If you’re a hard-working writer, are you a workaholic?
And if you are, is that necessarily a bad thing?
With all writers have to manage today, including consistent marketing, maintaining an online presence and oh, yeah, writing and editing, it’s important to step back every once in awhile and say, “Am I overdoing it?”
What is Workaholism and How Does it Apply to Writing?
If you’re under the spell of workaholism, you may feel guilty when you’re not working, and tend to neglect your own well-being because you’re over-focused on work.
Not sure if you qualify? Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you feel compelled to write or work on writing-related tasks while on vacation?
- Do you cancel social plans so you can catch up on writing-related activities (such as blogging, posting to social media, marketing, etc.)?
- Do you regularly engage in writing work during meals?
- Do you work on writing stuff even when you’re ill?
- Do you sacrifice sleep or exercise to get your writing work done?
- Do you feel compelled to work on writing-related activities even when you’re all caught up?
- Do you feel like your work-life balance is out of whack?
- Are you neglecting your hobbies and other enjoyable activities so you can get your writing work done?
We’ve all experienced insane working periods in our writing careers, perhaps around a book launch or when wrapping up edits for a publisher. Sometimes, you have to let other things slide to get the writing done or the book out, but then the question is: Do you slow down after that, or do you continue to work at the same pace?
How Workaholism Can Damage a Writer’s Health
The problem with workaholism is the more you work, the less time you have for other things in your life.
That means you’re likely to skip out on important stuff like your daily exercise routine, preparing healthy and wholesome meals, or taking time out to relieve stress. Overwork is also likely to interfere with your sleep, depriving you of that important 7-8 hours you need each night.
All of us can survive a few weeks under these conditions, but longer than that and you’re putting your health at risk. Lack of exercise, grabbing meals on the run, and regular sleep deprivation all increase risk of overweight and obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
In a 2016 study, researchers found that workaholics experienced more sleep problems than non-workaholics, and were also more at risk for cardiovascular disease. A separate review of 25 studies involving over 600,000 people found similar results, with those working longer hours having a higher risk of stroke.
Workaholism has been linked with an increased risk of mental and emotional health problems, too, like burnout and depression.
Don’t We Have to Work Hard to Be Productive?
There’s no doubt that a successful writing career requires hard work, but there is a fine line between putting in the time and overdoing it to the point you’re no longer productive.
A number of studies have actually linked workaholism to decreased productivity, finding that those who work longer hours typically complete fewer projects. The more hours we work, the less effective the brain is, and we’re likely to make more mistakes that we have to fix later. We also make poor decisions (about plot and characterization, perhaps?).
Worse, workaholism can lead to a drop in creativity—definitely not something writers want. Stress itself is a creativity killer, and if you add overwork to it, your ability to create an original and inspiring story declines rapidly.
In a 2008 study, researchers found that compared with working less than 40 hours per week, working more than 55 hours a week was linked with lower scores on a vocabulary test (bad news for those working with language).
Of all things the mind needs for creative thought, it’s space, and when we fill all our time with work (and other activities, like perusing social media), we fail to give it that space, leading to dull thought.
When Workaholism Might be Okay for Writers
Despite a plethora of research on the potential negative effects of workaholism, we also have some recent studies showing that under certain circumstances, workaholism may not be as damaging as we thought.
What circumstances are those? The main ones involve your attitude about the work: Are you enthusiastic about it? Do you enjoy it? Do you love it?
In one recent study, for example, researchers questioned about 750 employees. They found that yes, workaholism was related to high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol (risk factors for heart disease), but only when work “engagement” was low—in other words, when the employees felt they were wasting their time on projects they didn’t care about.
In those participants whose engagement was high, on the other hand, the opposite was true—they were actually less likely to suffer from these sorts of health risks. These were the participants who enjoyed their jobs, got absorbed in what they were doing, and felt like their tasks were worthwhile.
Interestingly, researchers also found that highly engaged employees:
- had more support at work and at home for the work they were doing,
- were skilled at time management,
- and had a high level of intrinsic motivation for their work—they loved doing it regardless of the outside rewards.
Help for Overworked Writers
Looking at the results of these studies, we can conclude a few things that are likely true for writers.
- Working hard at what you love is more likely to help you than hurt you.
When you love writing, you’re unlikely to suffer from negative consequences by spending a lot of time on it, as long as you make sure to take care of yourself and don’t neglect the other things that matter in your life. Indeed, if writing is your calling, you’re more likely to suffer from not pursuing it wholeheartedly than you are from working some extra hours on it.
- When writers feel overworked, it likely has something to do with projects other than writing.
I think the reason why more and more writers are feeling overworked these days has little to do with the writing itself, and a lot more to do with the marketing responsibilities we’re now faced with. Most writers don’t like marketing and feel uncomfortable and out of their element when trying to do it, which puts this task squarely in the “don’t like” category mentioned above—the one that can lead to negative health outcomes if we pursue it too heavily.
Yet marketing can take a lot of time, particularly if we’re really trying to get some attention on a book or on our careers in general. There’s not only the work itself, but the education that’s involved—we have to learn how to do it, and since it doesn’t come naturally to most of us, that can take longer than we’d like.
Trying to complete all our marketing tasks on top of our writing can lead to overwork, burnout, depression, and all the other negative effects of workaholism. What are the solutions? Every writer has to find his or her own way, but I’ve found the following five tips to be helpful:
- Write first: Since writing is the thing that energizes and engages you, it must be your top priority. Sometimes marketing can take over, but if you find yourself getting depressed or exhausted, take a step back. Return to the writing, and let the other stuff go. You can always get back to it later.
- Try to make marketing fun: Instead of feeling pressured to market in certain ways, try to find methods you can actually enjoy. Be open to a wider variety of marketing techniques. This will help increase your engagement so you’re less likely to suffer the negative effects of working long hours.
- Always put self-care first: Eating well, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep need to come first. Make these things a priority in your life, and you’ll be more likely to stay productive and creative…and healthy!
- Take more time off: America is a country that leaves vacation days on the table. Don’t be a part of this statistic. Make sure you take your vacation every year, and schedule at least one writing getaway in addition to help recharge your batteries.
- Find the support you need: Writing groups, book clubs, writing friends, and understanding family members give us the support we need to make sure our lives don’t go totally off the rails, balance-wise. Getting out to lunch with friends, taking the weekend for the family, or enjoying some wine and treats with the members of a book club can be like fresh air on an otherwise busy, busy week. Cultivate these relationships and keep them strong!
Colleen M. Story
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