Tag Archives: work

How to create well

One of the unexpected blessings of lockdown has been an opportunity to rethink how I live and work. Not having the lad in school has changed the shape of the day because I don’t have to get up early. I’ve also changed how and when I sleep – something I’ll blog about another day. The result is much greater flexibility, which I’m enjoying.

It’s clear there’s all kinds of upheaval coming for me – which I’m looking forward to. With much of the future uncertain it struck me as a good idea to look at my priorities and preferences. I can’t plan much, but I can be ready to make the best of what comes along.

One of the things that has become obvious is that if I want to work creatively, I have to rethink how I deploy my time. If all of my available energy and concentration in a day goes on paying work, it’s not sustainable. There comes a point where I can’t do any creative work because I’ve run out of resources. This should be blindingly obvious, but the pressure to be productive and economically effective is high, and the things I really need to be doing don’t look productive.

I need time to read for pleasure and also to study. I need time to experiment, mess about, practice and explore without having to worry about creating a viable finished product. I need to spend time doing things that cheer and uplift me and engaging with the people who delight and inspire me. I also need time when I’m not doing anything much with my brain – to daydream and wool gather, to ask what if and why, and wherefore?

I don’t have my best ideas by pushing for them. I have my best ideas by making space for them.

I can be structured and professional about the writing, but it only works for the long haul if I also get enough playtime.

I don’t think this is just a writing issue. I don’t think it’s just a creative industries issue. I think it’s going to be about the same for everyone. No matter what you do, too much focus on productivity will be unproductive in many ways. The space to live and grow is essential. I think it’s ironic that if you want to be the most effective working human being, the odds are that slowing down and not trying to work so much are the keys to success. It takes time to live a life that is inspired. Not having the pressure to succeed and produce is actually really helpful when it comes to success and output.  And even if that wasn’t the case, this is still the better way to live.

I’m now aiming for four or five hours of productive work every day and four or five hours or investment time, plus time spent living.


Putting the heart back into my creative process

One of the things that trying to work as a creative professional can do to you, is knock the joy out of the creating. When being taken seriously as a creator depends on earning enough, there’s a lot of pressure. How people see you – friends, family, people your life brings you into contact with – often depends on your earning power. The underpaid creative is often taken to be a hobbiest, lazy, incompetent, selfish… it can be a very unhappy experience. So you try to make it pay, to prove that what you do is worth doing.

When did I stop creating for the joy of it? Hard to say as it was a process, not an event. I used to be someone who wrote a lot, but that’s not been true in a while. I’ve struggled to be creative. Starting a patreon account a few years ago helped a lot, in no small part because of that economic component – if I was writing for people who were willing to pay me to write, that made it ok. Not irresponsible self indulgence. Not a failure to take care of my family and household.

As lockdown started, I realised I needed something to work on that would help me stay functional. There’s little point trying to be seriously economically active at the moment and that’s been liberating. So I’m writing a series called Wherefore – it’s a bit like a soap opera in that there’s no grand plan or over-arching structure. It’s on my youtube channel – https://www.youtube.com/nimuebrown I’m just doing it because I want to. It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything on those terms.

I have a collaborator in this – Bob Fry, who is also in my mumming side, and has a truly unusual mind. He’s been giving me prompts and ideas, and I started writing primarily for him. As it has gone along and other people have responded, I’ve started writing with them in mind as well, and so it is made out of love and the desire to entertain people who like what I do – and this is going well. For the first time in many years, I want to write for the pleasure of creating and sharing. Working with other people and having other people to create for is key for me. I don’t do this well as a solitary process.

Much of my difficulty stems from wider issues in the creative industries as a whole. Most creative people cannot make a living from their work. The question has always been about how to respond to that. Should I dig in and try harder to be ‘professional’ and economically viable? Or should I try and muddle along economically and create what I feel moved to create? I’m moving towards the second position. As a household, we are viable financially, and that will do. I need to put the heart back into my work. I need to create for the love of it, and for the love of the people out there who enjoy what I make. The worth of creating is something I need to measure in the joy it brings, not what I’m paid for it.

If lockdown has taught us anything, it should be that the value of the work people do, and what they get paid for it, are wholly unrelated issues. It’s true of the frontline essential workers, and it’s just as true of the creative folk who are keeping everyone amused and comforted – often just by giving work away. What we pay for, and what we need are two separate issues in our strangely structured society. I don’t have to keep on measuring my worth as a creator in terms of what anyone is willing to pay me. I can measure it in terms of what it does, and if I can delight a few people, that’s time well spent.


