What about when work *is* balance?

I keep running into a common story about work-life balance. It’s a story about how ‘no one wishes they’d spent more time at the office,’ and ‘it’s not the most important thing’ and ‘I wanted to spend more time with family’ or ‘on the things that really matter.’ To go along with these stories, there are lots and lots of internet articles about how you should never check email before going to bed, or right when you wake up. You should let family time be family time, turn off the phone or turn on airplane mode, be present with your loved ones. Leave work at work. Also, you should meditate, and exercise, and eat healthily.

That’s common sense. That’s what we should all be doing, should all aspire to.

Right?

Right?

Shouldn’t we?

Family and life are more important than work. Work should be neatly boxed up, set aside.

Shouldn’t it?

I’ve pretty much believed that for my whole career, which is (wtf?!) a sizeable number of years at this point. Early on I worked hourly jobs, and that meant I had a baked-in mindset of either being ‘on’ for work or ‘off,’ rarely or ever in-between. I don’t generally work nights or weekends; I rarely checked work email in my off hours.

Then last year happened.

Last year was tough. It was tough on the family side and tough on the life side. Nothing went the way I planned. Bad stuff happened (and is still happening). I didn’t know – I still don’t know – what to do about most of it. I don’t know what will happen next, or where things will go. Some number of things will probably not end up in any way I think is OK. I’m not OK with how things are going, and I’m doing my best to turn them, but that’s hard, and in some cases just not possible. It’s exhausting, and it’s miserable, and I don’t want to be doing any of it. I am hanging on, but it’s not comfortable or fun, and it takes effort.

And none of that – not one single thing – has to do with work.

Work, in contrast to everything else, has been pretty much entirely lovely. I like my team. I like my job. It’s interesting stuff, I’m competent or good at it, it’s pretty much squarely lined up in the area of work I like best, where I think it’s important and I have some ideas but I don’t actually know how to do it yet – and I like the people I work with. I have solid professional support of various kinds and a network that I enjoy working with and I am actively looking forward to the next several months.

In other words, work is a real bright spot right now.

During one of the toughest weeks I’ve had, I started checking my work email right when I woke up, before I got out of bed. At first I felt bad about doing this – I should have work-life balance! – and then I realized that after checking my work email, I felt better. Calmer. Happier. More myself. Work email was a reminder that life wasn’t just the pile of rotten I was currently dealing with. Work email was a reminder that I was something other than the person dealing with that pile. Work email was a moment to slip into my other role, into the effort I wanted to be doing, into the person I like being, before taking a big deep breath and, strengthened, diving back into the rest of my life.

When the rest of my life was really tough, work was my lifeline.

I don’t quite know why I’m writing this. Things are so tough in California right now for so many people that I think I’ve been thinking a lot about how fortunate I am – and I want to express gratitude to the universe for that. I am fortunate to like my work. I am fortunate to like the people I work with. I am fortunate to like & get along with my family.

I am fortunate that when things are tough for me, I have this mental refuge to turn back to.

I know that many people don’t have that. I’m grateful.

And I’d like to remember and remind myself that common stories, even if they are often reasonable guideposts for life, may also be totally off-base for specific situations.

That’s all.

One week different

For the past week I’ve done almost everything differently. I haven’t been online. I haven’t gone to work. I haven’t cooked dinner. I haven’t seen friends. I haven’t worked in the garden. I expected to go to New York, but didn’t. I’ve driven out to the beach twice in the afternoon, and once to the nearby Japanese garden. I’ve read two books, one on paper and another on my ereader. I’ve gone to four doctor appointments. I’ve taken half a dozen naps. I haven’t checked the news.

One of the books I read was Reader, Come Home, by Maryanne Wolf. I picked it up on a whim at a bookstore in the beach town I’d driven out to. Reader offered the only accurate description I’ve ever come across of how it feels to me to really read, deeply, all-in, surroundingly. I used to say that good reading wasn’t about seeing or thinking individual words; I was there, watching, present. The description the author gave in this book was the first and only thing I’ve read that made me think someone else would know exactly what I meant by that.

So that pulled me in. And I had time: not a lot of mental energy, true, but time. I’d set my email autoreply to indicate that I wouldn’t be answering email. I’d declined meetings. It seemed pointless to check much of anything online, and since the whole point of the week was recuperating, there was nothing much else I was trying to do. I read the book. I read it on paper, page by page, and because the author had me hooked with that description, I trusted what else she might have to say: after all, this is a person who gets it.

