How We Work

June 7, 2010

in Creative Living

Winston Churchill stayed in bed until 11am everyday and then started drinking whisky, which he continued through the rest of the day. President Obama sticks around until almost 9am in order to send his kids off to school. Philip Roth’s bookshelves are alphabetical by category through all the rooms of his house. Murakami gets up at 4am, writes, and swims or runs every afternoon. Nabokov napped for two hours every afternoon; Kafka for five. Auden took speed as a “labor-saving device,” and Immanuel Kant spent the afternoon strolling with friends.

I discover these factoids of organization and lifestyle on dailyroutines, and it’s had me thinking how I structure my own daily routine. Even in a traditional office setting, the way you work is flexible–how you prioritize tasks, your morning routine, your tendency towards multi-tasking versus focus. Once you’re self-employed, however, the days (and the nights) are yours to shape. That can be liberating, but also a bit overwhelming in possibility and in the discipline required to follow through. I opted to be self-employed because I wasn’t happy in what I was doing before–even though I had a good job, good perks, good boss, good pay. The freedom and responsibility of being self-employed over the years has made me ask: How DO I want to spend my day? How do I also get all the work done? And how do I stay true to that goal of being happy? (Isn’t that why I started all this?)

Taking a cue from existentialist philosophy, I’ve eschewed the ready-made day in favor of one derived from my values…not all of which are work-related. For instance, I want to be out in the sunshine every day. For most of my corporate life, I accepted such a thing as an unreasonable luxury, at odds with work. At best, I’d venture out for an afternoon coffee if I could escape the office long enough. Over the last few years, I no longer view it as a luxury or at odds with work. I’m still inordinately grateful to be out in the day, but I view it as requisite. It brings me great happiness and balance–and isn’t that what I’m seeking? My workday generally involves a break around 3:30-6pm where I go for a run, stretch, shower, and tend to the garden. I can work when it’s dark, and I’m willing to, if it means I get outside and enjoy the day. (Corollary: I’m opposed to fluorescent lighting. If I’m going to sit and work, it’s going to be in front of a window.)

Running? Actually that’s work also. A manual labor job has its pros and cons (and being a trekking guide is manual labor at a fundamental level). One of the pros is that keeping in shape is now part of my job. I get to do more of what I love and call it work. Okay! Whether it’s yoga or running or biking, it’s not a luxury I give myself when there’s time; it’s now requisite and I build it into my week unflinchingly–but I still have to get all the office work done, too.

Priorities. When no one is around to tell you what to do, it’s easy to spend time on trivialities and avoid the big stuff. One technique I’ve used is to sit down at my desk first thing and set my priorities for the day. Somehow just seeing them written down on a scratch pad is enough to keep me more focused. Another technique which I’m trying out now is to quit multi-tasking so much. Some good advice from my workflow expert friend Pierre was totally in line with a recent NYT article which stated,

While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress.

I’m now checking my email then closing it for a few hours, silencing my phone, and staying focused on writing a lecture, creating a budget, or doing research. I am indeed getting more done–and it’s the priority tasks.

Sleep. I like it. I think it’s important to get enough of it. Some people take it for granted that they are going to be sleep-deprived on a regular basis, but I’m not willing to accept that. If I’m tired and want to sleep until 8am, I’m going to be okay with that. I’m not going to feel guilty, but I am going to be working at 9pm. I’m fine with that trade-off. One thing I’ve noticed is that few of us really attend to our basic needs very well or make the connection between those fundamentals and our general state of satisfaction and well-being. As in…

Food. Gretchen Rubin’s happiness project lists the secrets of adulthood. On the list: Try not to let yourself get too hungry. Now that seems somewhat banal…except that I do let myself get too hungry…all the time! When I mentioned this to friends, it turns out many of them do the same thing. I started watching myself more carefully and noticed that I regularly postpone eating (because I’m busy doing something important or just because I can’t be bothered right then). In fact, it might have been 8-10 hours since I last ate. I’m experiencing generalized stress, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness. Funny, but that goes away after I eat. Right. What’s more important than eating??? Many of us skip meals in favor of what has to be done, so I suppose it’s all in how you look at it. I’m constantly reminding myself that taking care of the basics is a key to balance and happiness. No longer luxuries: food, warmth, sleep, exercise. Requisite. (And Gretchen’s personal commandments and truths on the left of the page are well worth checking out if you’re looking for happiness…)

Email. Oh email. Is it consuming you, too? I come home from two months in the Himalayas with 300 emails in my inbox. Those are the actionable items–not the junk mail I weeded out nor the short replies I cobbled off from dial-up internet cafes. I like my computer. (Actually, I have a Mac, and I *love* my computer.) I like doing certain types of work on my computer (e.g., writing, budgets, research). I don’t much like email. I like contact with friends, and I value the easy connection with clients and employers, but that inbox is far more aversive than rewarding. Pierre has great suggestions for managing the inbox effectively, and I’ve used them over the years, but when I have a good technique for actually reducing my use of email, I’ll let you know. I’m currently scaling back using the wisdom of a friend who had meningitis and was forced to redefine her relationship to work and email: I’m not replying to things that don’t really require a reply–or at least, I’m trying not to, but old habits die hard. Not revolutionary, I realize, but surprisingly liberating.

Organization. Also liberating. I just can’t work unless my space is ordered. That always means my first few days at home are going to be devoted to creating order, not to answering email or crafting blogs or generating expense reports. Now, at least, I plan for this and don’t feel like I’m wasting my time. I value the productivity which follows.

All this leaves me wondering: What’s important to you in your day? What are you doing that you actually find aversive? And what have you accepted as not reasonable or possible in your day simply because it’s not general practice?


Pierre Khawand June 7, 2010 at 9:56 pm

Very inspiring! Great themes for all of us to think about and see how we can use them to inject a healthy dose of energy and creativity into our work and personal lives! Thank you Deana!

annie June 7, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Such a wonderful post Deana, thank you! These are things I am constantly working on . . . What I find in my own life is that discipline within defined periods works best. I try to set reasonable project goals and when I meet them, I let myself relax for a few days or weeks. It seems less overwhelming and exhaustive this way. I also find this is a constantly evolving process and that what is a good routine for me today might not be good next week, month or year. But in general I try to practice each of my 5 loves in the course of any given day: Music, Movement, Mindfulness, Kindness, and Poetry.

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