Category: Work

So, You’re WFH Now…

Welcome, WFH virgins! Some of us have been here before, some of us live here permanently (s/o to Friend of the Blog Caitlin, full time freelance journalist who has already left you some fabulous ideas). Either way there are about to be a lot more of us in this together.

Chatting to my younger sister who is at university in Japan and dealing with an adjustment to remote schooling, she mentioned that she always thought working from home would be great but that it doesn’t suit her nearly as well as she thought it would. And I don’t blame her! Our society is still by and large not set up for flexible working, which requires different emotional and time management skills than the ubiquitous office or manufacturing structures which has defined lifestyles for the last two centuries.

Now, I happen to believe that while due entirely to cosmic circumstance, this moment can function as a social experiment for a lot of things and flexible working is one of them. If you believe, as I do, that it’s a cultural change we should make for more people to better enable working families to meet their commitments and to reconsider structures that have systemically penalized women, disabled or otherwise impaired people, and other groups, it’s on us all to make the experiment as successful as we can.

Here a few of the takeaways I picked up as a full time freelancer, who transitioned back to more typical office life and was increasingly moving into the “mobile/flexible” category before all of…this…happened.

Take sensible advantage of the situation. If you are working from home and need to be “live” from a certain time, make sure you’re meeting those commitments…but also let yourself hit the snooze alarm if you need it. Without a commute, it’s okay to allow that time to just be or to take longer with things that you usually rush in the morning. Just because you have more time doesn’t mean you need to fill it up immediately.

That being said, get up. Shower. Put on an outfit that isn’t pajamas. If you’re new to this it’s easy for your brain to confuse home time with leisure time, family time, or “me” time. You will have to train yourself to think in different ways about your usual surroundings, and psychological cues like putting on real clothes (instead of your weekend athleisure, flannel trousers, or other equivalent that you might typically wear in your off time) helps.

Caveat: it’s okay to occasionally break the above rule if it brings you pleasure.

Breaks are still important. In the same way that you need to make yourself a tea or coffee, walk to a cornershop for your lunch or snacks, linger at the water cooler with a colleague in order to stretch your legs or clear your head about a task or problem, the same goes when you’re WFH.

Your metrics are going to change. Some companies and organizations have made this leap long ago, but many others are still nervous or unconvinced about flexible working arrangements. Both employees and bosses have to communicate well and evaluate the metrics they use to measure output and manage their workforces. Measuring success by output or outcome, rather than physical presence is one metric, how and how often you check in with your team can be another. Change is okay, but be prepared to communicate through it.

Work best with music? Put it on. There are no colleagues to annoy or chide you.

While not relevant to the immediate present, don’t forget that WFH can also mean working from a coffee shop, a bookstore, or a library. When I was freelancing full time I found myself going stir crazy, sitting in the same chair at the same desk in the same TINY London apartment for months at a time. Working from different locations allowed me to vary things up while still putting myself in circumstances that facilitated my work. Libraries were my favorite, but I also used museum reading rooms and did coworking days with other freelance friends where we spent a day at one or the other’s house and enjoyed lunch and tea breaks together to break out the bursts of hours-long productivity! (Obviously in a pandemic, don’t do this! But at some point we will have to think beyond and after it and the tools and resources we build now may serve us a long while.)

Take your lunch. If you like to cook, use the kitchen to make yourself something nice, healthy, and fun.

Consider using website or app blocking tools to keep you from getting distracted – at least until you’ve developed the new self-discipline and mental redesign you need to do to separate your living time from your working time.

Go for a walk on your 15-minute break, especially if you have a neighborhood park or green space available to you. Or use it to run a sensible short errand. Our postal depot is a five minute walk from where I live and if I’m working from home I’m able to pick up or post packages.

 

What do you think, fellow freelance veterans? If you’ve worked from home, what worked for you? What would you recommend, or what advice do you think needs to be thrown out the window? 

Embracing Vulnerability (Especially When You’re Bad At It)

“What happens when people open their hearts?”
“They get better.” 
― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

The past few months have been challenging on the work front, but in an unusual way: most of what has challenged me has been a result of success and advancement more than setback. This is not a bad problem to have! I’m gratified by the opportunities I’m getting, while simultaneously intimidated or by many aspects of them at the same time.

Almost every day week I am confronted with a challenge or issue that I have never faced before. On the one hand, this is extremely good for me and my career as it compels growth. I enjoy the opportunity to shape my work and take ownership of certain issues that I want to improve or contribute to. On the other hand, it’s also been difficult navigating uncharted territory 100% of the time. I fret inordinately about making mistakes and being out of my depth–even if these worries are usually unfounded when I take a step back and look rationally at my situation.

This past month, after a particularly bad and long lasting bout of anxiety in the face of yet more unexpected challenges, I decided to try and do something that is very difficult for me: be more vulnerable.