Summary: we read differently when we read to skim, to summarize, to hunt for information than when we read deeply. We read differently on a screen than we do on paper. We read differently when we read in volume rather than when we read to read. These differences aren’t subjective or maybe; they’re measurable and visible in everything from brain scans to how we move our eyes across text.

Maybe because this was a week of different, maybe because I was primed to pay attention, maybe because I’ve felt my own reading brain slipping, the ideas in the book hit home. I tried what Wolf said she’d tried: focused, forced attention. I read and re-read until I got it. I fought my way through long sentences without letting nuance slip past (I found a couple of places I think Wolf’s editor could have improved things, but that’s meaningful too). A couple of chapters were less personally meaningful to me than others, but I read them deeply anyway. I held internal arguments with myself about what might be missing: this is a recipe for reading more deeply as taught to children, but what about the rest of us? are we sure that children are more distractable than adults? how do we handle the volume of things we might read, or feel we’re expected to read, professionally or personally? if one reasonable goal is a bilateral approach to reading modes, when does truly lightweight skimming make sense? (And as I write this, I remember: being taught to skim, as a skill, sometime in middle school. There’s a certain irony to that, but maybe also a certain hope: can we learn to choose how we read? And I remember my mother telling me about how her reading changed in law school, and how it changed again after that.)

As the week went on, I started experimenting more specifically. I aimed for less rapidity, fewer things, and more depth. I aimed for stillness, for letting my mind do nothing much at all. I checked email less often, and when I did, I wrote back to the friends who’d sent messages asking if I were okay. I uninstalled a couple of apps from my phone. In the doctor’s office while waiting for the optometrist to come in, I simply sat.

I’ve also been reading Gould’s Book of Fish, by Richard Flanagan, on my ereader, and up to about three quarters of the way through I hadn’t really seen the point of it. It’s violent and gruesome and yes the early penal colony days in Australia were awful, but. I haven’t been able to see it, to see the story in the book the way I sometimes (and in the past, nearly always) see the stories in books.

Then sometime around Thursday evening, a switch flipped, and I was there. Twopenny Sal was dancing around a fire, ochre painted on her face, shadows leaping too against the night sky – and that image is as vivid as anything I can imagine. I finished reading Book of Fish this morning, and everything through to the end – I was there. (It’s still never going to be my favorite book, but that’s fine, and a different story.)

Last night I picked up The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth. I’d gone to see Kingsnorth give a talk, a few months back, and the whole idea of this book just pulls me in. The surreality of it; the slip into a new language; the sense of a landscape I both know and don’t. Every few months I’ve picked it up and thought, is this what I’m going to read next? and every few months I’ve put it back on the shelf.

This time, I took it down to the couch and dove in. It’s beautiful and misty and wonderful and even in this, my week of how-is-it-possible-to-feel-this-tired, the scenes and the place and the people are clear. I am so glad I waited to read it.

So where does all this leave me?

Somewhere around Thursday or Friday, my brain started feeling more clear.

Somewhere around Thursday or Friday, I started feeling like I could think again, in a way I haven’t felt like I could think in quite some time.

I don’t quite know what’s next, but I am unwilling to give this up. I’m planning a few things to keep it going: less lightweight information, and if that means I use the gaps between things for exactly nothing specific, that’s fine; more breaks between meetings; more paper, both for thinking through projects and for reading; fewer apps; less checking the news; more one thing at a time; more choosiness and more depth in reading. If this forces me to do fewer things overall – okay. It feels like a really good trade.

It also feels like the best side effect I can imagine of coming down with shingles. A year from now, I think and hope this is what I’ll remember when I look back at this time.

Momentum

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about momentum. The momentum of people, of places. Of attitudes. Of projects. Of things done, and not done, and planned, and not planned. Of happiness and sadness and satisfaction and even stock markets.

I don’t think we give enough credit to momentum.

Think about it: why is the market up (assuming it is, by the time I finish writing and post this)? At some fundamental level, it’s up because a lot of people decided to be optimistic. And those people’s optimism fueled other people’s sense that they should get in before it’s too late, and that in turn drives the market up, and that fuels more momentum upwards …

… until somebody gets nervous, and then a group of people get nervous, and the momentum begins to turn, and the market shifts downward, prompting pessimism and a sense that it’s time to get out, and …

… momentum.

