Tag Archives: work

Learning to be less efficient

One of my big personal projects at the moment is that I’m trying to learn to be less efficient. I’ve got a significant attention span – I can do things with my brain for longer than is good for my body, and I need to tackle that. It isn’t good for my hands if I colour for a couple of hours flat out, or type for extended periods.

Just because I can doesn’t mean I should. 

Years of practical and economic pressure haven’t helped with this. Taking breaks and being gentle with myself has, all too often, felt like a luxury I couldn’t afford. It’s not like that at the moment. Rest should never seem like a luxury. Basic self care to avoid pain and damage is not a luxury. I am not a machine, but I’m not very good at treating myself like a person.

So I’m trying to figure out how to slow down. How to take more breaks, and be gentler. It’s an interesting process not least because it means I have to be alert to what my brain is doing while I’m working. I’m obsessive, and I can fall into the rhythm of a thing and get stuck there, and some bits of my brain really like that and find it soothing. It takes a huge toll on my body if I’m not careful – too much strain on my hands and not enough movement elsewhere.

There will be a balance to find. Enough rhythm in what I do to sooth my brain. Enough movement for my whole body to allow me to be reasonably well. Enough rest for my hands to avoid hurting or damaging them.


Unskilled Labour is an illusion

The idea of unskilled labour is one that is routinely used to make life harder for economically disadvantaged people. The notion is that if you have no skills, there are many jobs you can apply for that aren’t skilled, and that don’t merit much of a wage. If you don’t have a job you are therefore deemed lazy and workshy.

At the start of January, I was job hunting again. When I can work in the kinds of jobs I have considerable experience in, I can earn a decent wage. However, I have done a number of minimum wage jobs along the way. If I can’t find stuff I am well qualified to do, I have to look at whatever I can get. 

There are very few jobs out there that ask for no qualifications and no experience. Many jobs require you to be able to drive and to have a car. When I’m looking for work outside my areas of experience, there’s not much I can apply for, and what I can apply for has everything to do with retail experience and public facing work history. I note that a significant number of low paid jobs require strength and physical fitness, and that we don’t value that much in workers. There may be a lot to be said about the value placed on the bodies of the economically disadvantaged.

Work requires skill and knowledge. Some of the worst paid jobs require heroic levels of patience and considerable stamina. For jobs that pay you to do nothing, as far as I can make out you want to get a high level consultancy gig where no one expects you to do anything, or to get your income from shares and resource ownership rather than by actually working. There are no unskilled jobs. Every employer out there has qualities they require in their employees.

During the pandemic it’s been really obvious that low paid workers were in the front lines doing some of the most important things and shouldering a great deal of the risk.

The idea of the unskilled worker is a convenient illusion. It’s part of the thinking that justifies who gets to be rich and who gets to be poor. The idea that work is low paid because it isn’t important and doesn’t require much of you simply isn’t true. How people are paid has everything to do with power, and very little to do with the true value of their work.


Work as a coping mechanism

I’ve always turned to work as a way of coping. That can mean paid work, volunteering, housework or making things. It’s something I can put between me and the teeth, and the teeth are very sharp and have been with me my whole life.

The theory is that if I can make enough, do enough, be good enough then I can stay out of the teeth. It doesn’t work, and I know it doesn’t work, but I’ve never found anything that does. The problem with working as a coping mechanism is that it can add to the exhaustion and make things worse. I’d be better off with some sense of worth that doesn’t depend on doing stuff, or being validated for doing stuff but I’ve never figured out how to have that. Self help articles and books are all about increasing your self esteem, not how to start from scratch.

I suspect the trick is to have a sense of self and self worth rooted in who you are, not what you do. It’s just that I’ve never felt intrinsically good enough. It’s hard to imagine feeling good enough without having to be useful, helpful or productive. I’m also no sort of ornament.

It also doesn’t help that every single thing I might do to try and keep myself out of the teeth depends on confidence. The worse things are, the harder it is to believe that I can do anything to offset it. The more in pain I am the less able I am to feel or appreciate any wins I might achieve.

It’s not a good way to be. But here we are, and I can still write blog posts,so there’s something.


Doing it for money

Living by creative work is a bit of a gamble, to say the least. Most of my working life I’ve had other jobs on the go as well – often also in publishing, because marketing and editing pay more reliably than writing does.

I spent this last year mostly working on my own stuff, when I wasn’t being horribly ill. Given the many rounds of being horribly ill, it’s as well I wasn’t trying to do much else! But, I gambled on a couple of things and it hasn’t worked out. This happens. Opportunities melt away, or turn out not to be as good as they looked. Currently the entire book industry is being sorely challenged by distribution issues, paper shortages and whatnot, especially in America. Royalty payments are down, because American book sales are really low right now.

