Every day’s a Tuesday

The COVID-19 outbreak and the current lockdown appear to be taking their toll on my ability to measure time. Natalie put it best the other day, when she announced that, essentially, ‘every day’s a Tuesday’. The hours, days and weeks roll together into one long period of foggy uncertainty. Thankfully, though, I’m slowly finding ways to manage my temporal confusion and to keep things on track. Continue reading

In the gloaming

The gloaming is that fleeting, magical time just after sunset but before darkness. We hardly notice it in the summer because it stays light so late. But as the days get shorter, the gloaming’s nearly-night-time arrives ever earlier. Our bodies tell us that it’s time to hunker down for the evening. But our watches, sadly, tell us that it’s only half past four and our to-do lists point out politely that there’s no chance of slumping onto the sofa for at least another couple of hours.

Which is why, at this time of year, Molly and I invariably find ourselves taking our evening walk in this odd half-light, when the daytime is over but the night-time proper hasn’t really kicked in. Now, you might argue that a moonlight stroll is a perfect, even rather romantic, end to the day. But when (a) it is cold, (b) it is muddy, (c) one of you is tired after a day’s work and (d) the other one of you is a nuts Labrador, romantic is not the first adjective that comes to mind.

The views over the valley at this time of day, though, are pretty spectacular. Which is the main reason for this post. Because it has been raining here all day, but as the sun went down the rain stopped and we had a brief moment of calm as the moon rose in the sky and the world prepared itself for bed. As usual, though, I’d forgotten to take a proper camera so was forced to rely on my very rubbish camera phone.

Anyway, here’s the moon over the valley. The three bright points of light in a little row are the floodlights at the football pitch in the next village along. Must be soccer practice tonight. Most of the other lights are street lights along the main road, with some houses mixed in.

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Here’s the view looking west, where you can see that the sun has only just gone down. You can see the lights from a couple of remote cottages in the valley below, but there’s not really much here between us and the sea.

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OK, so the zoom on my camera phone is fairly awful. But I just loved the colours in the sky; the way it goes from pink to blue so delicately, silhouetting the hills below and the clouds above.

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On our way home, we passed the local church and the porch light cast this welcoming glow across the graveyard. I know it’s wonky and blurred (the photo, not the church), but given that I was holding my camera phone and the end of the dog’s lead in the same hand, I’m just glad you can make out anything at all.

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And then, as quickly as it had arrived, the twilight of the gloaming was replaced by true darkness. In wintertime, this ephemeral period is most definitely my favourite time of day. Or is it night? Whatever. Here’s to the gloaming.

Working, not shirking

We have recently survived a short visit by the in-laws. I say ‘survived’ not because they’re particularly unpleasant or because they leave a trail of destruction in their wake. In fact, as far as in-laws go, they seem to be fairly reasonable. No, I say ‘survived’ because we seem to have opposing views on, well, pretty much everything. And principal among the topics of disagreement is what, precisely, qualifies as ‘work’.

(I should perhaps mention at this point that this view is not limited to my in-laws. I have had similar discussions with my parents, too, as well as with former colleagues and people I have met whilst walking the dog.)

For my in-laws’ generation, it seems, work involves getting up early in the morning, commuting some distance to an office in a city somewhere, being bored all day doing something that you don’t particularly like, coming home late, grumbling about your idiot colleagues, eating, sleeping – and then repeating the whole thing over and over again until you’re sixty five (or until you conk out, whichever occurs first). Anything that doesn’t meet this definition, in their view, is not work.

Which is a bit of a problem. Because what I do really doesn’t look like that at all, and I’d be horrified if it did. I’m not saying that I don’t work, though. I run a successful consultancy business and spend most of my time on research and consulting assignments for my clients. And when I’m not doing that, I’m generally working on some writing project or other.  But I’m my own boss and run my own life.

While I’m sometimes out at my clients’ offices, I’ll often be working at home in my office / spare room here…

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Though sometimes I’ll be here…

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Or here…

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And while I don’t have colleagues as such, I do have an assistant…

Molly

Who can be of varying degrees of usefulness…

Molly asleep

This, it would appear, does not count as ‘work’. As far as my in-laws are concerned, being at home is not compatible with working. Nor is having almost full control over what your day looks like. Nor, indeed, is having fun. So despite my best efforts to explain what I do and how it does indeed qualify as a ‘job’ of sorts, they still seem to think that I spend all day loafing around the house while their daughter labours all hours to support my indolence.

(We’ll gloss over the fact that Natalie was only working such long hours because she’d decided that it was better to hide out at work rather than come home and face awkward parental questions about her own non-standard career.)

I don’t blame my in-laws for this. I think it’s more a generational thing. The way in which we work, facilitated by the internet and other technologies, is changing so quickly that people who spent their lives working in the old-fashioned ‘job for life’ culture in large bureaucratic companies find it difficult to relate to the more flexible and varied career paths that are rapidly becoming the norm.