Opening up. With the benefit of hindsight, I’ve been thinking lately on how I’ve confused honesty with vulnerability. Honesty is not difficult for me; I’m notoriously lacking in poker face and tend to operate on a policy of complete transparency. This applies to my professional life as well as my personal. I have neither the skill nor patience for personal politics and would ten times rather attack problems full on than sidle up to them sideways. I also don’t tend to hide my opinions or emotions (even when I wish I could). However, honesty is not vulnerability. The former implies providing something to me, the latter requires receiving, and often also involves an element of risk. I took a few risks this month and tried to communicate more openly with key people about how I’m coping (or not) with certain circumstances and ambitions. In some cases I’ve tried to be humble and ask for help or guidance, in others I’ve pitched new ideas or projects. While I haven’t always gotten the answers I’ve wanted, these conversations have helped reduce uncertainty or confusion.

Being out of my comfort zone. I’ve had to make some tough decisions in areas which were new for me. Whether it’s balancing bigger budgets or running different kinds of projects or dealing with new-to-me people management situations, I’ve had to make judgement calls which have higher stakes. And I’m going to have to manage the consequences of these decisions, both good and bad, and only some of which I can anticipate. Which leads me to….

Learning to be uncomfortable. There is a world of difference between things that are bad for you or toxic, and things that are simply temporarily difficult or unpleasant. After a few years dealing with the genuinely toxic in a few areas of my life, I am still learning to differentiate between the two. Discomfort isn’t fatal–it’s probably a larger part of the human condition than thrilling joy–and learning to navigate periods of discomfort and difficulty is a skill that I need to hone. I am am trying to learn how to be more at peace with my own inexperience and fears–to acknowledge them and deal with them while not allowing them to cripple me. This is very new emotional space for me and not very good at existing in it yet, but I’m trying.

Let’s chat about vulnerability in the comments. What does that look like in your life and how have you leaned into it–or fled from it, as I tend to do?

What’s Your Burnout Flavor?

“I never thought the system was equitable. I knew it was winnable for only a small few. I just believed I could continue to optimize myself to become one of them. And it’s taken me years to understand the true ramifications of that mindset.”
– Anne Helen Peterson 

Yes, I’m still thinking about that piece on millennial burnout from a couple of links posts ago, and the many, many think pieces I’ve read following up on it or responding to it since.

Ironic, I know, since I just wrote a post myself not too long ago about deciding that the hustle was still worth the amount of effort it takes. I still believe it is. But it took a conversation on the (fabulous) NPR podcast It’s Been a Minute to really articulate the feeling of burnout that I seem to personally experience. The author Anne Helen Peterson sat down with host Sam Sanders to talk about her own misconceptions of what burnout actually is, as opposed to how we tend to think about it. It’s not a destination, it’s a journey–or more specifically it’s a treadmill run where you don’t actually get anywhere.

“You reach the point of collapse…and then you keep going.”

I appreciate that this is not unique to my generation, but I am a firm believer that every generation has a unique combination of circumstances and variables that make them culturally distinct enough to trace broad trends. Peterson doesn’t make any points I haven’t thought of or written about before, but she articulated the mental load of some of the circumstances of millennial:

  • Graduating in a recession, with fewer entry level jobs available, and fewer jobs overall which will set us up for what have become the traditional routes to retirement
  • Lots of us are getting more stability ten years on…meaning we’re getting to traditional adulthood phases of lives and careers a decade later than most of us anticipated
  • The change of digital pace. My freshman year, Facebook was brand new and now it’s destroying Western democracy (or so it feels)
  • The way we self perpetuate burnout circumstances by not enforcing boundaries or insisting that others in our communities enforce their own boundaries either (answering emails late at night, women doing the “second shift” without thinking about it, always been online and accessible, etc.)
  • The feeling that if we aren’t being successful–making enough money, out of debt, in a fulfilling job, generally living our bliss–that the fault is someone ours and ours alone. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in hard work, but I also know that there are things such as systemic realities that can significantly affect how much pay off you see, no matter how hard the work.

“Burnout is of a substantively different category than “exhaustion,” although it’s related. Exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years.”

This, I realized reading the piece, is how I experience burnout. I have lived in the space for a long time–not in all aspects of my life, but enough to make an impact. Whether it was struggling in a toxic job, working the hours necessary to make it as a full-time freelancer, or just the slog of budgeting aggressively to pay down debt, there have been points where I have felt like all I wanted to do was sleep for a year. But of course, that is not an option. For any of us! Life goes on, whether or not you have the energy to deal with it.

In my case, it’s a privilege problem in some ways, to be sure. My struggles are not the same as a woman in poverty, a single provider, in an abusive household, or any of the thousands of other circumstances much tougher women survive every single day. There are class elements of this, gender elements of this, privilege elements and racial elements. There is no such thing as a universal experience. But the sheer amount of statistical evidence that this feeling of burnout is a genuine phenomenon and a widespread thing are frankly too much to ignore.

