Category: Work

My Ten Tiny Task System

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” 
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

A few months ago I found a way to trick my anxious brain in a way that’s been something of a revelation.

On a particularly stressful day, facing a bit of a mental block about a project, I was staring at a blank page and feeling both intimidated and uninspired. And for some reason, I could not focus. All my background tasks, the boring and mundane things of life that just roll on and on like Sisyphus and his rock, were taking up space in my brain. Even though I wasn’t actively thinking about them, somewhere deep down I was worrying about them and starting to slide into a familiar pattern of stress escalation.

Anxiety. She’s a bitch.

But on this particular day, I had a breakthrough. Instead of trying to bat away all the stupid small tasks that kept pawing at the edges of my consciousness, I gave them my full attention. I listed ten that I could do quickly, in total isolation from any other task or project. I wasn’t allowed to use one of those tasks as a jumping off point for other work not on the list (scope creep) and once done I either had to do something else on the list, or go back to my main project.

These were not earth shattering tasks. Some examples:

  1. Wipe down the kitchen counter
  2. Fold and put away the clean socks
  3. Text a friend
  4. Water the plants
  5. Check the mail

It worked. Maybe just taking a break did me some good, or maybe there was a psychological effect of seeing a tick mark beside something small that made the bigger project feel more feasible. Either way, it’s a trick I’ve turned to time and time again when I’m desperate to procrastinate, or dealing with overwhelm by things that would not overwhelm me if my brain were functioning a bit better.

It’s brilliant.

Share your personal tips and tricks for managing your To Do list in the comments, kittens. I’m back from holiday and already busy!

Taking Time

“Every person needs to take one day away.  A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future.  Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence.  Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.  Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.” 
― Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now

I am bad about this to the point of commentary from my colleagues who point out when I have not taken a holiday, especially in periods of high stress and hectic projects and encourage me to book my next holiday. It’s a very strange, but very nice thing to be encouraged by bosses to take time off regularly–it’s antithetical to the American work culture (according to Forbesless than a quarter of Americans take all of their available vacation, and I KNOW I am personally one of them).

Time off is built into British work life and I’ve had the experience of bosses policing my requests–not because I was asking for too much time off, but because they thought I wasn’t asking for enough. It is assumed that regularly scheduled holidays, even a three day weekend every couple of months or so, keeps workers more balanced and productive. I have been amazed to observe how holiday time is respected. On one occasion, early in my British working life, I checked my work phone for emails on a day off, saw that an urgent request had come through and immediately responded. The recipient thanked me and then scolded me for breaking my holiday to provide him with something he himself had stated was important, and forbade me from responding to anything else until I was back in the office. This was astounding and confusing to me!

I’m a big believer in time off. But I’m also a badly inconsistent practitioner.

Over the past year I’ve been working on a contract that’s been deeply interesting and rewarding. The work is challenging, the people are nice, the location is great, and there’s a lot to do (which is something my hyper personality requires). But it’s also been a hectic year with constant surprises and challenges, with a stream of unexpected projects and short deadlines. Because I was running a small team, I genuinely was afraid that if I took time off, I’d be responsible for balls dropping or delays, or…oh I don’t know. I had a vague sense of dread about being out of office that I couldn’t shake.

At a certain level this is fundamentally egotistical. The world spins on without you, and it’s important to be reminded of this fact.

Paradoxically, my feelings were also mixed with a sense of Imposter Syndrome because…the world spins on without you. Because I was managing a big contract and wanted so badly to do a good job, I think a part of me was strangely afraid that people would cope without me in a crisis, and what would that mean? Also, please note, fundamentally egotistical.

Last September Jeff and I spent a week in Greece and it was one of the most relaxing and restorative breaks I’ve ever taken in my life. It may be a silly thing to say about a fairly standard holiday, but it felt like a profound experience at the time. I needed it badly, felt great after I got back, and the sense of refreshment stayed with me a long time. When I was back in London I was emotional balanced, better at my work, and much better equipped to handle the flow of projects. We were in our 30s and this was the first holiday Jeff and I had ever taken that didn’t involve family or friends of some kind. There was no agenda, no purpose to the trip except to press pause on life for a moment and the positive effect of doing so was intense.