But the thing is, I think momentum applies at a personal level too. Think about what it takes to start a project. The initial idea is easy, right? Maybe the initial plan is even easy too. Then there’s the setup, and that’s when things get tough. The initial doing of whatever it is, whether it’s buying a house or finding a new job or starting a new project or getting into exercise, is often incredibly difficult. It’s easy to think that that difficulty comes because these things are new, or because they are inherently challenging activities, but I think there’s another factor involved – and that’s the momentum of whatever we were doing before. After all, you weren’t just sitting around in a state of limbo doing nothing. You were doing something before you decided to pick up this new thing, or found a reason or a need to change your path. And whatever that existing something is, it has a momentum to it. To get the new thing going, you have to displace the momentum of what you were already doing. You’re essentially climbing up a big rock while also trying to shove another big rock out of your way. No wonder it’s tough.

I wonder about momentum in the context of a lot of the current political and otherwise painful and/or challenging situations going on in our modern US world right now. Political anger. Shootings. Trade wars. Income inequality. Fear in all its flavors. The potential for huge and overwhelming distraction caused by all of the above. What if we’re on the downhill slope of pain and angst, where it all just keeps accelerating?

(Then I take a deep breath, take a bite of this delicious brownie I’m eating and a sip of my coffee, and set that line of thinking aside, and go back to projects. Because projects are a thing I can do. And as one of my favorite quotes says: “A better goddamn zoo is still a better goddamn zoo.” I don’t remember what that’s from, but. Words to live by. Anyway.)

So. Momentum and projects. Or to make it a little broader, momentum and doing new things.

Right now I’ve got a bunch of projects:

  1. remodel house
  2. a bunch of work stuff
  3. that whole writing thing (essays)
  4. that whole writing thing (poetry)
  5. personally hand-landscape the backyard, because fun! and do I want to grow eggplants this year? maybe?
  6. various things about family
  7. clean up the giant stack of mail in the kitchen that I’ve been ignoring for… a month? six weeks? gaaah.
  8. something about seeing some friends sometime
  9. wouldn’t it be fun to travel somewhere?
  10. I would like to weigh 8 pounds less, and also be able to do pushups

Within some of those categories are still more projects. At work, for example, I work on about four different areas of stuff, with a fluctuating number of projects within that. Same thing for family.

So this is a lot of stuff. Okay. It’s all stuff I signed up for and all stuff I want to be doing at some level or other. The question is, how do I actually do it?

I thought for a while that this was a willpower problem, or a doing things faster problem, or a priorities problem, or a scheduling problem. And that’s all kind of true – there are only so many hours in a day, multitasking is a myth, etc etc. But there’s something else in play too.

The single biggest predictor of whether I do something is whether I recently did it.

For example, on the house remodel, we needed to hire a structural engineer (long story). And I find hiring people super stressful – I have trouble even imagining anything more stressful than hiring someone. So I am inclined to procrastinate. I procrastinate looking for a list of people to call. Then I procrastinate calling them. If they call back, I may even procrastinate answering the phone. I certainly procrastinate replying to any emails they may send. And making the actual decision?! Awful.

But. At some point, I decided that the only thing I was going to do other than work was try to hire a structural engineer. I was off the hook for everything else. I just needed to do this one thing.

This seems like it’s all about prioritization, and yes, that’s part of it. But the side effect of the decision was that I wound up doing something about hiring a structural engineer every single day. The first day was horrible. The next day, still horrible, but at least I knew what I was in for. The third day, I was still dreading it, but less.

By the end of the week… routine. Within another week, I’d hired someone. She’s great. And she wrote me an email yesterday, and I actually answered it today. I waited that long only because I wanted to time to read it carefully, because the engineer we hired is a person who writes relevant and useful emails that merit close reading. But I didn’t procrastinate as such.

I got momentum on my side.

On the other hand, this morning I went to yoga class, for the first time in about a month. I almost didn’t go. Arguably the only reason I did go is that my husband assumed I wanted to. (The power of positive peer pressure.) Having gone this week, however, I am confident it will be easier to go again next week. The memory of enjoying yoga class is fresher in my mind; the sense that putting clean clothes in a gym bag is really not that much effort is also fresh in my mind. I have a sense of what it’s like to start my day with a yoga class. And that momentum ups the odds for next week.

This evening, I’m writing. It’s been a week; it was hard to get myself to start.

I am still thinking about what else this means, for my work, and for everything else I’m doing.

Tomorrow… who knows?