How to shape a life

Everything is strange right now, and I have changed how I order my days to try and help me cope with this. I’m someone who has mostly worked from home, so there’s less adaptation there for me than for some people.

It became obvious to me a few weeks ago when the coronavirus crisis got going that my concentration was suffering. I’ve been giving myself more time for everything. Alongside this I find I want to be online more because this is where I connect with people. So, I no longer take weekends off. I’m working a bit every day, and find the structure helps. I don’t have to do that much on any given day, but a feeling of keeping moving is proving useful.

I’m getting up with the light. I’m not sleeping well and am now reliably up at least once in the night. This is a new normal I am struggling with, and I need to nap more. I think this is adrenaline and panic acting on my body, I don’t quite feel able to stop. Things to work on.

Who is around when online is starting to inform the shape of my day, as well. Times set aside for phone calls.

I am tired with my whole being. But, getting something done, something a bit like normal life is helping me cope. It anchors me. This blog is a fine case in point. I show up, I do the things, I feel a bit more like myself.

I’m also finding that same accountability really helpful around writing – there are a few people I know are following Wherefore and being amused by it, and that’s a reason to pick up a pen and try to keep something moving. However small. It’s also a reason to brush my hair and try and put on a presentable face for a little while. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2iAnLZ1JJzOfltGrnS0P8Q

I dislike the thought forms floating around the internet that we should all be using this time to become super-fit, create epic art, become a world class chef, compose music, write novels, learn languages, etc etc. It’s hard enough getting out of bed in the morning. It’s hard enough getting through the day with sanity a bit in tact. If creating is part of how you cope – dig in. But that’s the only reason to do it. These are difficult days, and no one should feel obliged to turn this apocalypse scenario into some kind of work of genius. If you can wash occasionally, eat passably and not become an alcoholic, that’s more than enough. And if you can’t, if you’re not keeping up with the basics or your survival tactics are complicated – no shame. It’s what you’ve got. It’s the best you can do with what’s going on right now, and if that gets you to the far side of all this, then all power to you.


Money and philosophy

There would be a simple way to have all non-essential workers stay home without over-burdening the companies they work for. That same method would enable self employed workers to stay home, too. It would make it reasonable to ask for rent holidays. It would put money into the economy where it would do most good. Small business people would have a chance to re-boot in the future. That solution, is universal basic income. Giving everyone a viable amount to live on is also the least bureaucratic way, and thus the quickest, of rolling out an intervention.

However, giving people money in this way challenges the capitalist philosophy of what money means. We are used to measuring human worth by income. Those who earn most are considered to be worth most. We are encouraged to look up to them respect them, see them as valuable. At the same time we’ve called low paid people unskilled and considered them as having little value. If you pay everyone the same, it’s like we’re all worth the same as human beings. It’s a radical shift in thinking.

As the virus impacts on us, we’ve gone from seeing many low paid jobs as low worth, to recognising that these people are the heart of our infrastructure and the backbone of our societies. Money, it turns out, was not a good measure of the value of people working in supply chains and retail, bin collectors, cleaners, carers… their worth to the rest of us is far higher than their paychecks suggest.

As isolation kicks in, we may be more in need of our entertainers and creators. Especially the ones willing to interact with us, teach us and support people in being creative to stay sane. In their absence, we might notice the things that were valuable to us – venues, gigs, events, festivals… Most of the people working in these industries are not wealthy.

What do we deserve? What resources should we have access to? When the not-so-free market dominates, our scope to access everything is based mostly on our buying power. Our buying power is based on what our work is worth to the market, not what it is worth to other humans. Unpaid domestic work is totally undervalued, but right now, people cleaning things are keeping their families safe and well. Such work has always been valuable, but the value has been invisible.

What if we deserve to have our basic needs met because we exist, not because a specific level of profit can be extracted from our labours? What if the people who make money out of money while doing no one any good are not entitled to more benefits than most other people? What if we deemed making profit by exploiting others to be a disgusting activity, not one that should bring benefits? What if worth was measured in terms of actual worth, not earning potential? Meanwhile, the massively affluent ditch their workers with no pay and demand government bailouts.

Universal basic income gives everyone the same fundamental worth and the same basic entitlement to have needs met. Practically speaking it could be a magic bullet for solving a great many of our problems right now. Philosophically speaking, it would radically change our cultures for the better.


