I was in Germany the first full week in May.
For reasons that may become clear later in this conversation, after I returned, Lisa and I were talking about work hours and work ethic and flexible work balance and whatnot. By flexible work balance I mean the ability to mix your work and life in whatever ways you need. This is something that’s very different today than it was when I first came into the workforce. When I started working, if you worked twelve hours a day it was likely to entail a stint at the office that ran from 7:30AM to 8:00PM (including a quick dash to the cafeteria for lunch).
In my younger days I ran at that pace, but these days I do about 9-10 hours a day in the day job (this will be important later), but it’s easier to do those 9-10 hours because they are often spread out across the day. I no longer really pay much attention to the 8:00AM start time or the 4:30 end time, or whatever. Instead, I work on work things when they are interesting (or just flat-out due, of course…nothing motivates like a due date). If I hit 11:00 AM and my brain is struggling to grab something about work, I step away. I take a quick walk, often accompanied by a manuscript I need to read or edit–basically anything that IS NOT work. That’s right. I do personal things during the day … but, then, I am also often doing work at nine at night or 5:30 in the morning or whatever.
This is flexible work balance and I’ve evolved my approach to it over time, morphing from an 11-12 hour a day office monster to a 9-10 hour a day flexible worker.
I find this interesting because people who are new to this concept can seem to struggle. Like Lisa. She joined the company I work for about six years ago after years of working for herself as s freelance copy editor. I see her struggling sometimes. Part of her struggle is because she’s always been a person who appreciates structure and process. She likes everything in their place and time, and when she ran her own business it marched to a very controlled beat. Another part of her struggle is that she came into the company through an office union which has rules that limit an employee’s ability to work from home or go the extra mile by adding hours. Her expectation of work is formed by the environment she’s worked in.
It’s interesting (to me) to note that our conversation was jump started by a discussion about the work culture in the area of Germany I was visiting–which is full of very hard workers, but is “shackled” (if I can call it that from my very mid-American frame of reference) with labor laws that very firmly limit the raw number of hours a person is allowed to work. (I should also note here that I am no expert on German culture as a whole. Perhaps things are different in different areas of the country … I have no idea of what I don’t know here).
Anyway, the purpose of this entire discussion was to note that I’ve been chewing on a new revelation for me. It shouldn’t be a new revelation, but it is. You see, I’ve been considering myself to be working 9-10 hours a day, and that’s still true. But that’s only the work I’m doing in the day-job. I’m certain I also spend 15-20 hours a week on this writing gig, which I approach as a professional to the greatest degree I can. In other words, it’s a job … though I’ve never really considered it as such, and so I’ve never considered the time I’ve spent on it as “working.”
If I change my frame of reference I see that I’m working 60-70 hours a week.
I find it interesting for several reasons, the first of which is that I now have a new perspective by which to grant myself the right to be tired all the time [grin]. The second is that I realize I do not resent at all the amount of time I put into by work. This is different from the past. When I was working 12 hour days in my younger-days job (and traveling a boatload) I often resented being away from home. I loved the work, mind you. It was great stuff, and very “romantic” from an engineering standpoint, very heady stuff for a late-twenties kid to be driving. But it wasn’t how I wanted to be. Especially when my daughter came along. The third thing I find interesting is that while I don’t resent the work hours, I do resent all the time we have to spend doing the base logistical things it takes to keep the world around us running. I don’t remember thinking that before.
I realize there are a lot of things tied up in this conversation. An advantage of the “old” days is that work very rarely bled into the home environment. Now everything is a mix. I also note that after Brigid arrived in our lives, Lisa stayed home. She did 99% of all the home logistics, so there was considerably less to be resentful of in those days.
* Aside: — Lisa has said a time or two that I probably appreciate her more now that she’s working and we have to do all the basics together in our “free” time. And I say, no, I’ve always respected and appreciated the work she did at those times … but that I don’t think she respected herself as much then as she does/would now. Having a spouse stay home is a major competitive advantage, and dads and moms who chose do to stay at home should be viewed as a critical enabler of the family unit.
But I also think it’s interesting that the breakage of work location with working schedule has allowed people to be more effective overall. At least that’s my take on myself. For example, when I need to break at 11:00AM from work because my brain is locked, and I take a fifteen minute walk, or whatever I do to remove myself from the situation, it pretty much never fails that when I come back to the work/problem, I’ve come back with a solid solution as well as a refreshed level of energy to apply to it. Same thing in the morning when I’m writing. I will often get to a blocked point, not know what to do and instead of looking at a flashing cursor I’ll hop onto my work mail to get a read on what the day will be like … and ten minutes later I’ll come back to the cursor and all will be well.
The downside, though, are months like this, where the two (three, counting life logistics) don’t fit into twenty four hours. In May the day job swelled to eat up a ton of time (including the trip to Germany), and my commitment to a writer’s conference this past Saturday ate up a lot of my normal time on the writing job. What hasn’t been taken by the conference was sucked up in launching “Three Days in May.” So I haven’t been getting the word count I like, and so I admit to feeling frustrated at that.
The problem with this modern work-life world, you see, (at least in the mid-American frame of reference) is that you need a lot of personal discipline to keep things apart. You have to make priorities and you have to subordinate one thing to another on any particular day.
And that’s hard.
To make it harder, you know that the decisions you make get viewed and judged by others. In some ways, they define you. Most of the time those judgments will be wrong, of course. And sometimes they will even be a bit unjust. For example, I am of the opinion that some of my mid-American co-workers (who don’t have any understanding of the German work environment) feel that their German counter-parts are incapable, or lazy, or merely unproductive. This is not correct, of course. Having been there, I know they are very productive, perhaps even more efficient than we are because, in some ways, work compresses to fill the allotted time. But they cannot possibly get the same amount of work done in 35 hours than we can do in 55. So what do they do?
Life is tough, you know?
I admit I’m not fully certain what the point of this discussion really is. All I can say is this: Calling writing a “job” (rather than just something I’m approaching as a professional) has me looking at my use of time in a different light. It’s making me step back and assess the way the world works and the places that Lisa and I sit in it. It’s making me thing about my own sense of self-discipline in fresh ways. It’s making me asses who I am again.
I thought you might find it valuable to do the same thing.