Tag Archives: work

Finding more hours in the day

As a self employed person, how I work is something I find it necessary to pay attention to. No one else sets my hours or considers what would be the best use of my time from day to day. No one sets my breaks, or time off.

During the worst patches, I’ve worked seven day weeks, and long days. During those times, work has been a slow, inefficient grind, dogged by poor concentration, difficulty with decision making and a lack of creativity. It’s really easy when self employed to feel like you have to keep working, especially if you aren’t earning much Fear that the work will dry up if you don’t say yes to everything is certainly part of the problem.

One of the things I’ve learned this summer, is that it is better for me to work in blocks rather than trying to multitask. Writing blog posts, dealing with email and doing social media work can end up sprawling across each other, with a lot of time squandered as I shuffle between, unable to remember what I was supposed to be doing or where I’d got to. Focused bursts get a lot more done. Focused bursts with small breaks in between them are even better.

By not multitasking, I’ve been able to cut my working morning by an hour, reliably. That’s including having a bit of time – ten to twenty minutes each day of promoting my own work, which I’d been neglecting to do. I’ve also cut my regular work down to four mornings a week, freeing up Wednesdays for doing something different – an uncontaminated headspace in which to create, should inspiration strike. It’s working. I’m doing as much work as I was before, I’m just not wasting as much time as I was.

It’s hard to notice lost time when it comes as a few minutes here and there, or each job taking ten or fifteen seconds longer than it might have done. Over a morning’s work, the lost minutes and seconds totted up to that hour or more that I now have at my disposal. Efficiency is a thing.

When business people talk about efficiency, all too often what they mean is getting people to work flat out and more like machines. Flat out isn’t efficient, it slows because concentration is not an infinite resource. Working like a person, and taking care of my person-ness as I work is what makes me more efficient. Not stinting on the breaks, allowing myself as much window gazing time as I need, moving about regularly – all the things that don’t look like efficiency actually get the jobs done faster.

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Contaminated headspace

How many things need thinking about in a day? Meals and family time tables, the laundry, social commitments, other people’s needs and timetables… It’s an issue I first became aware of a while ago through a feminist blog. Like emotional labour, this kind of holding all the things in your head is work that falls disproportionately to women. I raised it at the time with the chaps of my household, and we changed some things.

However, headspace contamination is also a work issue for me. It means trying to plot social media strategies in my time off. It is writing blog posts in my head when I wake up in the morning, and things of that ilk. Sorting out the way in which my own poor boundaries leave me with an over busy head has been an issue. The over busy head does not rest well, stresses a lot, and doesn’t have space for wonder or imagination all too often.

I replaced my never ending to-do list with a diary. I noticed (thank you other bloggers who helped me see this) that a to-do list easily becomes a thing to beat yourself up with. With a diary, I have to think carefully about what I’m going to do when, and it is easier to budget in time for non-workish things too. I don’t overload my days, and at the end of the day I’ve usually worked through the list, so it helps my morale. When I get an idea, rather than obsessing over it, I write it down for the day I’m going to tackle it. It’s very rare now that I try and write blog posts in my head.

I’ve put down work that doesn’t suit me. The things I do well, I seldom have to sweat over. I need small patches of time here and there to reflect, ponder and speculate about my work, but I don’t need to do it every day, mostly I can crack on. Jobs where the remit wasn’t clear enough or where I wasn’t a natural match at all have had me trying really hard to overcome that. I hate doing a job badly. It took me a long time to recognise that if all I do is bang my head against a thing, it is better to put that thing down and move on. There’s no shortage of things I could be doing, I need not do things that tie my brain in knots and leave me feeling low and exhausted.

Clear communication is a good antidote to contaminated headspace as well. No second guessing, no dances of imply and infer, just straight, clear, expression and open negotiation. Increasingly, I’m not willing to invest in people who need to make every social exchange into a complicated set of manoeuvres. Intellectual hide and seek is not my idea of fun. Emotional snakes and ladders I can cheerfully miss. If I know where I am with people, I don’t get into wearying speculation.