What you earn as an author tends to depend on work you’ve done in previous years, and there’s often no knowing how long it will take for the work to lead to money. One of the advantages of self publishing is that you get the work out and sell it. Big publishers move slowly and can take years to make decisions. Graphic novels are slow to make, so the books we’re working on were first drafted ten years ago. With the series complete, that set of books will be more interesting to other publishers, and Sloth may be able to pitch it on – but who knows?

Once upon a time, I wrote a novel in six weeks because someone offered me something like a thousand pounds to do it, and that’s more money than I’d ever made from writing before that point. By the end of it, I had days where I was mostly just shaking and crying – multiple drafts of an 80k novel is a lot to do in six weeks and I didn’t sleep much. I didn’t do another one. I couldn’t have sustained it, although it turned out that my first husband thought I should have done.

I gambled and lost, this year. I lost money on an event where I really needed to come out ahead. Everything has been slower than I needed it to be. Releases are delayed. Various projects have been hit with problems and some things I’ve just had to rethink. Meanwhile energy costs, and food costs are set to rise. I have a safety net, but it’s finite, and shrinking. 

I spent New Year’s eve looking at local employment possibilities. I’ve done all kinds of work along the way, I have no qualms about jumping back in – shelf stacker or dinner lady maybe. My skills aren’t much use for conventional employment outside of publishing, I don’t have a car, and that means I’m pretty much obliged to look at minimum wage jobs if I can’t get the writing based work to pay. At one point a few years ago I was doing half a dozen small jobs to make ends meet, and it was tough. So, I was bracing myself to get back into all of that.

Much to my surprise, I find that instead I’m going to be writing a novel to a tight deadline and for a flat fee. I’ve got three books to read as a matter of some urgency, and I’m going to be flat out for the next eight to ten weeks. So if the blog is a bit brief, or sporadic, this will be why. But it will pay better than being a traffic warden, and I was going to have to lie on that application about how well I handle aggression and conflict situations…


Be gentle for midwinter

I’ve not made much effort to be festive this year – the yule badgers were about it. Midwinter invariably finds me tired. Some years I have the willpower to push through that. This year, I don’t. 

Christmas can be a lot of work. The planning, the shopping, the packing, the food prep, the cleaning. This is all work that traditionally falls to women, and if you’re a mother you may be doing it with help from a child or three who are over-excited and going to lose it entirely at some point. I’ve been that person, although not recently, and never again.

It’s worth thinking about who we expect to do what on our behalf at this time of year. The unpaid labour. The emotional labour. The demands we make on retail staff. The low paid folk who take the brunt of frustration and shopping rage. It is not a season of goodwill to all – especially not when we’re shopping.

The idea of the perfect Christmas is something we’ve been sold. We know what it’s supposed to look like. All those Christmas related adverts showing clean, orderly houses stacked with food and gifts… it creates a lot of pressure. But then, that’s the whole point. The more inadequate you feel, the more you’re going to buy to try and make up for it.

We could be gentler with ourselves. We could be kind, and expect less of each other. We could spend less and consume less and rest more. Rest is cheap, which is no doubt why we aren’t encouraged to do it, when we could be wearing ourselves out trying to meet impossible standards. Rest is also essential and not some sort of bonus luxury you only earn when you’ve done every imaginable thing.


Working nine ‘till five

During my week in the gallery, I was getting up at half past seven, doing half an hour or so of computer work, walking to the gallery at 9, being there until 5 and then walking home. I found it utterly exhausting. It didn’t help that I worked nine days without a day off, which shouldn’t be normal for people with regular day jobs.

I’m used to being able to do bits and pieces of domestic work around my other work. Where other people might get a tea break or a water cooler moment, I might do the laundry or get the washing up. It means that when I end work for the day normally, I’ve done whatever I’m doing on the domestic front as well as the economic front. Coming home in the evening with all of that yet to do is emotionally wearing as well as physically tiring.

I’m a big fan of walking and cycling to work. I acknowledge that it is hard to do this, especially in bad weather or when you  are already tired. Many of the things that are more sustainable – cooking from scratch, buying locally sourced everythings… take time and energy that I wouldn’t have if I worked this way every day. I already knew that many aspects of conventional work aren’t easily combined with sustainable life choices, or with healthy choices for personal wellbeing. There’s a lot of difference between knowing something as a theory, and living it for a while.