But to avoid future misunderstandings, here are a few key principles that I’d like to clarify:

  • Work is something you do, not somewhere you go. So just because I am sitting in the garden drinking a cup of tea, this does not mean that I am not working.
  • Similarly, going for a run, doing the hoovering or playing on the beach with the dog are also not incompatible with being ‘at work’.
  • I do know what I am doing. In fact, people pay me money to do it. I am a highly skilled professional. Even if I do happen to be sitting at my desk in my pyjamas.
  • I am not asleep. I’m thinking. It’s called the knowledge economy. It’s what we do nowadays. Wake up and smell the coffee.

I’d like to think the in-laws will eventually come around to my way of thinking. But, if I’m being honest, I think we’ll just have to accept that times change. They do things their way and I do things my way. It doesn’t mean that either of us is wrong. As with all families, it just means that it’s one more thing on the list of stuff we try not to talk about…

Regaining my balance

The best thing about being self-employed is being able to plan my own time and to do pretty much whatever I want. The worst thing about being self-employed is, inevitably, being able to plan my own time and to do pretty much whatever I want. I say this because, in the last couple of months, there’s been an awful lot of doing, but precious little in the way of planning. And I’m not really striking the right balance between the different things that I do.

I find that I’m fine with the big things, like my ongoing consultancy projects, which start to make a fuss (metaphorically, at least) if they don’t get the attention that they need. But when it comes to the less vociferous but equally important things, like my longer term writing projects, the plants I’m growing and (as you’ve probably noticed from the unforgivable lack of posts recently) my blog, then I’m a little less consistent than I would like.

In order to at least attempt to rectify this appalling lack of focus, I’ve tried to figure out what I do in my consultancy work that I don’t do with everything else, in the hope that I might be able to apply this discipline to some of the other aspects of my life. And what I found out was, in fact, remarkably simple. In my work, I set goals for each activity, assign a deadline and then set aside a specific time to do it. So whether it’s a meeting with a client, some data analysis or writing a report, each gets an appropriate slot in my diary.

So why, I asked myself, does this rigour have to apply only to the more ‘traditional’ aspects of work? Why can’t I use the same approach for everything else? And the answer, of course, is that I can. The best way to make sure that I get everything done is, clearly, to set aside a specific time to do it. (And then actually do it, of course, but that’s a different story.)

It reminds me of something someone once told me on a management course that I went on for my old job. There are the important things, he said, and there are the urgent things. The important things wait patiently to get done, while the urgent things jump up and down like the kid at the front of the class desperate to answer the teacher’s question. “Pick me! Pick me!”, they insist. And so we invariably do the urgent things, while the more important matters (which are generally the things that we actually want to do) remain forever on the ‘to do’ list.

The answer, the guy explained, is to think of the important things as big pebbles and the smaller ones as tiny bits of gravel. Imagine that you have to fit them all into a jar, which represents the time that you have available. If you put the gravel in first, then it fills up the jar and there’s no room for the larger pebbles. But if you put the pebbles in first, you can then use the gravel to full up the gaps around them. In essence, then, I need to make time for the more important things first, and then spread the smaller, urgent-but-not-necessarily-important things around to fill in the gaps.

So this is what I’m now trying to do. I’ve been through my to-do list and have decided for each item whether it is important, urgent, both or neither. Things that are both urgent and important come first, so I’ve allocated each of them a specific time in my diary over the next few days. The important things come next, so I’ve set aside some time each day to work on one or more of them, such as my writing projects or potting-up my chilli plants. The things that are neither urgent nor important have either been wiped off my to-do list entirely (very liberating!) or scheduled in when I know I’ll have a bit of down-time, such as when I’ll be travelling on the train or when I have a gap between meetings. (I wrote this blog post on the train, for example, and am now posting it online in Starbucks.) As new to-do tasks arise, I’ll do the same sort of triage with each one.

The end result is a to-do list where I now have a date and time allocated to do each thing, which makes it look a whole lot manageable. I also have a diary where at least two thirds of each day is planned out, which will make it much easier for me to manage my time productively. It also makes me look a whole lot more busy, even if some of the slots are for things like ‘sow beetroot seeds’, which don’t look particularly executive. And the unscheduled third of each day gives me some flexibility to respond to other things that come up, such as a sunny day that requires my urgent attention in the garden!

This doesn’t mean that I have to stick rigidly to my schedule, of course, as things will inevitably crop up from time to time that mean I need to change my plans. But I’ve made a deal with myself that if I have to ‘cancel’ an activity that I’ve planned in, then I will reschedule it for a later date, just as I would do if I had to push back a meeting with one of my clients.

I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t an earth-shattering change to my life, particularly as it’s basically something that I’ve been doing for many of my ‘work’ activities for some time now. But it does give me hope that I’ll be able to create and maintain a harmonious balance that lets me devote time to all of my activities and interests. Which, after all, if why I became self-employed in the first place.