Workaholism is a hard addiction to recover from. It’s not like some addictions where you can avoid the places or substances that played a role. Most of us are not in a position to just stop working. We have to somehow develop better relationships with work while still being surrounded by all the things that made our lives unmanageable. I find that I sometimes make amazing progress in one area only to epically fail in another. I try to be gentle with myself and remember that I am unlearning lessons that were imprinted on me since I was little.
As a life-long anxious people-pleaser, it’s taken me a long time to get good at saying no. I used to volunteer for everything out of fear of missing out or fear about my job security or fear of just straight-up not being liked. The pandemic and what I went through at the start of it at work really opened my eyes. I guess the benefit of that shitty experience is that it finally started to release the hold workaholism had on me.
The problem is, it’s really hard to change when people have expectations for your productivity based on your workaholism. Managers benefit hugely by having workaholics — at least in the short term until they inevitably burn out. On Twitter, someone once gave the advice “the pace you set is the pace they expect” and that couldn’t be more true. I’m struggling now with reducing the amount of work I do. I’ve played a leadership role in nearly all of the instructional design/instructional tech-related projects we’ve done over the past 8 years. I’m good at it, I enjoy that sort of work, and it’s an important part of what my library offers (as evidenced by 3 examples of my work showing up in our college’s very short library section of our NWCCU accreditation report). But I’ve never received release time to do this work nor has this work been formally recognized as part of my job. All 12 reference librarians are supposed to do the same basic liaison + general reference/instruction work. But a few of us have taken on additional specialties (OER, learning assessment, copyright, UX, instructional tech, etc.) that require expertise and additional work, but only some are formally recognized as something worthy of release time or explicit support. It’s created major workload inequity. I never hear from my boss that this work is important, but there’s ample evidence that it is. It’s also work that isn’t one and done; tutorials, toolkits, and online course shells require regular maintenance and even projects that were collaborative at the start have fallen on me to maintain. So I feel trapped, but also, my workload is unmanageable and since this work isn’t actually formally recognized as “my job” I feel like it’s one of the few things I can drop (yes, it’s ironic that the thing that bothered me so much is also my ticket out, but also this should be a lesson to all managers to not make mission-critical work informally rest on the shoulders of one librarian). It just breaks my heart to have to do it. But that’s the trap of the helping profession; you always feel like you’re letting down the people you most want to help when you decide to drop the ball.
If I could give one piece of advice to new library workers or library workers new to a particular workplace, I’d say that same thing I read on Twitter: the pace you set is the pace they’ll expect. Take your time, find the things you want to focus on and the places you can be useful, and don’t feel like you have to be doing all the things to prove yourself.
I recently had to say no to an opportunity I really wanted to say yes to. It was the hardest ask I’ve ever said no to, but it was a massive three-year service commitment that, while speaking to my values in nearly every way, would ask a tremendous amount from me. It was also the sort of service commitment I thought I’d want to do at this point in my career, so I was really inclined to say yes. I thought I’d share here what questions I ask before committing to things in case they’re useful to others:
1. How much of a direct impact will this work have? – I’ve been on way too many crappy committees that produce reports or other documentation that end up impacting no one. I remember the first-year experience task force I was part of at my last job where we did all this research and produced a set of recommendations for better supporting student belonging and success in their first year. It was filed away somewhere and none of our recommendations were implemented. I’ve been on enough similar committees in my current job to know that I don’t want to be complicit in my college administration’s performative equity/student success work anymore. I don’t need any of this on my resume; I’m not looking to move up or out. In my work as a community college librarian, the work that gives me the most pleasure is teaching and working with students and faculty. I enjoy helping faculty with assignment design, finding OER, collaborating to support student research, etc. I love helping students with their research projects. A lot of the stuff we do in academic libraries is of limited benefit to the majority of our students. For example, at our community college, our print book collection does not get a lot of use. While I select books like all liaisons, the idea of working on projects focused on analyzing our book collection doesn’t really appeal to me as much as projects like creating tutorials to support specific classes or supporting disciplinary faculty teaching information literacy, because I know that is more likely to have a direct positive impact on students.
2. How much does this work speak to my values? – This has become one of the most important things to me. There are things I am really passionate about, like racial equity and inclusion in our field, supporting colleagues working in precarity and those new to the field, collective action for better working conditions, slow librarianship, and privacy and intellectual freedom issues. I hope to stay in my current job until I retire, so I have no need to do prestigious or flashy work. I have the luxury now to focus on work that moves the things I value forward (and to be a supporter rather than a leader) so that’s what I want to give my time to. The service commitment I was asked to take on definitely spoke to my values and I knew it could lead to important, impactful work.
3. With whom will I be working? – Never, ever, underestimate the importance of this one. You can be involved in doing impactful work that speaks to your values, but it can be hell to work with people who are difficult to work with, treat you badly, or take advantage of you. I don’t ever want to be in another situation where I carry most of the load; I’ve been there more times than I can count. I don’t want to have to nag people to do the work they committed to. I will almost always say yes to working with certain colleagues, like my buddies Sara and Lisa, who make any committee work or project work or even any meeting an absolute pleasure (I’m sooooo grateful for them). Working with them on anything brings me joy. This ask involved working with some really kind and fantastic people who I really admire, so that was another point in its favor.