I’m a big believer in making what personal changes you can, but I acknowledge that not everyone gets much control over how and when and where they work. Not everyone can go self employed, or can wrangle to work from home. Personal shifts alone won’t deal with things that are ingrained in our culture.

I also note that I wasn’t fantastically useful for much of that time. I’ve done a lot of public facing, events, retail, front of house kind of work – which can be sporadic – quiet while you’re waiting for people to show up, and intense when they do. But in terms of quality of work done for time spent… I wasn’t great. Compared to what I get done in a few hours working quietly at home, I wasn’t very productive. In some ways that’s the nature of this kind of work. But, how many people are turning up to put in the hours every day, and not paid based on what they do? How much time, life and energy are squandered while people show up for the required hours?

One of the great things about being self employed is that most of the time, it’s about getting the job done, and not about how long it takes. Unless your job is primarily about being available to help other people in some way, then time spent is meaningless for most work. How many workplaces will let you go home when you’ve done what needed doing? How many employers will reward speed and efficiency by simply expecting you to do more?

There’s only so much you can do as an individual to change any of this. I feel strongly that we need to be talking a lot more about why we work, and how we work, what we reward, and what we expect from each other.


Reimagining the revolution

Imagine what the industrial revolution would have been like around the world if the aims had been different. Imagine if the developing technology had been all about freeing people from drudgery and improving their quality of life. Not children working twelve hour shifts in factories, not working humans routinely maimed and killed by machines, and not squalid slums for workers to live in. Imagine if the industrial revolution had been all about making life better for everyone.

Of course with the kind of technology we had, this would have been difficult. The city smogs were caused by air pollution from coal burning industries. The whole thing depended on human lives sacrificed for coal, sacrificed for building projects, cut short by horrific illness caused by exposure to pollutants. Around the world, industrial revolution has meant a dramatic plummet in quality of life for the working poor.

What if that wasn’t inevitable? What if that wasn’t progress? What if the ‘gains’ made for the already rich and comfortable weren’t actually worth the price so many paid for it? 

If progress meant better quality of life, we wouldn’t have people living in poverty. No one would have to choose between heating and eating. We have the resources to take care of everyone, but not the political will. What if we saw no virtue or value in tedious jobs and cheerfully handed those over to the machines to give everyone more time to live rich, full and rewarding lives? What if we didn’t create an impoverished underclass who could then be pressured into working miserably in order to barely survive? 

We could have done that with the first industrial revolution. New technology could have been harnessed to serve the common good, not the profits of the few. This is always an option, and never the one that gets priority. Meanwhile we celebrate and idolise the wealth that costs most of us, and the planet an unbearable amount.

What if we stopped imagining that work is the key to human existence, and started considering some alternative ways of thinking about ourselves?


Who will do the work?

Who will do the work if we just give people enough money to live on? It’s a question I see all too often around any kind of suggestion that welfare support should not leave people in abject misery.

No one imagines that people who would otherwise have been priests, musicians, doctors, politicians, teachers, actors, CEOs and so forth would just stay at home doing nothing if decent benefits were available. We recognise that some jobs have intrinsic value. Also no one imagines people would be motivated not to go after high paying jobs if offered adequate out-of-work support.

Who will do the awful work if they aren’t frightened into it by the greater horrors of abject poverty? Who will tolerate the ten and twelve hour shifts at minimum wage if the alternative isn’t worse? How do we make people accept tedious, dead end work where they will be treated with contempt? How do we make it attractive to be in physical pain because of the demands of the job? That’s what’s really going on when we suggest that adequate benefits might discourage people from seeking jobs. 

The alternative of course would be to make sure all jobs provide a living wage. We could reconsider shift lengths, and night work and other health-destroying job issues. We could try and reduce commutes and let more people work from home. If work was interesting, nicer, better paid, more rewarding, then being on benefits would be less attractive. But, how are we to extract value for the shareholders if we don’t exploit the workers? How can we maintain the hugely inflated salaries of the management if we don’t keep the cleaners in poverty? 

If we make being out of work as unpleasant and hazardous as possible, there’s every incentive for people to take any job they can get, no matter how awful. If, on the other hand, we assume that people have a right to decent standards of living, and that working yourself to death for a pittance isn’t acceptable, we create a situation in which companies have to make jobs more attractive – better pay, better hours, decent breaks, actual perks. 

A weak welfare state enables exploitation and puts the profits of the few ahead of the needs of the many. Decent welfare support pushes up standards, which in turn will reduce the number of people made ill by work, which is cheaper for the state. What if we stop using our tax money to facilitate exploitation, and use it more compassionately and efficiently to keep people healthier and improve quality of life for everyone? 