And then, like an idiot, I waited nearly a year to take significant time off again. It showed. I was getting anxious and overwhelmed by things that would not have phased me in a more rested state. I had to expend more energy to focus and concentrate than I needed to. My anxiety was ratcheting up.
“I think…I need a holiday,” I mentioned tentatively to a coworker during a coffee break.
“YES, YOU ARE LONG OVERDUE,” was her disconcertingly swift and loud response.

Et voila. I booked two weeks off and we went to Prague for one of them. Ironically Jeff was summoned back to work this week due to some crises but we’re now looking at what mini breaks we can take through the rest of the year to get in the travel that we have been reminded we desperately need and thoroughly enjoy. In the meantime, I’ve been enjoying the surprisingly great summer weather, wandering through my favorite neighborhoods, and indulging in some vintage scouting. I’ve still be checking my work phone more than I should, but I’ve

There will always be a crisis you don’t expect, there will always be an unanticipated hiccup that your coworkers will need to deal with. They will. And your work will still be waiting for you when you get back. The world spins on, after all.

 

Weekend Links – Remember, Remember

“November–with uncanny witchery in its changed trees.”
– L.M. Montgomery 

Howdy pumpkins, it’s November! This whole year truly has gone by in a blur, before you know it Christmas will be here. Yikes!

This weekend I’ve had to bring a few pieces of work home with me, but a rainy Saturday morning is making want to stay indoors for now anyway so I don’t resent it too much. It’s been a busy few months with this contract of mine but very rewarding ones.

It began this week.

Well, Kevin Spacey finally decided to come out…in response to allegations of sexual assault of a then-minor. Tom and Lorenzo were not having this, and I’m firmly on team TLo for this one.

Some of my favorite puppets sum up what’s going on in the world of YouTube and how that may affect creators.

The great and good Christine of Temptalia–the venerated beauty review site that’s more than extensive enough for its writer to qualify as a beauty editor in my eyes–has written a comprehensive post on how to reduce your beauty consumption with a “no buy” or “low buy” challenge. Inspiration for the intelligent beauty consumer, particularly as we move into the season of holiday releases and bombardment style marketing.

I’m not convinced we need a reboot, but I’m living for the casting anyway.

Mackenzie Horan and founder of the challenge has launched her third 101/1001 list! I’m a bit behind on my own goals, so this is a perfectly timed kick to get me back on track.

The kids aren’t just alright, they are goddamn awesome.

It was Halloween this week, so this article on the popularity of death masks seems apropos.

So…the void. Kind creepy.

The Pyramids hold yet more secrets, I’m delighted to say!

An exiting Twitter employee decided to deactivate the President’s twitter account and we had 11 minutes of questions as a result. I’m not giving this story too much attention. I find it a source of near-constant anxiety that in any normal presidency, if a tape of a conversation was leaked about a president sicking the FYI or DOJ on their enemies it would be a constitutional-crisis provoking scandal. Somehow this man is allowed to tweet it publicly and this is somehow fine.

This guy can exit, pursued by a bear.

Unless of course, this guy’s whack-ass theory proves true and saves us from the previously linked monster. (Spoiler, it won’t.)

These ladies, though, restore my faith in humanity.

US Kittens, there was a minor media scandal here in the UK this week!

I for one would like to salute Mashable for the heavy hitting journalism and dedication showed in putting together this very important post. #femalegaze

This oral history of the Brandi and Whitney Houston’s Cinderella is wonderful. And the story of Whoopi Goldberg refusing to wear fake jewelry is a life lesson for all of us.

A (hopeful) gender and sexuality story from the Weimar Republic. It’s nice to remember that history is a pendulum and swings towards good as well as bad.

ETA! Album of week: Stillness in Wonderland, by Little Simz

Spending Diary, Vol. 3

“Money may not buy happiness, but I’d rather cry in a Jaguar than on a bus.”
― Françoise Sagan

This was a good week personally but a bit sloppy financially. I started a great new gig contract, and worked towards an amazing opportunity with a magazine that hopefully will pan out soon. Fingers crossed! I had another big (planned) purchase this week and so planned to use the results of my kitchen audit to keep grocery shopping to a minimum in order to use food items we already had in the house as the basis of most of our at home meals.