How we think about work

How we think about work may be more informed by what we get paid for it than by how useful it is. Unpaid carers are routinely undervalued. Unpaid domestic work is unvalued. We tend to take going out to work more seriously than staying at home to work. Friends and family don’t assume they can just pop into your busy office for a cup of tea and a chat when they feel like it. If you are a self employed person and a carer, it can be hard persuading the people around you that you are working.

The way we prioritise paid employment has a great deal to do with the stories we’ve assembled about paid work. It is the basis of how we organise our lives and our countries. It is entirely normal to work for someone else who profits more from your work than you do.

For most of human history, it clearly wasn’t like this. We haven’t always had money. The closer to subsistence you live, the more preposterous the idea of profit seems. We didn’t used to work, we used to exist, survive, struggle, hunt, farm and make the things we needed for daily life. Without the notion of work it is hard to have a notion that some people are so important that they shouldn’t have to work and should be served. When everyone is involved in the effort required to stay alive, the value of what you do is not going to be measured in coins.

Our ideas about work are deeply intertwined with our ideas about human worth. Our money stories distort our sense of what is valuable. It’s worth taking the time to think about what we value and what we pay for and who we think is important. If our views weren’t distorted in this way we might better value the people who raise children and care for the sick and elderly. If we did not put money first, we might have a very different perspective of people who do very little, and get paid a great deal for it.


The ethics of working for free

I do a lot of voluntary work. It can feel like having the abundance to give freely of your time is always going to be the ethical choice, but it isn’t. Here are some things to consider if you’re working for free.

Is this a commercial activity? Should it be the sort of thing that can pay you? If you are able to work unpaid, are you denying someone else the opportunity to earn a living, and are you supporting an enterprise that would just rather not pay people? If it’s commercial but can’t pay, are you propping up something unviable and is that really the best use of your time?

Exposure is not payment, usually. If the company could afford to pay you, they should not be treating you like they are doing you a favour by offering unpaid work. If the company cannot afford to pay you, there is no gain for you in working free for them, it will not turn into a paying gig. It is a different consideration if you are looking at a charity, a social enterprise, or a community project which may not be economically orientated and may well be worth contributing to for the value of its goals.

Are you supporting a culture of unpaid work? Many people end up working unpaid when they don’t want to, and most should not. If you are on salary, your hours may be vague but the pay should be fair. If it is in your contract that you may have to do unpaid overtime in emergencies, that’s what you’ve got, but your overall pay should make that ok. If a company is constantly demanding little extras unpaid, that’s not ok or healthy. The major thing to watch for is this – does unpaid work take anyone below minimum wage payments? If so, the company is breaking the law. If you can comfortably afford not to be paid to work, you might be able to afford to stand up against this sort of thing. People on minimum wage may be too fearful and vulnerable to resist this kind of exploitation.

Fear of losing your job is the thin end of the wedge that has people working unpaid in insecure job situations. For the freelancer, the zero hours contract holder, the casual labourer, job insecurity can mean feeling obliged to say yes to working for free sometimes. The thick end of this wedge, is modern slavery, where people are working unpaid for fear of punishment. Tolerating a culture of unpaid work makes it easier for the extreme end to carry on. If unpaid work is normal it becomes harder to see full blown slavery. And of course there are degrees of exploitation in between that are even harder to identify.

If you can afford to work for free, take the time to ask why you are being asked to work for free. That is a gift of your time that you can give to people who are more vulnerable than you and who may be unable to speak up against exploitation.


Things I’ve learned about the working week

In the last year I have established that I can work a 40-50 hour week. I’ve also established what happens if I do that. I get to the end of my day, and fall into a weary heap on the sofa. I will likely be too tired, too short of concentration to read, or craft, or listen to music or watch a film. Socialising is right out and I’ll have no energy to go out anywhere, walk, or otherwise exercise. I got away with this during the 50 hour weeks only because I had to walk to get to a number of the jobs. All I could do was recover and get up the next day and do it all again.

Weekends taken off at the end of a 50 hour week (not always an option, I worked a fair few weekends during that time frame) were not great either. My scope to do anything fun or enriching was totally undermined by my exhaustion.

If I work a 30-40 hour week, I still need a fair amount of recovery time. I can manage to be sociable a bit, and I might manage to do something for me at the weekend. It is more viable. If I work more like 30 hours a week I am fine, I can have a life and do other things.

