The problem with work

I’ve been working on and off in the same government department for the past ten years. Like most of my career moves, this was completely unintentional. I started doing a short contract and as tends to happen, if you do a reasonably good job you get asked to do another one, then another, and before I knew it, five years had gone by and I was applying for a permanent position, which I got.

However, after about a year or two in that position, I had a midlife crisis. It had been building for some time so in truth it was more of a midlife chronic. I was very, very tired and very, very worn out. Burnt out, one might say. I decided I needed to get out, get away, do something else, follow my passion, live my dreams yadda yadda. I left, and felt an immense sense of relief for a few months, got some interesting short term contracts to keep me solvent, and tried to get my health back on track.

Fast forward a few years and I am back in the same department, and have just accepted a permanent position (not the same one as before).

There are two conclusions I could draw at this point:

  1. I have learnt nothing and I am clinically insane because I am doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome
  2. Something has changed and the situation really is different this time

I am going to go with number 2. Two things happened to justify this.

In the past week, I read some interesting blog posts (and would like to read the book) written by Cal Newport on the idea of Deep Work. Briefly, deep work is work that we get immersed in, and where we bring our full weight of talents and thinking to bear on difficult problems that matter (to us, to our employer). Shallow work by contrast is about 95% of what typically occupies us – email, meetings, expense reports etc, the things that prevent us from being fired but don’t actually produce anything of value.

A light bulb went on in my head. The thing I’d found so frustrating about work previously was the lack of opportunities for Deep Work. I tracked my time for a period and discovered I was being interrupted on average every 7 minutes, and that almost all my work was reactive. Yet my sense of satisfaction at work comes from engagement with Deep Work, from feeling like I have not only delivered good work but that the process that generated it was sound and deep and well considered. Instead, most of the time I was flying by the seat of my pants.

The second was having a conversation with my soon-to-be-manager about how our team was going to work. It’s a new team and we have to be somewhat self-defining because although our Big Boss has a vision in his head of what is needed, it is up to us to flesh this out and make it real and useful. In conversation with her, we talked about our preferred styles of working and we learned that what brings us satisfaction is what Newport would classify as Deep Work, and conversely our greatest frustration with work currently is the inability to get to the deep work because we are bombarded with Shallow Work demands.

This led to a very interesting conversation about how we might set up our team’s calendars, expectations of availability, and metrics for what we spend our time on based on a very different measure of what matters. Essentially, we need to be spending a good chunk of our time on Deep Work, so we need to figure out how to set up our routines and practices to ensure this happens. This will mean managing our Big Boss’ and everyone else’s expectations, and sending the requests for fire-fighters elsewhere.

This conversation dovetailed so neatly with the earlier reading that I couldn’t help but take it as a positive sign. The fact that she and I are on the same page in terms of what makes us most productive and effective in our jobs means that it’s not just me fighting to carve out the space we need to do our best work.

It remains to be seen how we do this. It’s not going to be easy, not least because old habits die hard. But it is a huge leap forward that for the first time I have a manager who both understands and supports this work style need; and that I’ve figured out it’s not the work that burnt me out but the lack of Deep Work.





Being okay with being alone

Getting to the point of feeling okay about being alone seems to take a while. Mostly I blame other people for this: it wouldn’t be an issue if they didn’t make it one by pointing out that I am alone and asking why this is. I don’t think I’ve ever had the nerve to ask a married person why they are married, although sometimes I do wonder, and wonder even more how they stay married.

But I digress. For probably 23.9 hours out of the day, I don’t think about being alone and it certainly doesn’t bother me. For the other 0.1h I think about it either because someone brings it up, or because I am struck with a mild case of panic as I wonder “is it okay that I feel okay about this?”

The most difficult part about coming to terms with being alone has been accepting that it is perfectly okay to want to live how I want to live. I’m not naturally a rebel, or someone who is happy to dance to the beat of her own drum playing Gregorian chant when everyone else is moving to hip-hop or whatever the kids are into these days. Being different has never felt comfortable for me. I am a fitter-inner, which is to say, someone who tries to fit in. Choosing to be alone is not a statement of grand independence nor a trendy lifestyle statement, nor is it ‘putting on a brave face’. It’s just what suits me. I feel comfortable when I am alone.

But I have to constantly remind myself that this is okay, that I am allowed to do what makes me comfortable even if it makes other people uncomfortable.


Setting goals for the year

For a while there I wasn’t really in a frame of mind to think about goals for the coming year. I’m still intending to do the Groundhog Day system so come 2/2 I will be ready for my first review. But what to review?

I worked through an exercise that started with reviewing what I did in 2015 and how I felt about it. I concluded that last year sucked. I summed it up with “tired, aimless, uneventful”. That last isn’t strictly true because it had its share of events (my sister’s death, for example) but overall the major impression it left me with was that not a lot that was good or joyful happened.

