Hey guys: Elizabeth Bear here, and I'm stopping by to talk about how even jobs we love can make us sick if we do them for too long without a break and with the wrong kind of rewards systems.
I know, because after fourteen years of working flat-out at my writing career, I'm taking a break. And it's not entirely by choice.
Between life stress and overwork, I hit a wall at the end of last year. I've been struggling with actually accomplishing my job for a while--hating to sit down at the computer, being avoidant, generally feeling not so much blocked as if every word was being taken off my hide with a potato peeler. I started feeling this way back in about 2007, a situation which I think is linked both to a bad reaction to an OTC medication that made me profoundly depressed for about four months, before I figured out what the problem was, and also my internalization of some criticism at a peer workshop I attended. (The workshop was great, and I got a Hugo-winning story and a major uptick in skill out of it. But it also turned me into the proverbial centipede who gets asked how she manages to run, and, well, I started tripping over my own feet left right and center.)
Because I had contracts and writing is how I make my living, I told myself that I had to write anyway, and I did, though I was late on a novel (CHILL, now published in the UK as SANCTION).
Somewhere in the process, though, writing went from being something fun--the job I'd always wanted--to a real misery, a thing I avoided and dreaded. I became hypercritical of my own work, and nothing I did was ever good enough. I'd gotten into the habit, in other words, of kicking myself over basically every element of my work and holding it to impossible standards. I figured if I just kept writing I would get through the stuck, and everything would be fine again.
Nine years later, I realized that Things Were Not Going So Well, and were in fact getting worse. I've been producing good work--my critical record speaks for itself--but I was incapable of identifying it as good work.I was disappointed in all of it, and no matter how hard I worked or how much I produced it never quite felt like enough. I started having clinical anxiety symptoms, and when a bunch of real-life stress including family illnesses showed up, I didn't have the spoons to cope with work and family and various other issues.
Anyway, the good news is, I got help. And I'm taking a year off from my production schedule and rejigging my deadlines into something more manageable. And I'm learning to say no. No, no, no, no.
Which is scary, frankly, because what if I say no and nobody ever asks me again? But honestly, when your reaction to being invited to a project is a spike of panic, that's when you need to back off yourself. Burnout is a real thing, and it's really prevalent in creative professions and ones with intense schedules.
Especially ones with a messed up rewards system, which publishing definitely has: you do a thing, and then there's intermittent reinforcement, which may follow on the actual completion of the thing by more than a year in some cases.
The other thing I'm doing, which I think is probably even more important than a little rest and taking the pressure off, is that I'm rewarding myself for work. This is the thing about mammals, right? If you punish us for a thing, we will avoid doing that thing in the future, and react to being forced to do it with anxiety and distress. But if you reward us for doing it, then we anticipate the opportunity to perform the task and get rewarded.
(If you really want to screw up an animal, sometimes reward it and sometimes punish it for the same behavior. Or keep increasing what it has to do to get a reward. You get real basket cases that way!)
So really, if you want to make yourself like your job, the best way to do it is to take some of the pressure off, and when the work gets done, to give yourself a cookie.
Cookies are really underrated as a means of motivation.
I don't know why it took me so long to figure this out, honestly. But it seems to be working so far!