Taking control of my headspace has been a process, but as I get better at it, more time and energy becomes available to me. It also becomes apparent as to who and what is a good use of my time, and what just sucks the life out of me to very little effect. Yes, I can use meditation in short bursts to quieten my mind, but it is a good deal more effective to tackle the busy issues at a life level, and save my meditation time for more creative and soul nurturing things.


Working when ill

It’s something I’ve done a lot of over many years. One of the advantages of being self employed is that you have some flexibility when sick. You also have no scope whatsoever for sick pay, often there’s no one who can cover for you, and being ill can be expensive in that it can cost you future work. Increasingly, conventional workplaces seem to be pressuring people to work when ill as well.

I know from experience that I’m considerably less efficient when ill. It plays havoc with my concentration. I move slowly, making more mistakes, my judgements are never as good, I don’t have good ideas. There isn’t an ailment out there that won’t be easier and quicker to deal with if you’re able to rest, and won’t be exacerbated by additional stress. And some illnesses are contagious, and taking those to visit other people isn’t nice. The idea of keeping a human working when they’re sick clearly isn’t informed by anything real about the implications of illness.

Over time, there’s a bigger and more insidious impact to working when ill. It dehumanises you. It takes away the sense of being a proper person with the same rights as other people. You’re just a thing to keep slogging along to get the work done. This is one of the ways in which a physical health problem can easily develop into mental health problems as well. Exhausted, demoralised people who are obliged to keep suffering are likely to end up with low self esteem, anxiety and depression at the very least.

I will do the things I absolutely have to do, and then I’m heading back to bed with a book – because I can, and it’s a far better idea. There will be many other people obliged to work a full day today, despite being sick. Some of those people will be doing unpaid domestic work, but that doesn’t guarantee you respite, either. Given that the amount of work available is decreasing as people are replaced by machines, we could collectively square up to this and bring in a citizen’s income, so that no one has to work full time, and no one has to work when they’re ill. Failing that, better worker’s rights and a better social safety net would be a great help.


Work does not save us

Today is not going to plan. Pain and other issues in the night kept me from sleeping, and it’s not the first time in recent days this has happened. Normally I’m working by about 7 in the morning. Today I took the decision to start later in the hopes my body would cope better. It’s not a choice everyone has the luxury of being able to make.

This leaves me wondering what life would look like if health and wellbeing were social priorities rather than work and profit. Wealth without the health to enjoy it isn’t a great deal of joy. But then, the people with the wealth tend to be healthier, the people without as much money tend to have poorer physical health. The stress of poverty causes mental illness.

Working when ill isn’t very efficient. I’ve noticed that in the last year, where I’ve been taking more time off and resting more. I work faster. I get far more done in far less time. The idea of work as an inherent good is not upheld by exploring what happens when I work less. If we’re measuring quality or quantity of output, less time working equates to more and better work done.

Yet we treat more work as the answer to all social problems. We treat it as the answer to poverty, even though the single biggest issue is rent costs and unaffordable mortgages. In the States, the crippling cost is health care, often. Most of us can’t hope to earn our way out of those traps no matter how long or how hard we work. Here in the UK our government seems to have decided that work is also the answer to disability and chronic ill health. Make people work and they will magically get over it. I’m not sure which planet they come from, but I do wish they’d go back there.

We all need the space, time and resources to be kinder to ourselves and kinder to each other. Relentless work doing nothing of much use, just burning up finite resources, is something we need to get rid of. Making things that benefit no one, half of which go rapidly towards landfill, is not an answer. A marketing culture of disposable everything where you throw it away to get the newest one is eco-suicide, and it’s also make-work. There have to be better ways.


What’s in it for me?