Surprisingly, realising this put me in a good mood, probably because the year is over and behind me. So I started to think about what I’d like to do this year. I came up with:

  • Take a trip to Norway & Iceland, and one to Australia (maybe Sydney this time)
  • Get my wardrobe/style sorted – dress in a way that feels most like me
  • Eat healthy meals [I’ve been cooking from A Modern Way to Cook by Anna Jones and it’s delicious]
  • Get back into running and back up to 10K [this depends a lot on the state of my knee and on the RA, but so far it’s looking possible, I’m up to 4K]
  • Find my professional niche

This last is the one I struggle most with. The others I feel like I already have in hand at least as far as having a plan of attack goes. But the work one is trickier.

I have just got a new job and will start sometime in the next month or so.  I have an opportunity to make it into something I really want because it’s quite open ended in its definition. This is more or less a dream job situation, except I don’t know what my dream job looks like and how it might work. So this is what I need to focus on, figuring out what I’d like the job to be and where I’d like to take it.

This is a first world problem, no doubt about it.

My bump-and-go social life

I was thinking the other day about the pros and cons of online shopping. I’m a fan overall, and particularly of the grocery shopping type. 

But it did occur to me there is a quite significant con to online grocery shopping, particularly for a borderline recluse like me. 

Bumping into people at the supermarket has for many years provided me with a near-ideal form of social interaction with  “fringe” acquaintances. By these, I mean people who I knew at some point in my life but who I wouldn’t call up for coffee and probably couldn’t find enough to talk about for the duration of a latte. 

I say the ‘supermarket bump-and-go’ is near ideal because it can last as long as it needs to and there is an easy exit from the interaction when we run out of things to talk about. And it focuses on exchange of information about the daily doings of our lives without going into major detail. It’s very efficient in that way. 

Not that efficiency is my main criterion for catching up with people. Actually, my priority is to avoid awkwardness and discomfort for both parties. Hence the short catch up is so good because it can be terminated if things start getting stilted. 

It may occur to you that my focus on minimising awkwardness and discomfort is missing the point of what friendships are about. It certainly occurred to me as I was thinking about this. 

What I find draining about social interactions is thinking up things to talk about. Keeping the conversation going. With good friends this is a non issue. That’s one reason they end up in the good friend bucket. 

But for almost all other interactions I have a fear of being unable to keep up my end of the conversation, and that this will lead to awkward silences. I will listen quite happily to extroverts talk about themselves. My usual strategy is to ask questions and follow-up questions, hopefully without turning it into an interrogation. Most times this makes for a very interesting conversation (for me, at least). But if I’m not up to it, if I’m tired, or I’m having to make a real effort to be interested, I find myself sinking into silence and the conversation dries up around me. Awkward. 

This is where the supermarket bump-and-go comes into its own. Standing there with my trolley full of perishables, it is the most reasonable thing in the world to gracefully end the encounter by indicating the need to finish shopping. Since it’s what we’re both there for, it’s a mutually agreeable exit strategy. 

The bump-and-go might just be reason enough not to do my grocery shopping on line. My social life will likely dry up altogether if I never leave the house. 

And so we begin again…

My birthday was fine in the end. I went shopping because I needed new clothes, and I was successful in finding things, so I called that a win. I treated myself to lunch out and had a delicious salad (pear, witloof, melon, bocconcini) that perked me right up after a couple of hours traipsing round carrying bags. And I spent it alone, which I didn’t mind in the slightest.

I was pondering the idea of a new year and wondered why we don’t treat our birthdays the way we treat New Year, i.e. by making resolutions or plans or setting goals for the coming year. Not that it would make much difference in my case as they’re more or less at the same time. But the start of the new calendar year is a strangely arbitrary date for making massive promises about our behaviour over the upcoming year, particularly since most people seem to spend the evening prior getting themselves into precisely the state they vow not to be in for the rest of the year. I suppose the personal new year date is no less arbitrary, although we do measure our lives in years so the turning over into a new one should be more personally significant to the direction of our lives than the calendar year. You’d think.

I’m not very good at New Year’s resolutions. Instead, for some years, although not consistently, I have done a Groundhog Day review. This doesn’t take place on whatever day it is in February that Punxsutawney Phil is wrested from his burrow. The idea comes from a designer called Dave Seah who proposed that on the day/month combination that matches (2/2, 3/3, 4/4… 12/12) you review your previous month’s progress and determine where you want to be by the time the next review rolls around.

The dates are arbitrary of course, but easy to remember. The first one, 1/1, can be ignored and you can party instead knowing you’ve got your year’s planning already planned.

The beauty of this system over the traditional New Year’s resolution is that it’s a monthly recurring review rather than just a one off. That means that the resolutions can be more realistic (because you’re thinking about what you can do in a month rather than a year, which is a whole year away…). And because of the review, you’re more likely to stick with them and actually achieve them.

Which brings me to the question, what resolutions or plans do I have for the coming year? I’ve been trying to think about it, but truthfully, I don’t have the energy or enthusiasm for it. Resolutions are about hope, possibility, intention, and I lack all three at the moment.

This is another reason to like the Groundhog Day review. I don’t need to worry about 1/1, because 2/2 will come along, and if I’m still not ready, there’s 3/3. And so on. Eventually I’ll come out of this fog and decide where to next.