“Errand paralysis.”

The description of errand paralysis really struck me because it was the individual symptom I fall prey to most easily.

You know that feeling you get when you look at your list of To Dos and honestly are unable to make yourself do even small tasks that should not overwhelm you, but do? I feel like I live in this mental space.

Peterson herself exclaims, “That term sounds ridiculous; that’s such a bourgeois problem…but I think that everyone has a to do list in their head, right, in their head, written out–whatever. And there’s a bottom half of that to do list–and everyone’s is different–but what happens is that that bottom half keeps not getting done and it weighs on you in a way that you internalize.”

I have found myself putting off incredibly basic chores that do not, on the surface, phase me in the slightest but that in the moment feel insurmountably hard. I have also been incredibly harsh on myself for this inability to get small tasks done. It’s a hamster wheel of anxiety and it has absolutely contributed to the darker periods of my overall mental state.

When the treadmill keeps going but the dopamine runs out.”

I also shared this previously, but the description above from Hank Green on burnout also resonated. As I said, the beautiful and difficult trouble with life is that it goes on. It doesn’t stop. And while I believe firmly that hard work is a component of success, I and others in my generation sometimes struggle to explain this general, pervasive feeling of demoralization. I believe this is why irony is our generational language in comedy, trolling is an unfortunate generational pastime, and we invented the shrug emoji. As the Peterson article delves into, we’re working hard: there is an abundance of evidence to back this up. But it feels (or is) for diminishing returns when compared to our parents or grandparents. The treadmill keeps going.

I don’t have any solutions to this, and obviously I’m still working out the reality of stress, money, ambition, career, and opportunity in my own life. But having this expanded framework of burnout has helped put a lot of past experience into perspective for me in a new way. I can now see when I was operating with nothing but fumes in the tank and what the long term toll of that was on my body and brain. I can see how choosing different habits, lifestyle options, or priorities has helped actually put some gas back into that depleted tank. I’m no longer burned out as I once was, but I know that the possibility is much closer than I would wish and one or two bad turns could put me back there again.

Have you burned out? How did it look and feel to you personally? What, if anything, has helped or are you still on the treadmill? 

Four Burners

“It is really wonderful how much resilience there is in human nature. Let any obstructing cause, no matter what, be removed in any way, even by death, and we fly back to first principles of hope and enjoyment.” 
― Bram Stoker, Dracula

Pull up a chair, kittens, and let’s chat about how you prioritize your time and emotional resources. This has been on my mind lately as I’ve taken on new work, observed friends go through highs and low, cheered triumphs, and commiserated during setbacks.

Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton had a discussion on their podcast, The High Low, which touched on the notion of “having it all,” as being antiquated or inadequate to the various tradeoffs women (and indeed everyone) make in navigating modern life. A part of the conversation stuck with me in which they referenced a piece by author David Sedaris which, paraphrased, goes along the lines of: “A person has four hobs: work, family, friends, and health, and you can only have two or three of them going at any one point before things start boiling over.” It’s called the Four Burners theory and I have not been able to stop thinking about it for days now.

I think it’s made such an impression on me because it strikes me as generally accurate, but it also was a handy way to summarize a lot of my own thinking and struggles. In fact, looking back over recent years, I can see exactly which hobs I’ve had cooking and at what heat levels. I can tell when I’ve tried to have too many going at once and I can also tell which ones I’ve switched off.

I’ve called 2018 my Year of Health because I’ve made dedicated time and space in it to improve my wellbeing. It’s been a roaring success in many ways, which I’m sure I’ll get to writing about as 2019 looms, but I have switched off other areas of my life to provide the time and attention that I needed to get healthier. Some aspects of my friends and family relationships have changed as a result–I am less social than I used to be and treasure a smaller number of close friendships more rather than trying to constantly make new ones.

My work burner has been on full throttle for a couple of years now…because it’s had to be. London is not a place in which you have the luxury of getting complacent and as I’ve made certain choices around freelancing and contracting, I have had to stay hustling. Other passion projects have taken a back seat as I’ve needed to establish and reestablish myself over and over again, other priorities have had to give way in order for my work (and bill-paying) ambitions to be realized. I’ve had some amazing jobs and opportunities as a result…but might I have done something different? Or would I have needed to focus on my health the way I have if a few toxic scenarios hadn’t bled from my work life into my personal and wreaked havoc with my wellbeing?

The trouble with this metaphor is that I think it’s fundamentally correct–at least for me–in that it honestly deals with humans beings as somewhat limited creatures. I want to turn other burners on, but know I might have to switch others off first. Which do you pick?

I don’t have the answers, but I am thinking about this a lot at the moment.

Which burners do you have “on” at the moment? Which have you switched off, recently or in the past, and why?

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