To be honest I blame my Church of England primary school. I spent my formative years being told to serve, to help others, to put others first and no one ever really talking about when it might be ok to put a hand up and say ‘I am the person who needs helping’ or when it might be ok to prioritise personal need. I internalised the lot. As a consequence I have a long history of giving more than is good for me.

The question ‘what’s in it for me?’ is one I need to be asking. Not least because there’s a significant percentage of people who just don’t value what’s freely given. I may be trying to do gift economy, but if I deal primarily with people who aren’t, then I end up giving, and giving, and giving more whilst being treated like something of lesser worth because I haven’t put a price tag on it. This is not clever. I’ve done it repeatedly, persuaded that my work is needed and it’s totally reasonable to have nothing come back to me.

I spent time in a space some years ago that had a mantra of service. Give, and give more. Give and don’t ask for anything in return. Don’t ask for recognition, or support, or status, don’t ask to be acknowledged or valued because that’s about ego. Give. Keep giving. I ended up exhausted, broken and useless.

What’s in it for me? It doesn’t have to be all about the money although it’s nice to be able to afford to live. I have to remind myself that I’m as entitled as anyone else to be paid for what I do. However, many of the things that need help have no budget. So, I’ve been working out what has to be in it for me if I’m not being paid for what I do.

I have to believe in the project. I have to see its innate worth and see why there’s no funding, and that it’s fair. If I’m inspired enough, that is enough to get me moving and keep me viable.

I have to feel that the work I do is useful and valuable. Not someone else’s hollow vanity project, not pointless effort for the sake of effort, not being set up to fail to do impossible things for someone else’s amusement (yes, I’ve done all of that and worse).

I need to feel valued and respected. If I am reduced to my utility and not allowed the space to be a person, it’s not good for me. If I am treated as worthless because I’m unpaid, it’s not a good space to be in.

Something should be flowing back to me. That might be opportunities, exposure (I know, it’s often what we die of) chance to do things around the work that will enable me to earn money (as with contributing to events). It might be that what I get out of it is companionship and the chance to do cool things with awesome people. It might be inherently good fun, or something I haven’t done before where the experience will be interesting, or will teach me something valuable. It might allow me to do something I want to do as a trade off.

I hold some responsibility for what’s in my history because I’ve been slow to recognise unfair setups. I’m not good at holding the idea that I deserve better. I have been easily persuaded that I’m so useless, so worthless that I should be glad people want to bother with me enough to exploit me. I’ve dealt with people who, rather than thanking me for the effort, told me I should be grateful for having been given the space. No more. There are better people out there, and better ways of getting things done.


Everyone I know is tired

Everyone I know has too much work to do, but not enough time to do it in and not enough energy to do it with.

Everyone I know could do with a decent holiday right now, but having the time to organise it, and the resources to pay for it – that’s a whole other question.

My facebook feed is full of exhausted people struggling on as best they can.

I took a day off yesterday. A whole one. I’ve been doing weekends for about nine months now, but it is hard getting more than 2 days back to back. Today I have to run to catch up on everything i didn’t do because I took a day off.

If you’re working multiple jobs, or your contract doesn’t have proper hours, getting and affording breaks is hard. If you’re self employed, how do you say no to paying work, even when you really, desperately need to rest? Because there’s no knowing when that paying work will dry up. Trying to get ahead so that if things go terribly wrong, you don’t fall into debt.

All that stands between most households and total financial disaster is the next paycheck, assuming it lands.

Being tired does not improve your judgement, or your efficiency. It makes everything harder. Being tired is a stress on the body, and body stresses increase risks of illness, exacerbate conditions and cause mental health problems.

Everyone I know is tired.

This really, really needs to change.

Security has to be more important than job flexibility. There have to be safety nets that people can count on. The role of rest in health – mental and physical –needs taking seriously. Illness is expensive, it isn’t efficient either.


