Tag Archives: work

Not keeping up appearances

One of the consequences of doing anything well, is that it tends to look effortless. If you’re doing something professionally, it is of course desirable to look as good as you can while doing it. Success is attractive. Relaxed capability is attractive. You want people looking at the elegant swan you’ve put into the world, not all the frantic paddling below the surface required to keep it there.

The problem with this – and I see it a lot – is that a significant number of people will assume it is indeed, effortless for you to do what you do. If they can’t see how much time and effort went into getting you to the point whereby it is indeed easy, they’ll use words like ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ and maybe ‘lucky’. This can have consequences. It can leave other people assuming that they should be that good for no effort. Or they may assume that because they aren’t instantly that good, there’s no point even trying. Neither idea is useful.

The general wisdom is that to master something takes 10,000 hours of work. The effortless performance, the relaxed artistic flourish…  are possible because of the many hours of study and practice underpinning them. There’s also a lot of planning in the mix. Films have a nasty habit of showing us creators producing amazing work in a single frenzied round. Most of us don’t work that way. Paintings are planned and sketched for. Stories and pieces of music are built up in stages. And so on.

The same is often true of other things. Cooking. Gardening. Self employment. The effortless coasting towards success is often just a superficial appearance. People who get results usually have to work for them. If they can do it easily now, it’s because they already put in the work. Right now, Tom and I are starting to enjoy the benefits of the Hopeless Maine project – in terms of money, recognition, opportunities and whatnot. We’ve worked together on this for about a decade, Tom’s been on it longer. As one if my publishers used to say ‘it takes years of work to become an overnight success.’

We like the stories of people who come out of nowhere to achieve wild, unexpected success. We don’t tell stories about years of quietly chipping away at it, slowly building a following, and having modest success, but that’s often how it goes. We also don’t tell stories about people being able to invest in their own projects because their families support them and cover their bills, help them make time and give them space. It’s easier to be creative if you’ve already got money – are retired, or have a supportive spouse. This kind of information tends to vanish from the story of how the successful individual got to where they are.

It’s always tempting to create stories that make us look as good as possible. However, I think it’s ultimately harmful to create the impression of great talent welling up to achieve great things, and not mentioning the levels of work and dedication required. I also think its problematic to let people  assume you’re making it as a creator when you aren’t.

At the moment, my household is getting by on the money I make as a book publicist. We get top-ups from the creative side, which is always cheering. It looks feasible that in the next few years, the Hopeless Maine project will start laying golden eggs for us. This is because we’ve made a choice to invest time in the creative stuff rather than Tom mostly working for other people. If we make this work, it will be because of the massive amount of time he’s invested, and because I’ve been able to pay the bills. I intend to keep talking about this because there are myths I want to dispel.

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Low energy, decent output

Recently, Jen over at Liminal Luminous blogged about the problem with the perceived need to work long hours in order to be successful. As a person with limited energy, Jen obviously struggles with this and it struck me that I might be able to speak to this in a useful way. So, here is what I know.

Firstly, take the time to define success. Is it just about money? Success can mean best outcomes, quality of life, friendship, doing inherently rewarding work. Once your physical needs are met, more money doesn’t confer significantly more happiness anyway.

Secondly, most of us – even the entirely healthy people – are only really good for about four hours a day. You may not be able to manage four. Work out how many hours you are likely to have of high quality output. Once you get beyond those hours, the quality and speed of what you can do, will diminish. People tell themselves that they’re working hard when they’re working long hours. The odds are for much of that time, they are working tired, inefficient and not capable of their best thinking. Long wasted hours are of no use. Be clever. Make the most of your best time and then rest.

None of us can work flat out all the time. Whatever you do, you need time to re-charge, and to let your mind chew on things in an unstructured way. I don’t have good ideas while I’m busy working. I have good ideas when I’m walking, crafting, and cleaning. I work more effectively when I have a coherent plan, considered goals, a sense of direction and new ideas. I don’t get those by trying to work all the time, I have to make quiet space for them. If I’m not well rested, I’m not able to work.

Being uber-busy is not sustainable. Sooner or later, you burn out, or crack up, or get sick. Again, this is as much an issue for people who started out well as it is for the rest of us. Burning out, cracking up, getting sick, succumbing to anxiety and depression… these are not things that improve your productivity or bring success. Being ill is not a winning outcome. Being too ill to keep going is not a winning move either. Plan for the long term, and remember that your health – mental and physical – is also a measure of success. For some of us, simply staying viable is an epic win. If you trash your health for the sake of money, you are not going to be successful in the medium to long term.

