What is the point in the first place? To make reading a more regular practice-BECAUSE I ENJOY IT-and hopefully learn something along the way!

    1. Yeah, that was a biggie, that pitching thing. I just put down Tao Lin’s Richard Yates even though it cost GOOD MONEY to join that Rumpus book club and all the kool kidz love it. But I listened to a very liberating podcast of Colin Marshall interviewing Tyler Cowen, and the economist himself said, “Let it go!” Sunk cost. There you have it. Whee!

  4. Dear C …

    Just a thought: You are a classic idea generating machine, and a fine one at that. I have worked with others like you and I have had a touch of that my own self. This is just an observation from afar, but have you thought about aligning yourself with a ‘tater? As in an implementer* … you think it up, the ‘tater ciphers out the (1) feasibility and (2) puts into motion the chose ones. You’d still be part of the doing but pointing toward what you do best. A partnership, if you will, to complement your strengths.

    * you get the ‘tater if you pronounce implementer like you likely would where I grew by saying implementator.

    1. OMG. If you know a ‘tater who wants to buddy up, send him—or preferably her, as I work better with the ladies—my way.

      I have long said that my dream is to find a ‘tater. I just didn’t know that’s what they were called.

      And I love that term: ‘tater! ‘tater! ‘tater! So awesome.

      P.S. I am going to ASK for a ‘tater in this week’s VPA. Hot damn. THANK YOU!

      1. Me too! I want me a ‘tater! Let me know where you find a good one, C. Is there a farm somewhere where they grow ’em? Y’know, a ‘tater farm?

  5. Ms. Communicatrix,

    I have been reading some of your posts recently. My 11 year old son and I recently started collecting memorabilia – as a hobby, not investment. Its been a lot of fun! The MJ ball would obviously be a dynamic addition to our small, but growing collection. How much do you want for it?

    Evan L. From Long Island, NY

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