If you’re on minimum wage, (which for young people is very little money) the hours you have to work are considerable, just to get by.

One of the things I notice when I’m in the long hours and exhaustion mode, is that I come to feel defined by it. I’m just a person who works. I’m not someone who is supposed to have fun things, or who deserves anything emotionally sustaining, or enriching. In my time off I am so useless that there’s no reason for good things to move towards me.

It doesn’t help that the work I do requires a lot of concentration and thinking. To get it done in a reasonable time frame – and thus, as a freelancer, for a decent pay rate – I really have to focus. The more tired I am, the harder it is to keep focusing so in the 40-50 hour weeks I am less efficient.  If I’m working in a way that leaves me exhausted and I’m not getting enough time to recover, my efficiency levels fall, so I have to work longer for less per hour.

There’s a lot of pressure on self employed people to work all the hours we can, for fear that if we don’t, the work will dry up. Creative jobs are woefully underpaid, it’s an industry-wide issue impacting on everyone who isn’t a household name. This too creates a pressure to work more in the hopes of making some progress. Grinding poverty will make you feel like a failure, and feeling like a failure will undermine any scope you had for creativity.

There’s a further complication in that creative work requires time to study, practice, explore, experiment, imagine and gather inspiration. This is not time anyone pays you for, and if you’re already worn from the day job, that investment time can push you over the edge – wherever your edge turns out to be. This is a thing to bear in mind if you’re considering supporting someone on ko-fi or patreaon – you’re buying them the space and time to start the process, and that makes worlds of difference.

My patreon is over here – https://www.patreon.com/NimueB . It helps me take some time each week for learning, thinking and imagining. I know that to really invest in the creative side of my life I need a lot of things I can’t currently afford – more time off to make some headspace, a dedicated space to work in, and to have the energy and concentration to invest in developing projects. I’m aware that I might never be able to afford the time to really dig in. Most creative people are not doing their best work because we simply can’t afford to.


Self care for the self-employed

This blog is prompted by seeing an author on twitter mention that they’d become unable to write decent sentences and then realised they’d missed lunch and had low blood sugar. It’s all too easy around self-employment to romanticise this sort of thing, treat is as heroic, desirable, necessary. The ten hour days with no breaks. The seven day weeks. The missed meals. It doesn’t make for a good life, and sooner or later it will damage not just your concentration, but also your health – mental and physical.

If you’re doing anything for the long haul, it is vitally important to take good care of yourself. Burnout is not efficient. Being too sick to work is not efficient. If you can’t take care of yourself from a place of feeling worth it, do it because that way you’ll be able to work longer.

You probably know what you should be doing – eating well, moving about, taking breaks from screens, not giving yourself a repetitive strain injury with excessive typing, not getting editor’s bottom from bad seating, not becoming agoraphobic through long term inability to go outside… those things and all the other things like them. You probably know. The reasons people fail at self care often have less to do with knowing stuff, and more to do with how we perceive ourselves, our relative value, the value of our work, and the heroism culture around working yourself to death.

The culture of heroically working yourself to death is hard to resist when it seems like everyone else is doing it. If your social media feed is full of people who sound strong, impressive, dedicated and whatnot because they hurt themselves routinely for their art, or their job, it’s hard to push the other way. The comics industry has been really bad for this, with seven hour days, back pain and poor diets treated as normal, and part of what it means to do the job. It shouldn’t be normal, and it shouldn’t be necessary.

Some of this is about pushing for decent hourly rates. Some of this is the politics of poverty and what you end up doing when you’re desperate and afraid. Not all of this can be dealt with at a personal level, but if you can, then do it and speak up. No one should feel obliged to work themselves to death.

If you’re looking for the Pagan angle here – it exists. Over work and overconsumption are intertwined. Poverty and planet-damage are profoundly connected. When we take better care of ourselves we are likely to move in directions that take better care of the planet, too. It’s an issue around diet, especially. No one makes a profit from your time off, and we need to be less obsessed with profit if we’re going to avoid killing ourselves as a species. A gentler life is a more planet friendly life, and self care is a radical act of pushback against exploitative capitalism. Practice self care where you can, and do what you can to enable other people to have that as well.

You can take better care of self employed people by sticking to the terms you agreed, not shifting the goalposts mid project, not demanding freebie extras or creating more work because you didn’t explain things properly in the first place. You can take better care of self employed people by paying fairly for what they do. You can respect that people need time off and not send them queries out of hours and expect instant responses, and so on, and so forth.