4. Who is this work for? – This is similar to the previous question. If I am going to give my limited labor in service to something, I’d like it to be for organizations that are close to my heart. I will almost always say yes to Oregon library folks because I hold the Oregon library community in such high esteem. After never quite feeling at home in my previous state library association, I was bowled over by how welcomed I felt within the Oregon Library Association almost immediately and how open to my ideas about an early-career mentoring program was the OLA Board. I was immediately sucked into doing work that had value (building OLA’s early-career mentoring program) and that made me feel part of a community. So when Oregon people ask me to give a talk, write an article, etc. I have a hard time saying “no” and I rarely regret saying “yes.” This thing was for the Oregon Library Association, so I was already inclined to say yes.
5. What will the workload look like? – I can’t tell you how much I appreciate people who ask something of me who are honest about how much work it’s going to be. That’s not always the case. The person who asked me (who had this role themselves) was very clear how much work this will be and what the support from others might look like. No matter how appealing a commitment is, you need some idea of how much time it’s going to take and when the busy times are for the work. Especially given that a lot of library work is cyclical and intense at certain times, it’s important to know whether an additional commitment will work with the ebbs and flows of your job and your needs in your personal life.
6. What does my capacity look like? – This is truly the most important thing to consider. There are only so many hours in the day and by choosing to do one thing, you’re choosing not to do others. Or you’re choosing to let others down by taking on more than you’re reasonably able to accomplish. I have lovely friends who do that time and again and never learn to pare back and I don’t understand who they think they are helping by overcommitting (because I know they believe they’re doing a good thing). Back during the worst of my workaholism, I just blithely let work bleed into my personal time and it made me miserable and resentful. I’ve gotten a lot better about erecting those boundaries, because I value time with my family and time for the things I enjoy more than I value being a star in this profession. I’ve worked with stars in our profession who seem to be everywhere and doing all the things, and some of them are able to do all the things because they are taking advantage of the labor of others. I’ve been the person taken advantage of and it convinced me that I never wanted to be that kind of prolific star librarian. I’ll never forget the year I spent SO MUCH TIME working on a major IMLS-funded project about information literacy assessment led by one of those librarian stars only to not only get zero credit for the work, but that star refused to even write a quick note acknowledging my work for my promotion and tenure documentation because she was “too busy.” Can you imagine why I am very careful about who I work with???
I think we know that libraries vary widely in how well they support employees in doing service and/or scholarship work and this is a real problem in the profession. In some, library workers are supported to use their work time because service to the profession is considered part of the job. In others, even often those that require scholarship and service, it’s expected to mostly be done beyond your 40 hrs. per week (at least in those years on the tenure track). The person who asked me to do this thing runs a small library in a poor county in rural Oregon and her employees are not only given money to join OLA and attend the OLA conference, but they are able to use work time for service to the profession. I work at the largest community college in Oregon and that is so far from my reality or that of my colleagues.
I spent three years as VP, President, and Past-President of ACRL-Oregon and it was extremely rare that I ever was able to use work time for that huge workload, even though I’d asked permission from my supervisor at the time before I’d agreed to run for President. When I’ve gone to my boss in the past about workload issues, I was questioned about how I was using my time. When I was extremely burnt out from leading our learning assessment and curriculum work for too many years, I told my boss I needed to stop doing it. I ended up having to do it for another year before I was allowed to quit. When my boss attested that she would make sure I had x hours per week to devote to the Library Freedom Institute, she didn’t actually do anything to help me make space, which made it very hard to participate. Knowing all that, I don’t know how I could possibly say yes to any sort of major service commitment, given that it would nearly all come out of time with my family and time for myself. Nope. No more.
It’s heartbreaking when something you’re asked to do ticks all the boxes except this last one, but you ignore your capacity at your own peril. It is the fastest route to resentment and burnout. You deserve a life outside of libraries and librarianship. I can’t tell you how much I want to take on this commitment and how hard it was for me to say no, but saying yes would just throw me further into workaholism or I wouldn’t be able to give the service commitment the time it needs.
I don’t worry as much anymore about missing out on opportunities or not getting the gold star from my boss (and I recognize what a privilege it is to have that kind of job security). I’ve tried to honor my mental health and step away from things that cause me anxiety or that make me feel depleted or bad about myself when I’m depressed/anxious. A few months ago, I sat through a four-hour meeting that spawned an absurd number of workgroups and I didn’t volunteer for any of them. I had enough on my plate already and I knew it. I’m proud of the progress I’ve made, but it’s a struggle for me every day.
What I’m still trying to work out in my own mind is what to say yes to. When you have spent so much of your life making choices because it’s what you think you should do based on external norms or to please others, it’s a hard shift to figure out what you really want to be doing. Separating my authentic desires from the ones I’ve been conditioned to think are what I want to do is a challenge and I’m taking my time trying to tease that out before getting involved with more. But I do miss the level of involvement I used to have in service work and I want to find a way to get back into more of that while being realistic about my work situation.
When you’re considering whether or not to take something on, whether it’s a service opportunity (in your institution or out in the profession), a speaking gig, a Call for Proposals for a journal or conference, what helps you make the decision? If you’re a manager, I’m curious how you’ve helped your employees make space to do these sorts of things? In my own state, I am really concerned about the lack of academic library workers involved in the Oregon Library Association (and the challenge it is every year to get academic candidates on the ballots for leadership roles) and I think that nothing will change if those leading these libraries don’t value and make space for that kind of service. At our public institutions that are supposed to be serving the state (like my own), it feels particularly egregious.