The trick is pacing. Know your limits and you can make the best use of what you’ve got without pushing yourself into dysfunction. If you’re going to be self employed as a person with chronic illness or energy problems, then there are ways to make it more viable. It might sound blindingly obvious, but you have to focus on what you can do rather than what exhausts you. There’s no point aspiring to be a paid youtuber if sitting in front of a camera wipes you out. Look at what your body and mind can sustain. Ask what you can do most effectively in the time available to you. Look for the resources, platforms and opportunities that suit how you can actually work, not how you think you’re supposed to work.

Being an overnight success takes years. It takes most businesses three years to starting breaking even and moving towards profit. If your primary cost is your own time, you can do better than that. The temptation of course is to try and speed up your profit making by throwing more hours at it, but that isn’t a sure fire solution.

I reliably have four hours a day, often more but with that extra being less clever, plus uncertainty as to how much more from day to day. I do the most important bill paying work over four mornings a week. I do the more speculative stuff in the afternoons. I get far more done now than I used to when I was trying to work eight hour days and more. We get by financially, and I am far less ill than I was because I have more time for self care.


Setting intentions

There are many good points in the year to do a check in with yourself and see how things stand. This is one of them. Birthdays and other significant dates can offer others, and for those in the school system, the academic year also creates good moments for pausing and reflecting. How are things going? Is it as you hoped, planned or expected? If not, why not? What needs to change? What’s most important?

When we ask ourselves such questions we also have to remember that we aren’t exploring our lives in a vacuum. We exist in a cultural context that tells us what we are to prioritise – and so at this time of year many people will be contemplating diets and facing debt. Our main job is to make money for other people, by being exploited in the workplace, and exploited again as consumers. We are to work hard and spend hard, and try to ease our misery and dissatisfaction by buying things we don’t need and can’t afford and that will not save us.

I invite you to question this. I invite you most particularly to watch out for the idea of hard work being a virtue. When you look at something and say ‘I must work hard at this’ what does it mean? Is it that we feel a need to be seen as hard working? Does the appearance of hard work help us in some way?

Don’t work hard this year. Work effectively. Work wisely. Do what needs to be done. Work in a sustainable way that won’t break your mental health. Resist the idea of work for the sake of work. Work is not a virtue. It’s just that if working people are worn out from all the work they do, they don’t have any energy to protest, or to imagine some different way of living. Exhausted people lose self esteem and stop believing they deserve better.

Work wholeheartedly, work passionately, work soulfully, these are all good ways to be in the world. Work because you must, but if it grinds you down, don’t internalise that. Don’t make it who you are or what you are for. Don’t build a sense of identity around it.

I’ve just had a week off. I’ve used that time to dream, to ponder, to rest and let my mind wander. I’ve come back with ideas, and one of those ideas is about taking more time off. I do my best thinking and creating when I’m not trying to run flat out all the time. I also want a better quality of life. I want more time for reading and crafting because this will best inspire me. I want to live as a soft and lazy mammal, not as a busy little bee, because I have a soft and lazy mammal body, not a bee body. We should not be willing to work ourselves to death for queen and hive, or for shareholders and politicians.

 


Do without Doing

The idea that you do without doing and all shall be done comes from the Tao Te Ching. This concept fascinates me, and I’ve been exploring it for some time, trying to understand it. I’ve read various translations of the Tao Te Ching now, and the impression I have is that the person who has entered into the Taoist way isn’t just sitting around meditating, they are present in the world and the things that need doing, are done, but effortlessly.

I am currently experiencing what may be the illusion of understanding something here. So, I’m sharing it.

We can be really invested in looking busy, looking like we’re working hard, really sweating for our results. This is because there is a myth that hard work is a virtue, and another myth that hard work is what brings success. Your background, and your parent’s wealth remain the best indicators of your likely worldly success, not how hard you work, but it is a comforting lie to think we can make it to the top. Put that lie down, and appearing to work hard may seem less attractive.

There is wisdom in knowing what actually needs doing, what matters, what is truly essential. Doing the things that need doing rather than the things we think we should be seen to be doing saves a lot of time and effort. Not worrying what people will think if we aren’t working hard all the time, really opens things up.

I have noticed in my own work that if I am stressed, panicking and flailing then a job takes more time and effort than it does if I come to it calmly. Panic takes energy. If I can avoid situations that panic me – tight deadlines, uncooperative colleagues, being asked to do jobs and not given the resources to do them… it’s easy. If I spend my time doing the things I can do, for people who don’t make life harder for me, the work is simple and almost seems to do itself. If I am happy in my work, and inspired by the work, then the work seems to do itself.