A little planning goes a long way for me and disruptions to my schedule, even welcome ones like starting a new client contract, can throw me off. I did a decent amount of meal prep, but wasn’t as organized overall as I should have been and so even though I cooked plenty, I didn’t pre-package as I should have. Getting out the door in the morning therefore involved a couple of extra steps, which were all too easy to discard. And now that I’m in a client office all day and coming home later, my willpower to be productive in the evening has been a bit…lacking.  I ended up using over a quarter of my monthly cash allowance on food on the go–definitely one of my Achilles heels.

Therefore this weekend we’re both of us doing some shopping and prep together to do better next week! But first, I’m eating doughnuts following the Womens March in London.

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Sunday
We were naughty and decided to grab Indian takeaway, but in order to justify it, we switched up our normal order to ensure we each got at least three meals each out of our spend, which took care of several dinners this week.
Food: £30.00

Monday
Months ago I signed up for early access to Hamilton tickets, which is opening in London at the end of this year, and buying opened up today. Our show date is months and months away, so there’s no quick emotional payoff, but I managed to score non-nosebleed seats for a fairly reasonable price!
Travel card renewal: £33.00
Hamilton tickets: £115.00
Coffee (cash): £2.75
Quick grocery run (cash): £6.00

Tuesday
Alas for an absent mind and a need for toiletries. We’d made it as long as we could using up our travel sized contact solution bottle, but had run out and so a Boots run was needed.
Coffee (because I left mine at on the counter leaving the house, cash): £2.90
Contact solution and facial cleansing wipes: £14.30

Wednesday
This was the first of a stretch of days where I really failed to get my ducks in a row.
Coffee again (cash): £2.90
Lunch (cash): £9.60

Thursday
I got a better start to the day but had to do another Boots run when we realized we were out of yet more things in the bathroom, like cotton buds.
Boots run for toiletries: £18.50
Lunch: £4.20

Friday
Breakfast (cash): £4.80
Lunch: £4.20
Snack: £.80
Pharmacy shop for, ahem, feminine articles: £3.50
Date night: £23.00

Saturday
Doughnuts to recharge after the Womens March in London: £30.00

Total: £301.25

The Paradox of Space and Stuff

“Our pleasures are not material pleasures, but symbols of pleasure – attractively packaged but inferior in content.”
― Alan W. Watts

When our friends were in town the other week it was an amazing chance to catch up. One half of the pair, Chris, and I have been friends since freshmen year of university. In fact he, Jeff, and I were all in an assigned cohort for freshmen students and it’s kind of funny to think about how life has turned out for us in the past 12 years. I absolutely adore his wife, who I’ve known almost as long, and having the ability to see friends from the States is such a rare pleasure for us.

In talking all things work, life, and adulthood related we got on the the subject of upgrading. They live in California and bought a house there. Since then they’ve been working on all kinds of DIY projects to improve their home and add value to it, and seem to be enjoying the process. But in spite of being able to do these improvements on a tight budget and by themselves, we quickly found we were dealing with a similar issue even though we live in a rented apartment.

The famous saying is mo’ money, mo’ problems. Add mo’ space, mo’ spending to the mix.

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We started comparing notes on how that as soon as we’d either moved into a house or a larger apartment, we found our “stuff” multiplying. Closets full of items they rarely used on their end, furniture we’ve never previously owned on ours. More empty space that we feel compelled to fill for us, a garage for them to store stuff, which means they’re holding on to things that they’ve never accumulated before.

Chris told me of a piece of motorcycle equipment that he doesn’t use anymore, but is loathe to give away or even sell because 1) it cost him a pretty penny to get in the first place and, 2) what if he needs it again in the future? We now have a second bedroom (currently being used primarily as storage) which is where, if an item doesn’t really have a home yet, there it goes! A quick, sheepish scan of the contents this morning revealed a number of older cords and electronics I should probably recycle and a bag of linens and stuff that I’ve been meaning to drop off for donation since we moved in. Oops. Having space clearly does something to our mental relationship with stuff!