Working for free

Anything up to half of my working time goes to jobs I know I will never be paid for in cash. This is important to me, because there are a lot of things that really need doing for which no budget exists. Voluntary organisations and charities are obvious examples. Struggling creative people with no money to deploy to get the things done that they really need to get done, are another. People who need tips and pointers, book reviews, etc. If I’ve got something someone else needs and can’t afford, I’ll do my best to share.

Alongside that, I’m really open to other ways of getting things done – profit share arrangements, energy exchange, gift economy… In no small part because I don’t want to live in a world where everything is about the money.

However, there’s a flip side to this. Literary festivals that make a profit but aren’t inclined to pay authors. People who want free work ‘for exposure’ when they intend to make a profit from it. This is exploitation, pure and simple. Asking for a freebie when you’re doing a charity fundraiser, or some other not-for profit activity is a different ball game. People may or may not be able to help, but there’s nothing dishonourable about asking in that situation.

Most often, if I’m going to do something for free it’s because I stepped forward to offer, not because I was asked to. Or I’ve told people they are welcome to ask.

So, what can usefully be offered if you want or need something and don’t want to pay for it? I’d advise looking hard at this, because not wanting to pay is not a source of entitlement. Consider whether you think you, or the person you are asking, is better off. If you’ve got money you aren’t inclined to spend and they’re struggling, then you aren’t playing fair, quite simply. Not wanting to pay is not the same as being unable to pay. Sometimes (often, I think) the right answer is to pay, or to at the very least offer to pay what you can afford. It’s ok to open a negotiation and see what’s acceptable.

If you’re going to offer something in exchange, make sure it has a reasonable value to the person you’re offering it to. If you’ve got thousands of followers on some platform or another, ‘exposure’ has considerably more worth. Authors always like book reviews, and if you’ve approached a person for help it should be a given that you like what they do and can give them some positive support in return. Events that can’t pay, but can do food, or accommodation, or offer a profit share are a lot more persuasive than events wanting something for nothing. People who want art for free to get a kickstarter moving but offer to pay properly if it works – just some examples to show what can be done. Asking to risk share is not asking someone to work for free.

The key here is to recognise the value of what’s not being paid for. All too often, we only value things in terms of money and de-value anything that comes without a price tag. If you need things you can’t pay for, don’t de-value the source of it. Recognise the worth, and deal with that worth with respect. It’s all too easy for people who habitually give of their time, energy and resources to forget the real value they have and to become demoralised as a consequence. People who give are the geese who lay golden eggs… killing them isn’t in anyone’s interest.


Rest Days

With ‘hard work’ held as a value and overstimulation being normal for down time, a day of rest can be a challenging thing to pull off. However, running flat out forever is not a viable option, and I’ve faced the truth repeatedly that if I don’t plan my stops, there will come a point of being forced to take them, and the timing then is often lousy.

I find physical rest days difficult in no small part because my feet are my primary form of transport. A day resting means not walking anywhere, which seriously limits my scope for being sociable. My down time has to be the sort of thing I can do in the flat. I find crafting works well for such days, although that does mean my hands are busy, if I take it gently I don’t put much extra strain on them.

Mental rest is a totally different process and I find it’s often best served by getting outside and doing something with my body. Long walks help me clear my head. Failing that, short walks are always a help.

I’m conscious that for many people, rest means flopping down in front of a screen. I’ve also noticed that for me, this isn’t always effective for brain rest, because I tend to think about what I’m watching, and it’s easy to over-stimulate my mind if I’m already overtired. Watching is an easy answer, and thus very tempting when knackered, but it’s worth keeping an eye on the effects and fettling accordingly.

I try to make sure that brain and body get sufficient rest time on a day to day basis, but even so, the whole day off needs to come round every now and then. Total rest for the brain is something I seldom want, but when I do, it’s a case of just lying in the duvet and making room for nothing to happen.

