Taking a break

This weekend I took a break from social media. You could call it a twitter and blogging detox. Since becoming self-employed, twitter’s been my social playground. I’ve had so many fun conversations and even made friends through it.

But, and here’s the big but. I was starting to develop the early signs of an addict. The same symptoms when I don’t have my morning coffee within 30 minutes of waking. I recognise the same impatient twitching and pointless hyperactivity. In the case of my social media -holism, it’s checking blog stats far too regularly, scouring my twitter timeline for chit-chat, and checking my email inbox every 30 minutes.

It’s distracting, disrupting and, finally, destructive. My work was suffering, and I felt that I wasn’t doing any one thing particularly well. So this weekend, I forced myself to detox. The detox was actually part of a bigger picture – I was feeling ground down, unable to focus and running on empty.

If you feel a little like that, then I suggest you watch this talk by Tony Schwartz.

Reminder to self: It’s not a marathon. Always give yourself time to renew and replenish.

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My personal MOT

It’s been six months since I decided to set up my own business – with two other partners – and to go into freelance writing. Last week, thanks to a cold that would not go away, I found myself reflecting on the months that have passed.

Sickness is a hindrance when you’re self-employed. It hampers progress and interrupts the momentum. Mornings can be difficult when I’m this out of focus. Then I think of this Charles Bukowski quote which helps kick me out of bed,

Sometimes you climb out of bed in the morning and you think, I’m not going to make it, but you laugh inside — remembering all the times you’ve felt that way.

So what have I learned in the last six months? That working for yourself requires a different rhythm to being an employee. As it turned out, I discovered in the first month, I did not have a rhythm at all. All my life I have worked in offices. Used to the daily pattern of the 6.30am alarm, the rush through the morning routine: family breakfast, dress my toddler and out the door at 7.30am sharp in order to be first through the nursery doors the second it opens at 8am. A normal work day ensues, then hurry back to pick up the children for 7pm. It didn’t matter that I was less productive one day and more so the next. Nor did it matter if I took a day off sick. I’d still get paid the same. It’s a routine that can very quickly numb the senses and make one lose touch with oneself.

Over the last few months working on my own, I’ve learned a lot about myself. That I write best in the mornings, that working hard doesn’t mean sitting at your desk for eight hours straight, that when you’re working on something you’re passionate about it won’t feel like work, that work never really stops when you’re doing it for yourself.

According to Lewis Hyde (in his book The Gift), he makes a distinction between work and labour.

Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule. Things get done, but we often have the odd sense that we didn’t do them.

Paul Goodman wrote in a journal once, “I have recently written a few good poems. But I have no feeling that I wrote them.” That is the declaration of a laborer…

What would I rather be: a worker or a labourer? And what about you?

A ‘what if’ story… or maybe not

There were two things I read this week which jumped out at me. Both came from very different sources. One was Moneyweek (issue 577, 24 Feb 2012) and the other was Seth Godin, a famous marketing guru in America.

In Moneyweek, one of its columnists, Simon Caulfield, wrote a piece titled ‘What if this is not a financial crisis?’ Citing Professor Bruce Greenwald of Columbia University, he explained that the terminal decline of manufacturing employment was the reason for the financial crisis.

Caulfield went on to identify the two causes of the manufacturing employment problem. Firstly, that “the value of manufactured goods has held up well. But employment has been decimated”. He likened this to America in the 30s when the agriculture industry was dying. Mechanisation and fertilisers improved productivity but it meant redundant farm workers could not find jobs. Secondly, globalisation – manufacturing jobs moving to countries with cheaper labour like China, India and Asia.

What Caulfield describes is a seismic shift in our country’s economy. The lost manufacturing jobs are gone forever. New types of jobs will have to be created. But by whom? In Seth Godin’s book Stop Stealing Dreams, he argues that our school system was created for an industrial age and our children are not developing the character necessary for our post-industrial generation.

Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system. Scale was more important than quality, just as it was for most industrialists.

If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, he will find someone cheaper than you to do it. And yet our schools are churning out kids who are stuck looking for jobs where the boss tells them exactly what to do.

The reason so many people grow up to look for a job is that the economy has needed people who would grow up to look for a job. Jobs were invented before workers were invented.