In our old flat, we didn’t have room for much…and so we didn’t have much. When we moved to a twice as large apartment in October, we suddenly had twice the space to fill. Plus we gave up landlord-provided furniture as part of a negotiation for lower rent and so had to buy furniture for the first time since living in London. Our old apartment barely held a loveseat, but suddenly we needed a sofa to fill a living room. In our old apartment, that loveseat and a desk chair were the only places we had to sit down in, in our new apartment we had a breakfast bar but we now needed stools to sit at it. We have two bathrooms and so needed two bathmats. We have more than one cupboard now and have somehow acquired a mug collection. Oops again.

Like water, people, their money habits, and their stuff seem to expand to fit their containers. Ours certainly have. When we have made more money, we have historically spent more money…even after living quite comfortably on less! Before moving to a larger apartment, our expenses didn’t necessarily change, but we found our habits did. Both we and the handful of friends I have unscientifically surveyed for this post have also found their ability to accumulate and retain stuff grow significantly due to moving into a house for the first time, a bigger apartment, or a first home all to one’s self after leaving the sharing economy that is living with roommates. Call it the curse of comfort! Part of the reason I don’t want a big house anymore is because I don’t want to have to pay to outfit it, keep up a yard, and take care of the whole thing. I’d rather have a much smaller home with fewer, nicer things, and spend my money on other priorities.

On the other hand, I do think there is a correlation between generally being in a position to make more money, and it having more places to go. If you are working full time, you are likely to be an adult with either rent or mortgage to pay. If you’re living in certain areas, you are more likely to require a car. Past a certain age you are statistically more likely to have a partner or children, leading to different kinds of costs. Life gets more expensive the longer it goes on.

As I’m working to limit my consumption, I’m starting to think a portion of that mindset long term will come from limiting my space, both physical and metaphoric. What else will I have to resize besides a “dream home?”

Have you found this same correlation between space and stuff? Those of you who have up- or downgraded at some point in your lives, I’m doubly curious to hear from you.

 

Weekend Links

“Saturday night is perfect for writers because other people have “plans.”
― Mike Birbiglia

This week I got to jumpstart a new client project–or rather return back to a former project that I really love in a fresh way. I’m also waiting with ferocious impatience for a decision on a pitch to a new potential client entirely and have basically bitten my nails to the quick doing so. It’s a company I really want to work with and a project I really want to work on – more I cannot say lest the jinx gods make things difficult. Somehow in all this I also really want to find time to massage a writing pitch and ship it out early next week to see if it has legs, plus do some scouting for yet another potential client.

Elsewhere London decided that it’s time to start cooling down for fall (totally on board), NYFW kicked off and has overtaken my leisure reading/internet surfing (that one Club Monaco coat is all over social media, the Coach invitations were amazing, and from what I’ve been able to glimpse I’m loving the Tibi collection), and Jeff and I have begun the packing process for our move, now happening the first day of October. Things are busy! But writing this at the moment it’s foggy and gray outside and I’m doing some proper cooking and baking for the first time in months. Netflix is a strong possibility.

Here are your links, tell me what the weekend holds for you!

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Everything you wanted to know about the island of my birth.

Perhaps The Coveteur is not the best place to look for wardrobe and storage ideas for a new place…when one is poor.

What’s your score?

London was all agog at this anniversary this weekend. And it was pretty cool!

Laundry. Scandalous stuff.

Instagram find of the week (the Stranger Things one brought me particular joy).

A great newsletter (h/t to friend of the blog Ruth for alerting me) whose topic this week was the lies we tell and the shape of love.

I prefer Data, myself.

Nothing is new, least of all sexism.

And speaking of! But this time, with snark!

A lovely short on the perspective of an illustrator.

Puns forever.

This story is a longer links read, but downright Shakespearean in scope.

And finally, really want to see this.

A Career Year

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
― Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

It’s not an easy thing to leave a job, especially one you’re finding success in. In recent months I received one raise, negotiated another, and was promoted–all the result of a lot of hard work and a lot of determination. And then, somewhat suddenly, I decided to leave my position.

