Living where we work
Our inability to do *more* is a product of our environments—not us.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had several mentoring calls with journalists who all have similar questions: Why can’t I focus? What can I do to boost my productivity? Is there something wrong with me?
I can relate, because I ask myself the same questions on a regular basis.
The best I can offer is a few bits of helpful advice—tips for managing time and limiting distractions—but, ultimately, each conversation winds up at the inevitable conclusion: Our current working conditions aren’t sustainable.
By this point in the pandemic, we’ve likely all heard the adage that we’re not working from home, but living at work. The tools we use for our jobs—phones and laptops, email and Zoom—are the same ones we use for socializing. Our boundaries between work and life have blurred past recognition. As a result, we’re struggling to focus and get as much done as we’d like to.
It took me several starts, stops, and restarts to land on the topic for today’s newsletter. “I can’t figure out what to write!” I lamented to Billy. Meanwhile, I had to pause multiple times to breastfeed. I tried to block out the sounds of Billy keeping our fussy baby entertained with my noise-cancelling headphones. I even attempted some one-handed typing while simultaneously bouncing our little one in my lap.
“Why don’t you write about how hard it is to be a mom and work at the same time?” he asked.
I thought about the conversations I’d had over the past few weeks—with parents, child-free people, and single folks, alike. No matter what the living situation, almost everyone seemed to be in the same boat: It’s really, really hard to get work done these days.
Whenever I’m having trouble focusing on the task at hand, my instinct isn’t to fault the environment I’m in, but, rather, to blame myself. It happened a decade ago, when I had trouble staying focused in an open newsroom. It wasn’t the sea of television screens, nearby standing scrum meetings, or bustling breakroom just feet away from my desk that were causing distraction; it was my own shortcomings. It happened at my next job—which I’ll forever associate with Slack’s “knock brush” sound effect—when I received message after message from colleagues, some important, some silly, but all demanding my attention. Again, it was my fault; I should have known how to reply to all those messages and also get meaningful work done!
And now, I’m blaming myself as I’m struggling to work at home, with a baby, in a pandemic. Rarely does it occur to me that the situation itself is the problem.
I’ve done a good amount of learning and teaching about how we focus, in the workplace and in our personal lives. I’ve read books like Cal Newport’s Deep Work, interviewed Manoush Zamorodi about single-tasking, and given several presentations about the concept of “balcony time”—blocking off an hour or so to step away from the busy dance floor of day-to-day work, and instead do the big-picture thinking that we rarely have time for.
I know that humans aren’t as good at multitasking as we think we are; that working long hours diminishes our productivity; and that times of uncertainty—like, say, during a pandemic—make it especially hard to focus.
Yet, I still blame myself. I convince myself that other people are more productive than I am. Instead of letting myself fully relax, I squeeze in writing and responding to emails whenever I can—during the slow points of TV shows, or before I fall asleep at night. I get frustrated when my mind is sluggish.
I’m not sharing this to complain. My situation, with the flexibility that freelance work provides and a partner who does more than his fair share of childcare, is better than most. I’m sharing this because I know I’m not alone in thinking this way—that getting work done shouldn’t be so hard.
I should tell myself the same thing I tell the journalists I talk to: Stop blaming yourself! The situation we’re all in right now is unreasonable, and the expectations that we have around work are typically unrealistic. We aren’t meant to work endless hours without opportunities to recharge, and yet, we often do.
Out of all the productivity research I’ve read, there’s one bit that I tend to ignore: Self-compassion makes you better at your job. Being kinder to yourself makes you kinder to others. It also helps you approach work with calmness, clarity, and vision.
The fact that I’ve been able to keep up a twice-weekly newsletter while also juggling other jobs and clients, caring for a baby, and prepping a house to sell is, honestly, incredible! The essays I’ve written lately have been strong, the other work I’ve done has been on point, our daughter is healthy and happy, and the house-selling process is going swimmingly.
It makes me terribly uncomfortable to cite my accomplishments out loud, but it needs to be said. Instead of asking, over and over, why can’t I do more?, I need to acknowledge how much I am doing, how hard I am working, how much I deserve to feel proud of myself. Instead of doing more, I need to give myself a break.
My current work situation, possibly like yours, isn’t conducive to hours of uninterrupted, deep work. But what if that’s not the worst thing? What my current situation does afford me is lots of welcome distractions—opportunities to connect with Billy and baby, moments to catch up with a friend, chances to step outside and get some fresh air, occasions to let out a much-needed belly laugh.
There are, thankfully, smart people who are imagining what the future of office work might look like. It’s a world centered around flexibility, autonomy, and—yes—compassion. It looks a lot better than the reality of work today. I’m here for it.
In the meantime, I’m going to keep reminding myself what a good job I’m doing amid some challenging circumstances. I’m not working from home, but living at work—and I’m doing it as best that I can. I hope you can remind yourself of that, too.
p.s. What’s your work situation like these days, and how has the pandemic affected your views about work? Are you deemed an essential worker? Do you work from home? Or are you among the unemployed? I’d love to hear your experiences. Reply to this email, leave a comment, or send me a message. I’ll feature a variety of responses in Friday’s subscriber-only newsletter.
See you on Clubhouse?
Once again, I’m joining Anjali Pinto, Xan Aranda, Amanda Griffith-Atkins, and Omolola Olateju on the audio-only app Clubhouse to discuss tough anniversaries and create a space to talk about grief. Join us! Tonight at 8:00 p.m. ET.
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My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who is holding onto the hope that this globally traumatic time will result in some rethinking and remodeling around politics, government, and society.
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