There are two recessions going on. One is gradually ending. This is the cyclical recession. We have them all the time; they come and they go. Not fun, but not permanent. The other one, I fear, is here forever. This is the recession of the industrial age, the receding wave of bounty that workers and businesses got as a result of rising productivity but imperfect market communication. Industrial jobs no longer create new industrial jobs in our country. A surplus of obedient hourly workers leads to unemployment, not more factories. On the other hand, creative jobs lead to more creative jobs. Self-starting, selfreliant, initiative-taking individuals often start new projects that need new workers. In my opinion, the now politicized role of “job creator” has nothing at all to do with tax cuts and everything to do with people who trained to have the guts to raise their hands and say, “I’m starting.” An economy that’s stuck needs more inventors, scientists, explorers, and artists. Because those are the people who open doors for others.

A key point that Godin keeps coming back to is the importance of passion. School does a good job of silencing passion but Godin argues that it’s essential our children to be passionate about something. Whether it’s dinosaurs, computer programming or writing.

As the industrial age peters out, as the growth fades away, the challenge is this: training creative, independent, and innovative artists is new to us. We can’t use the old tools, because resorting to obedience to teach passion just isn’t going to work. Our instinct, the easy go-to tool of activating the amygdala, isn’t going to work this time.

So what if the theory is true? That the industrial age is over and we are living in a new era, where tried and tested traditional solutions no longer work and we need new ones. What does this mean, for us and for our children?

A typical day

After some experimenting, I’ve finally found the perfect solution of getting everything done in a day. That is, to split my day up into several chunks.

About three to four times a week I get up at 4am. It’s to take advantage of the quiet time before the kids wake. For years I thought I was a night owl and would work late into the night. And only in the last year did I discover that, in fact, I worked best in the morning.

Around 7am, sometimes earlier, the kids tumble out of their beds. A quick breakfast of porridge all round, and I’m back on my computer or blackberry – for emails, the day’s to-do list and jotting down ideas and notes.

After the school run, on the walk home, is a great time for ideas for features. I put it down to the fresh air and brisk walk.

Then I enter phase two of the day. Mostly it’s finessing what I wrote from earlier in the morning. Then it’s on to drafting the next piece or researching more ideas. Lunch is either at the desk or standing up while prepping the kids’ tea.

Phase three of the day, I’ve found the most difficult. Slightly sluggish from lunch – even if it’s only a light one – I go into tunnel vision. It’s one foot ahead of the other and getting on with it until it’s time for the school run again.

When we get home, that’s phase four. And this part has to be executed with military precision. The kids get their tea within 30 minutes of setting foot in the house or they go ballistics from tiredness and low blood sugar levels. While they feed, I slope off back on the computer to round up the day’s work, tie up loose ends, or there might be a conference call.

Actually, there’s no such thing as finishing up a day’s work. Working for yourself is unlike working for somebody else. Work just trickles into the next day and the cycle continues. Exactly the same as having children.

SAHM is hard work

This weekend, while looking after the children, it hit me that being a SAHM is much harder work than working. On Saturday, while older had his tennis lesson, younger was throwing the mother of all tantrums and refused to stand down. At that moment, I thought, “Gosh, this is much harder than working.”

After a weekend of family time, I always feel like some recovery time is necessary. Work gives me that space. It’s nice to drop the kids off at school and nursery, watch them skip off into their classes, happy to get away from mum for a change.

If younger stayed at home with me, I’d worry that she’d turn feral. I’d never be able to give her the stimulation that nursery gives her. Socialising with her little mates, clear behavioural boundaries, set meal times, a variety of stimulating activities. A mother’s love is wonderful, but from the ages of 2 to 5, I think my younger needs much more than that.

She’s only at nursery from 10am to 4pm, so we still have plenty of quality time together. Through years of experimenting (my older is now 7), I’ve found that a mix of flexi-work and nursery is the healthiest option for my kids and me.

My conclusion: Hats off to all SAHM. I could not do what you do.

A mother’s work meme

Work, family and finances, the three interconnected subjects everyone’s talking about at the moment. I have written before about not being able to afford to go back to an office job. So when mother.wife.me. started a Mother’s Work Meme, I got tagged.

Rules:

  1. Please post the rules
  2. Answer the questions in as much or as little detail as suits you
  3. Leave a comment on mother.wife.me so we can keep track of the meme
  4. Tag 3 people and link to them on your blog
  5. Let them know you tagged them
  6. Tweet loudly about taking part (well ok, that isn’t a rule, but how about if we start a hashtag – #amothersworkmeme

Questions:

  1. Did you work before becoming a mum?
  2. What is your current situation?
  3. Freestyle – got your own point you’d like to get across on this issue? Here’s your chance…

And, most importantly…. you’re tagged!!

HPMcQ

Joanne Mallon

Ministry of Mum

1. Did you work before becoming a mum?
I did and went back to work after child 1 and 2. With child 1, I went back after 16 weeks maternity leave. With child 2, I went back after 5 months.