Currently, I think that’s what ‘do without doing’ means. It means doing things in a relaxed and natural way because these are the things that make sense and need doing. No extra arm waving, no stress, no work for the sake of appearing to be working. The more I move in this direction, the happier I am and the easier my work is. Not being time pressured turns out to be especially important for me. I suspect we will each turn out to have things that particularly trip us up and things that are less of an issue and that there’s not a one size fits all solution here.

I’m increasingly interested in my quality of life. It is something I have to seek on my own terms, and worrying what other people will think of me, and what I’ll look like from the outside is clearly something to let go of.


Being fast and slowing down

This isn’t my first blog about slower living, it is an idea that has interested me for years. I like life in the slow lane, walking for transport, reading, not being up to date with all the latest gadgets, not keeping up with everything via my phone. I like not rushing and feeling pressured. But, there’s a technical problem and it’s taken me until now to get my head round it.

Slow me down, and I go faster.

Over the course of this weekend off, I started work on a new steampunk outfit, I planned a handful of blogs, decided to try a collaborative project, figured out a new social thing I want to organise, had some big ideas about book events in Stroud, and got a lot of reading done. My weekend off was intensely productive. This is usually how it goes. If I take time off, slow down, don’t aim to do anything, the ideas start moving and I can end up doing far more productive stuff than I would have done had the day been structured and deliberately workish.

For years I’d been feeling this as a kind of slow-fail. I can’t do nothing. I’m useless at it. Leave me doing nothing and I’ll hatch some epic and totally workable scheme. This weekend, while ostensibly doing nothing but really doing a lot, I came to the conclusion that I’m no longer prepared to have a problem with this. It is simply how I am.

So, with all of that in mind, my aim at the moment is to keep my planned workishness to four mornings a week, and keep the rest of my time unstructured and slow, and give myself permission to do whatever comes along. I have noticed that I’m at my most productive when I have plenty of time to read, think, stare out of the window, go for walks and so forth. I don’t get the ideas if I don’t have the time and space. If I try to be disciplined about my work, the quality of my output dwindles rapidly. And equally, if my slowness makes me faster, I’m not going to relate to that as a slow-fail anymore.


The need to be useful

When you’re ill, it is important to rest in order to recover. However, the need to feel useful can be a real barrier to this. I think it most afflicts people whose self esteem is tied to their output. If being useful to someone else is how you get to feel ok about yourself, then stopping is really hard. The lower a person’s sense of self worth is, the harder it is for them to feel that resting and recovering might be more important than doing the useful things.

The result can be that if you do stop in order to try and get well, you end up mired in panic and feelings of worthlessness, none of which helps. Especially not when what you’re trying to recover from is depression and/or anxiety.

It certainly doesn’t help that we have a government intent on making us believe that we are either workers or shirkers. We are to believe that hard work is the only thing that can save us from economic ruin (such a big lie). We are told by media and ministers alike that if we aren’t useful, we aren’t worth anything to anyone. Ill people are treated like scroungers and criminals. In that context, who wants to admit they are too ill to work? And so many people end up working when they should not, and making worse the health problems that might have been fixed if they’d felt able to stop.

If you are unable to fend off the idea that you must be useful, but you are also in need of time off, here’s a thought that may help. If you are well and rested, you will be better at doing the things. Your mind will be sharper, you’ll be faster, more efficient, and more effective.

Mostly, the time to tackle the pernicious idea that the measure of our lives is our utility, is not when you’re in a crisis. This is an every day sort of problem. We can challenge it by affirming each other’s rights to rest and to good health. We can remind each other that we should not be cogs in someone else’s profit machine. We can look after each other, and we may at times need to support and take care of those who are being let down by the system. We can campaign for change, and resist the lies of politicians and media alike, overcoming their bile to recognise our shared humanity.

We all need rest, time off, and time to recover when we are ill. Without a doubt, we will all face serious illness at some point – either our own, or that of someone close to us. We need to gently educate the people who are lucky enough not to be really ill, and who are buying into the lies about effort and scrounging. Of course it is tempting to believe it when you seem to be winning, because it means it is your effort keeping you ahead, not pure chance. It gives the illusion of being in control, and that’s a hard illusion to let go of.

We are soft and fragile things, our bodies damage easily, our minds can be broken. We cannot ask ourselves to function like pieces of machinery. We should not have to work ourselves into the ground in order to survive, or to be socially acceptable.


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.


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.