Of course it’s often possible to push through this and keep busy, putting the hard work as an imagined virtue ahead of wellness and moving myself towards physical illness and mental breakdown. It has been hard to pull away from that, to stop, to recognise that it’s not heroic to keep pushing on and it’s seldom necessary. Plus, if I rest when I need to I get more done when I’m working. While a focus on efficiency does keep me tied to the idea that work is everything, it is a way of fighting fire with fire. Should I stop now? Well, how is that going to affect my productivity tomorrow?


Come the revolution

You probably have one of these – the time when everything will change. Retirement is traditional and winning the lottery is popular. When the good thing happens. When there’s more money coming in than going out. It’s often a perfectly sensible imagined point when we get to start living well. Of course what some of us do is then move the goalposts quietly. We never quite get there. This is never the year to stop striving and start living. And the years go by, and sometimes we run out of time before we get round to all the things we were going to do when it was a good time to do them.

The truth is that cutting back on the striving to make room for more living only happens when a person chooses to do it. We’ll find lots of reasons why we can’t actually just go for it now – money being the main one. I think it can be about the fear of living. What if living isn’t as good as you thought it was going to be? What if it’s better to live for an imagined future rather than dealing with trying to make things good in the present?

All of this keys into our ideas about sufficiency. When will we have earned enough, bought a big enough house, saved enough money, stockpiled enough things? What do we think we need to be happy? And if we’ve been beaten about the head with work ethics then we may feel we’re not entitled to be happy unless we can somehow do that alongside working ourselves to the bone.

Last year I was obliged to slow down. To do it, I had to question my stories about money and sufficiency, entitlement and need. I had to recognise that body and mind could not take what was being asked of them. I had to keep telling myself that it was safe to slow down a bit, that I wouldn’t be leaving us wide open to financial disaster. I had to deliberately choose having more of a life with more joy in it.

It’s easy to imagine that joy will turn up naturally at the appointed, magic hour without us having to do anything else. That’s not how it goes, but as we wait for the magic hour, opportunities for happiness pass us by. The only way is to jump in and make it happen, to choose it, make time for it, and do it now, not at some never-never point in the future when it falls spontaneously into our laps, because that fairy tale keeps us where we are, and stops us from living.


Lessons from 2016

I’m a big fan of pausing now and then to review my experiences so that I can see what there is to be learned. The end of a calendar year is a very obvious point at which to do this. Normally I review things on a day to day basis, but some patterns and lessons only really emerge when a bigger time frame is considered.

2016 delivered a run of intensive lessons about how I value myself, and how I act based on that value. For too long, I’ve been over-grateful for any kind of place to be involved, any sense of being wanted, or useful, or tolerated. In practice this has made me vulnerable to people who want to use me, and has put me in places that don’t give me what I need. At a less unpleasant level, it has also put me in places of half-heartedness and lack of commitment, and those don’t suit me either.

What I need, above and beyond all else in terms of work and community is the emphatic ‘Yes’. I need the people who are wholehearted about wanting me in the mix and who will accept my wholehearted and serious commitment. Situations that want me half-hearted, not too intense, and so on, crush me over time. I have realised that if I assume nothing better is available, then I won’t be looking for anything better. This year I started looking for the social spaces that give me an emphatic yes. I’d come to think of my marriage as a little bubble of difference, a unique space that I couldn’t hope to replicate in terms of the feeling of being valued, accepted and inspired. It’s not just us, I just needed to learn how to look, and to believe it was worth looking.

For a couple of years now, working at Moon Books part time has been an absolute joy, because that’s a space where my energy, ideas, innovation and efforts are valued and trusted. I love that work, and it has become the measure for other things I take on with other people (measuring everyone against Tom would seem unfair). If it’s not as good as Moon Books, if I’m not as excited about it, if I’m not working with people who are that fired up… why would I bother?

What I’ve found is that spaces, and people are becoming more available to me. I want to do the work that only I can do. I want to do work that is needed and valued. I want to spend my spare time with people who are delighted to do that, not with people who grudgingly accommodate and find me difficult. 2016 has taught me that I can have those things, and I don’t need to waste any more of my time on half-hearted nonsense.