Talking about poverty

The stories in western cultures go that wealth is deserved and poverty is the consequence of laziness or other failings. This makes it difficult to talk about experiences of being poor, because there’s always the fear of being judged, blamed and thought less of. This in turn makes it harder to challenge those dominant narratives about what wealth and poverty mean.

In practice, your best chance at being rich is to be born into a wealthy family. It’s not actually about personal excellence, skill or merit for the greater part. It is the accident of your birth. There are of course exceptions, but on the whole, wealth begets wealth.

If you are born into poverty, you may be clever enough and skilled enough to work your way out – people do. But, not everyone does. We have many studies from psychology that demonstrate what happens to rats growing up in impoverished environments and with poor diets. None of it bodes well for your average rat, or, by reasonable extension, your average human. Exceptional people can thrive regardless of where they start from, but a system that requires everyone poor to be exceptional clearly isn’t fair or reasonable.

Most households are only one serious problem away from disaster. A sudden job loss, a serious illness, a bereavement, the failing of a key bit of kit… and from there, debt, and difficulty and spiralling into increasing trouble from which it is every harder to break out. Poverty is often a consequence of sheer bad luck. However, if we blame people for their poverty and misery, those of us who are doing ok can hang on to the belief that our virtues keep us safe. We can pretend it won’t happen to us… right up until it does.

People who have never experienced poverty can have some funny ideas both about how it works, and who is afflicted by it. I’ve been in too many conversations about the undeserving poor, the feckless, careless, doing it to themselves, should try harder, shouldn’t have had so many children… Words from comfortable people who may not even be aware of how they are inclined to blame the poor for poverty. And yes, of course some poor people make bad choices – people at any income level do that. We judge the person with a million pounds of debt far differently from how we judge the person who doesn’t have a tenner for food this week.

I’ve experienced poverty. I’ve managed to keep afloat – which I think was a mix of luck, judgement and discipline. I’ve had those days when I wished I could get so drunk that I no longer felt anything. I know why people might do less than responsible things to try and escape from the misery of their own lives – if only for a while. Grinding misery does not facilitate the best short term thinking.

The Haves get their stories about poverty – for the greater part – from the media and from others who have plenty. We won’t get a cultural shift without those who have enough better understanding how poverty works. So I keep trying to talk about it. I keep asking people if they have ever had to choose between heating and eating, and what they imagine that might be like. I will challenge assumptions about all the luxuries the Haves are convinced the Have Nots are able to get with universal credit. I’ll keep talking about the shopping implications of poverty, and the stress and mental health implications. I hope by doing so I will also make it a bit easier for other people to tell their stories.

A great deal of poverty is invisible, because the stigma attached to it makes it much more appealing to hide the problem and pretend you are ok. Can you tell if the person you are looking at has been able to afford decent food this week? You can’t. Do you know whose debts have spiralled out of control? Who is selling their stuff on ebay to pay the electric bill? Of course not. And if you treat poverty as the deserved consequence of personal failure, who is going to tell you otherwise?


Time off – some observations

I took last week off – sort of. I still wrote a few blog posts and checked my email most days, but compared to a normal working week it was minimal stuff. I used the time to look after my home a bit, to read, craft, walk, and rest.

By Friday of my week off, I was starting to feel a bit better. That told me a lot about how exhausted I’d been. I need to make some ongoing changes around rest and time off, clearly. Once I reached this point it was also noticeable that the anxious aspects of my thinking had toned down significantly. I would like to spend more of my time not so close to the edge, so this is something to explore.

I’ve spent some time thinking about what uplifts and restores me, and how to do more of that.

I’m going to keep notes on how long I’m working each day, so I can cap the length of my working week. There are some hazy areas around working and not working for me. Is rehearsing a mumming side work? Is doing technical support for a friend part of my work time? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not going to get bogged down in the details because the self employed life is sprinkled with speculative stuff that never turns into paying gigs, and fun things that turn out to be research. I can’t read a book without learning something, but that doesn’t necessarily make it work…

I want to be able to work a solid eight hours a day when my brain is sharp and fast. I want to have the rest of the day off to do domestic things and potter about. I know if I slide into longer days I become slower and get less done for the time put in. Creativity is dependent on having time when I’m not busily thinking about workish things –I’ve not been getting this balance right. I’m hoping this time off will have given me a reboot and that I’ll be able to change some of my working patterns.

And if it hasn’t been a successful reboot, I’m simply going to do it again!