Deep Work

This year I’ve radically changed how I work. Apparently there are terms for this! I’ve moved from a life dominated by shallow work, to one dominated by deep work and I’m slowly wrangling with the implications. 

Shallow work doesn’t take a vast amount of mental energy or creativity. I’ve spent many years cranking out social media content for money – which required concentration, but I can’t say was ever satisfying. It’s the kind of work that is never finished, there’s no closure on it, no markable points of achievement.

Deep work involves focus, commitment, and intensity. Over the last few months this has come to dominate my working time as I’m mostly writing and colouring. These are tasks that require a lot of concentration and attention. I’ve always had a good attention span, I can usually focus for an hour or more.

Shallow work was unsatisfying and I did get tired from it, and left feeling that I had no energy for anything more substantial. Even so, I could do far more of it in a day than I can of the deeper stuff. To be in a state of intense focus for three or four hours is about as much as I can do. I have to take more breaks. I have to be much more careful about feeding my brain with things that sustain it. I have to have more rest time. It is much more satisfying work, but it takes a toll.

There are balances to strike, clearly. I’m slowly finding out what I can sustain from day to day, and what I need to do to support myself if I’m working at high levels of intensity. I have to be more alert to body wellness, to food, to hydration, and the overall shape of my working week. I have to watch for my limits, because I can end up so tired that I can’t do anything at all, which means I can’t do anything restorative, which rapidly compromises my ability to show up for the deeper work.

I’ve worked all kinds of jobs along the way – often part time and alongside trying to work creatively. The marketing, social media work required a lot of attention and tracking information, but that’s a very different way of using my brain. When I’m pushing my thinking capacity to its limits in multiple ways in a day, that impacts on my whole life. I feel differently about myself. On the whole, it’s a better way to be, but I can’t model it on the norms of regular employment, office work, retail, front of house or any of the other kinds of stuff I’ve been doing. I can’t work long hours at high levels of intensity, it’s not sustainable. I’m having to rethink my life a bit to try and better accommodate these shifts.

I think my ideal life would involve a few hours of deep work each day, and a few hours of physical work – I have gardening fantasies. I think being able to ground myself in more practical things while my brain does what it does between bouts of more intense thinking, would suit me well. In the meantime, there are craft projects, and the ongoing quest for better balance.


Escaping clock time

Clock time is very much a feature of industrialisation. It goes with shift work, and the need to have workers in the right place at the right time. Regular working life gives us little to no scope for improvisation, flexibility, time off when ill or when needing things. For most of human history, we haven’t had clocks. We’ve had sun time, and operated in small enough communities that organising without clocks has been just fine. It’s notable that industrial towns and cities tend to have clock towers so that people too poor to have their own watches would know the time.

When the schools closed in 2020 for the pandemic, we no longer needed alarm clocks. Both Tom and I are self employed and can work when we choose. With study moving online, James’s start time was a lot later – he’d been getting to school by bicycle and needed to get up early for that. Suddenly we had a lot more flexibility. This was as well because pandemic stress played havoc with my ability to sleep. I slept when I could, and got up when I couldn’t sleep, and paid little attention to the clock.

We’ve stayed that way. James has continued studying from home and is old enough not to need any help with that. He’s also not faced with an early morning bike ride, so does not need a hearty breakfast, so we can leave him to it. In practice I mostly still get up early, but it’s nice not having to.

Last winter was the first winter I can remember of being free to wake with the light. It was lovely, soothing and restorative. I find winter difficult. Not having to get up in the dark helped me emotionally.

It’s also great having the freedom to sleep in a bit if I’ve had a bad night. I take sleep seriously, I go to bed at sensible times, I drink soothing tea, I am mindful of screen use and over stimulation etc. But, sometimes I get hit by insomnia. Sometimes the anxiety gets me, or the depression, or the menopausal weird night events – sometimes all of these things together, which means failing at sleep. The freedom to wake when I do has brought a lot of health benefits and greatly reduced my stress. Insomnia is much worse when you know how many hours you have left when you could sleep and you can see the next day falling apart before you’ve even got to it. The freedom to sleep in changes everything.

I’m not convinced that the way we currently organise our lives is necessary. With increased automation, we aren’t going to need people in factories working to clock time. Clearly there are some jobs – medical and emergency especially – where you have to be able to count on other people being there. But what if other work and activities were organised in more flexible ways? What if we had more scope to negotiate, or respond to the situation on the day? It would be a much kinder way of interacting. It would be interesting to see how much work doesn’t really depend on clock time, because my suspicion is that many things could be done more flexibly and much more comfortably than they currently are.