I’ve mentioned this briefly in previous posts but in a lot of ways, I feel like I need to make up for lost time career-wise. I graduated as the recession was kicking off and was the primary breadwinner while Jeff was still in school. Hindsight being 20/20, I should never have stayed at my first job as long as I did but when you’re in a mindset of just paying the bills, it’s easy to let small setbacks (like not being able to go abroad with your husband to grad school, or having to wait a year for a new visa) add up to big ones. The long term benefit has been an internal commitment to not allow myself to ever get “stuck” in a job again–whether in progress, advancement, money, or learning opportunities. And in spite of a lot of the growth over the past year in particular, I found myself feeling a bit stuck.

Behind the scenes I called 2015-2016 my “Year of Career” due to the amount of work I was putting in. Willingly, might add. Due to my sense of falling inadvertently behind, both I and Jeff (who somewhat shares my feelings, though slightly less so as he spent a year getting a masters degree that paid off in exactly the way we hoped it would; namely, getting us to London) agreed that we’d be willing to burn the candle at both ends for a few years to gain as much experience and as many opportunities as we could. Our end goal is to position ourselves to have a more balanced life, but we were willing to put in the long hours and weekends needed now to get us there.

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It has been an intense year. Coworkers have come and gone, a new mentor entered the picture, projects grew or got smaller unexpected, and I was thrown into [the right kind of] sink or swim projects that allowed me to learn. My instincts were tested, as were values, resilience, and skills. I hired and eventually had to let go of my first assistant, then hire a second one, I put together not just individual marketing campaigns, but got to develop whole top line strategies, I vastly expanded my network of contacts in both the business and creative world, and I had some pretty high highs. I also fell on my face a few times, lost my cool, struggled as my department grew and shrank and grew again, occasionally thrived on the uncertainty, but other times struggled with it.

But in spite of all the bustle, increasingly I recognized that nagging feeling of “stuck-ness.” Some of it was internal, some of it was external, but it was unmistakably the feeling that I once ignored for too long: I had a very strong impression that it was getting time to go. Just as I had really come to the conclusion that I would listen to that feeling and start hustling to make something happen, the universe placed a not insignificant opportunity right in front of me and I decided to grab it with both hands.

My new position contains many elements of my old plus some fresh new challenges and I’m still finding my feet a week and a half in, but tremendously grateful for and enjoying the new work.

However I’m recognizing the need to shake up more than where I work, but how I work. My old position was a crucible in many ways, a major support role in a team relatively small to be in charge of the amount of assets we managed. Everyone wore a lot of hats, I was on at least half dozen projects simultaneously, and our department was involved in every single phase from research before an acquisition all the way through to the final sales. The amount of learning opportunities I had were amazing. But there was a dark side. Because we were a small team, it was nearly impossible to “switch off.” This was not just me, I learned eventually, it was part of the culture that the company developed. For a while, my first whole year there, I didn’t see this as too much of a problem because I was committed to burning the candle at both ends if needed, but nobody can work like that forever before both you and the metaphoric candle burn out.

I came close to burn out more than once in my old position. Emails on the weekends, occasional whole weekends in the office, taking work home with me…it added up. At one point I was having actual nightmares about spreadsheets and waking up in the middle of the night composing tomorrow’s emails in my head. My new company makes a priority of balance and working hard…during work hours. People are expected to go home at reasonable times, not to be available during atypical hours, and to take holidays. I’m only a week and a half in (plus I had a week of break between positions) but it is a bit shocking how much adjustment this mentality is taking. I knew I didn’t like the imbalance I felt previously, I didn’t know how all pervasive it was, and I definitely didn’t appreciate I am going to have to relearn balance–it is NOTHING like riding a bicycle.

But I need to. In many ways, this job represents a step towards that longer term goals: I worked hard for nearly two years so I could work smarter for much longer. There’s still a lot of work to do setting up in my new gig, plus I’m working on some side projects again after they fell (out of necessity) by the wayside, but for the moment at least, I’m seeing how my year of career paid off.