CYOO #40: On working less

Crucible (noun):

  • a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures

  • a situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new.

I rediscovered this word reading this line from Katherine May’s Wintering“winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.” I’m not sure I ever encountered the word apart from that Arthur Miller play on the Salem witch trials, so it was illuminating to find this term that describes the process and craft behind an object, and to learn the metaphor behind its secondary definition.

Something new out of something ravaged, destroyed, fundamentally altered. There are crucibles, metaphorically speaking, everywhere lately. The pandemic, of course. Our new work from home lifestyle. Gamestop stock mania and the volatility of the market. We’re deeply embedded in these trials, as we are with winter, without much insight into what possible shapes will emerge.

Of these crucibles, I’m most curious about if or when we will see a shift towards working less, not more. Since the pandemic I’ve seen numerous articles on the imminent death of the five day workweek (now that you can and probably will work any day of the week). Remote work enthusiasts champion the flexibility, lack of commute, and increased productivity in a WFH lifestyle. While true, it also means a "total collapse of work-life balance." Perhaps this is a desirable thing for people with high job satisfaction and motivation, who are already completely used to this collapse, but not for the everyday worker who is used to a separation between work and leisure.

I’m both embarrassed and proud to admit that I work fewer hours than I did pre-pandemic, while it seems like many are working even more. The embarrassment is itself an embarrassment—why is it shameful to say that I can work less and still be effective at my job? Because at some point (specifically the 1970s) being effective at work stopped being good enough. The best workers were the ones who loved their work, who were self-motivated and satiated without needing more incentive.

Culturally we only talk about burnout as a downside to working more (and even that is a recent trend), and not enough about how we simply don’t have to be working all those hours. At the peak of industrialization, technological advancement and convenience, we shouldn’t have to be working more. Yet every productivity tool (email, Slack) only seems to increase the hours we spend working. Dream job industries including tech and the arts scare us into working more with the constant threat that there are crowds of hungry people waiting in the sidelines, ready to take your place.

I’m not sure what the future of work will look like. The fact that employers have seen that remote work is possible without their profits combusting is a relief. This current shift to a remote culture is a change, but ultimately not one that will benefit workers all that much. Not like this, at least. I am at least heartened by history—that “meaningful work” is only a fifty year old expression, that leisure was once the cultural ideal among the Greeks.

I’ll end with some tips on how to work less but more effectively (nothing like micro self-improvements to feel better about the near impossibility of societal change, right?) Your mileage will vary of course depending on your employer, so take what you will!

  • Meetings are the ultimate time killer! Pare down meetings as much as possible, and ask for or create an agenda for the meetings you do attend. I decline most optional meetings, but seeing the agenda first can help make that decision. Suggest “no meeting days” for your team, and/or have a meeting heavy day for team meetings.

  • Use Slack’s web browser instead of the desktop app. I am very weak to notification and badge distractions, so this tactic helps a lot. It also means I am only really on work Slack on my computer, as opposed to switching back and forth among other non-work Slack communities in the app.

  • Another Slack tip—mute channels aggressively. I use sections to group the most important channels at the top, and have a lot of social channels muted. The noisier a channel is, the more reason to mute it.

  • Keep a work journal and note what you accomplished each day (my journal template is loosely based on this). It’s fine if you write “literally accomplished nothing” some days—this gives you a forum to admit it and release any emotions associated with that! This also helps so much during performance reviews and manager 1:1s, if you have them. Also keep your running to do list here so you know where to jump in at the start of each day.

  • Morning and evening routines help, especially if you are terrible at taking breaks like me. In the morning I journal, meditate, draw or paint, and read a book while eating breakfast—all daily habits that I want to maintain. I exercise in the evening around the same time before dinner, which gives me a general cut off time to stop working.

  • Take a mid-day nap, the ultimate WFH perk.

  • Try going for walks after lunch. I am also terrible at leaving the house most days, but have lately been appreciating the post-lunch walk as a way to counter the afternoon slump.

Let me know: have you been working more or less in the pandemic? What structures or routines have helped you adjust to WFH? What future of work do you dream of?

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Other things on my mind:

  • My sister has a Youtube channel! Watching her make two different kinds of Detroit-style pizzas got me so hungry (just look at that cheese pull in the thumbnail). I fully plan to borrow her pan to try her recipe out 😋

  • I started Memorial by Bryan Washington and it feels so damn good to read a novel that I know I will enjoy right from the start. It’s funny, perceptive, full of fun food references, and so evocative of Houston despite my never having been. The style reminds me a lot of Rachel Khong’s Goodbye Vitamin. Here is an excerpt of the book if you want a taste. 📖

  • Lately I’ve been doing short restorative or yin yoga sequences at night to alleviate the pains text neck and a sedentary lifestyle. This sequence tackling shoulder and neck pain felt AMAZING, a true treat for my body. 🧘

  • January was all about starting the habit of practicing and making art everyday, either by drawing or painting, and I’m proud to report that I only missed one day! I’m really happy that I am seeing tiny improvements in technique, that staring at my “bad art” doesn’t feel as bad when I know there will be another blank page where I can try again, and that I’ve occasionally entered flow. 🎨