2. What is your current situation?
I am self-employed – setting up my own fashion magazine and freelance writing at the same time. I’m also due to give birth to child 3 in April. My freelancing started in October last year; before that I had a full-time job in the West End where nearly all of my salary would go into childcare costs. Work involved a lot of early starts and staying late in the office, which meant extra childcare costs. Travel costs, even though I only live in the East End, made a sufficient dent into expenses. This was with two children, so obviously with the expense of child 3, it would be impossible to hold down a similar five-day a week office job.

3. Freestyle
Employers need to consider new methods of how to make an office work. It could mean breaking out of the traditional 9-to-5 way of working, but with sophisticated communication technology such as Skype and Basecamp, it’s less important for employees to be location specific as, say, five years ago. We live in an age of mobile devices. Anywhere can be an office.

Employees seen to be bending over their computers from 9 to 5 or into the evenings are not always all they seem to be. How focused have they been in the day? Have they stretched out work that could have been finished in 2 hours across 4 hours? How much time have been spent on Facebook, Twitter and surfing the net while they appeared to be ‘hard at work’? Or maybe they don’t have anywhere to go that evening so end up larking about in the office after the working day’s ended. And let’s not forget the long conversations at the watercooler or over making cups of tea.

I have personal experience of all these situations. What I see is low morale and motivation generally in the workplace. Staff are disgruntled and frustrated, while top management remains oblivious and do little to nurture and motivate them.

It’s been proven that flexibility is a powerful lure in recruiting and motivating top talent. Employees are able to concentrate without being interrupted by phone calls, meetings, and other workplace distractions. Eliminating watercooler gossip sessions — a significant time sink in a high-anxiety environment — is a huge boost to productivity. And knowing that an employer trusts and respects its people enough to help them do what it takes to perform better — through remote work options, staggered schedules, and reduced-hour arrangements — pays back in greater appreciation and loyalty.

What I’m saying is flexi-work should not just be for the mother returning from her year-long maternity leave. It should be an option for everyone. The traditional office, as we know it, needs shaking up. The old way is not working.

On the subject of new mums going back to work. I have friends who complained of getting sidelined after going back and some who have been pushed out of their jobs. And if you work in an environment where most of the women do not have children, it’s pretty much like working in a male-only office. Your childless female colleagues don’t understand why you have to leave at 5.30pm every day. Nor do they know about astronomic childcare expenses, which runs up if you’re late picking up the kids. They don’t understand that repeated negotiations with your partner down the phone every other day (about working late and who should pick up baby) has a bad impact on home life. They don’t understand that, unlike them, you don’t have down time when you get home.

Don’t have children then, I hear you say. Well, my children will be paying for my pension when I – and my peers – enter old age.

There are currently 4 people of working age supporting each pensioner in Britain, by 2035 this number is expected to fall to 2.5, and by 2050 to just 2.

Women are more educated today than 30 years ago – they can work and want to work. There is greater sharing of domestic responsibilities between partners than 30 years ago. So why do we still have offices (and attitudes) built for a workforce from 30 years ago?

Marie Colvin: A very personal tribute

I don’t know her nor have I met her. But Marie Colvin, like Janine di Giovanni, had a significant role in my life.

It was on my master’s in journalism course at City University where I learned of these two women and what they did for a living. Before London, I was just a provincial young adult in Singapore fresh out of university. Journalism was considered a second rate profession; success meant a job as a banker, an economist or an accountant. Investigative journalism didn’t mean a thing. Allegedly, journalists who ask too many questions and make a nuisance of themselves for the government ‘disappear’.

So when di Giovanni came to talk to our class, I had no idea who she was. She cut a statuesque figure, charismatic and full of presence. Everything I imagined a real woman to be. She talked about her war reporting experiences, and we all imagined ourselves to be the new generation of war reporters.

For the next six months, I dreamed of dodging bullets and filing important copy that would affect society. With youthful idealism always comes feelings of immortality and infallibility. I grew out of it very quickly. On realising my limitations – mostly a lack of physical courage – it became clear news journalism was not my calling. It lay in something far fluffier, and so I entered the world of fashion magazine publishing.

But my war reporter heroes stayed with me. Colvin and di Giovanni, along with Orwell, were too special to remain as a six-month crush. They were brave people who put their lives at risk to tell us the truth about some part of the world which, if not for their published stories, the world would forget about. There was a simplicity and purity in their work. They believed in what they did with unwavering passion and commitment.

What made them head towards the gunfire when everyone else were running away from it? I don’t know nor will I ever understand. But I do know that we are much better off as a society because of it.