Every Day is Saturday

Finding Joy in the Here and Now

Cabin Fever

Y’all know what cabin fever is?  I can’t confirm this, but I heard once that the term comes from what happens to people who live in the mountains and get snowed into their homes during the winter; the enforced confinement makes them start acting crazy.  It’s not claustrophobia, a fear of confined spaces.  It’s what happens to a person who, for weeks and maybe months at a time, can’t get out and see people and do things.  It’s what I get from time to time working from home.

I get cabin fever if I’ve been in the house too long, even if I’ve been out to the store (buying groceries doesn’t count, as it is not an emotionally gratifying or intellectually stimulating activity).  If the bank account is particularly low I stay put; no lunches with friends, no browsing at the bookstore, no going to my sister’s house.  And after a while I start to show the symptoms of my self-enforced confinement.

Cabin fever for me means a total lack of interest in doing anything – almost a compulsion to avoid activity.  I start a slow, downward spiral of diminishing productivity, and as more time goes by, it gets harder and harder to force myself to do the tasks that need doing.  Convenient excuses present themselves as if by magic and before you know it, I’m settled in front of the TV watching M*A*S*H reruns, convinced that I can’t do what I need to do because I have to wait for something else to happen first.  Which is nonsense.

When it gets really bad I start actively talking myself out of doing things that could break the pattern.  I feel like a black hole, absorbing all of the light and matter around me, collapsing in on myself.  This is when my husband has to almost force me to get out and to see a movie, or go to dinner, or do anything outside (or inside) the house.  Of course, once I do, the negative momentum is broken.  But the pull of inertia is very strong, and I almost can’t overcome it on my own once I’ve let it go too long.

Why do I let this happen, you ask?  Good question.  I could get out more than I do – I could go to the library, or my local coffee shop, for little to no expenditure.  I could take a walk down to the nearby lake.  I could (gasp!) do more housework.  I know these things.  But knowing what to do isn’t enough sometimes.

This challenge is particularly difficult for a person like me, because I get energy and inspiration from exposure to new experiences and face-to-face interaction with people.  Sometimes I get so busy with work that the spiral never starts.  Sometimes I am successful at fending off the spiral with activity.  But sometimes, the fear of not being able to pay the bills (which has never happened, by the way) keeps me confined in a prison of my own making.  My hope is that one day soon I’ll have so much work that these periods of cabin fever will disappear forever.  In the meantime, I keep moving ahead, trying to stay busy and keeping my fever down.

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Being Productive

Yesterday I had one of those great days where I felt like I got a lot done.  In the morning I worked on a new project for a few hours, then took a break at lunch.   While I was working I got an email from a returning client with a signed proposal, so that really brightened up the day.

I spent the afternoon doing preliminary work for this client, which consisted of some email communication.  While that was going on I started working on part 2 of a project I have for another client.

In and around all of that I followed up on some outstanding business to do with the wind-down of an unsuccessful business venture.  That was a drag, but it had to be done.

So yesterday I would characterize as a productive day, and those make me feel really good.  They justify my continued pursuit of self-employment.  I enjoy those days because there are all too many where I don’t feel “productive” at all.

Which got me thinking about productivity.  When I was working in corporate real estate, the holy grail for people in the workplace design field was the accurate measurement of the productivity of “knowledge workers” (as opposed to workers whose output is easily measured, like in a factory).  Everyone wanted to know if their wicked cool new workplace was actually improving people’s ability to get their work done, and there was a constant stream of angles people were taking to determine how productive people were in their new environments.  Some people claimed that they could measure productivity, but I never saw it.

My own feelings about productivity are not clear-cut.  I generally feel productive only when I’m doing work for which I will get paid.  There are days I spend almost exclusively doing “house-work” – going to the grocery store, balancing the checkbook, doing laundry, running the dishwasher, etc., – that I feel I haven’t done anything.  Which, of course, is not true – but since in my mind I should be doing “work-work” instead (even if I don’t have any “work-work” to do), I’m not being productive.

I recognize that these attitudes are a holdover from the 9 – 5 days, where one is made to feel like every moment of the time for which one is getting paid must be filled with work.  There is a powerful collective guilty unconscious associated with anything that looks like goofing off when you work in an office.  People keep score.  You keep score.  It helps you justify your own lapses if you can say, “Well, yes, I took an hour and fifteen minutes for lunch today, but So-and-So spends all afternoon on Facebook!”.

I find that somewhere in my psyche, this sort of score-keeping is still going on, only I do it to myself now.  One part of my self is keeping track of what I get up to during the day and meting out either approval or guilt, depending on the perceived productivity of my actions.  As time has gone on it’s gotten better, but I still – even now, three years on – I STILL find myself saying things like “It’s OK to go to a matinee movie on Tuesday – I’ll work late tonight”.

I have yet to master the art of joyously blending all of the things I do in my days into a beautiful whole, free from judgement and guilt.  I can see in my mind’s eye what that kind of life that could be, but I haven’t figured out how to release my fear about not being “productive”.  I can’t seem to allow myself to just take it as it comes.  But I’m working on it.

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Vacation

I’ve been on vacation for the last two weeks.  I didn’t go anywhere, I just stopped doing anything that looked like work.  I didn’t intend to not work, it just sort of happened.  The 4th of July was on a Thursday, so really, that whole week was shot.  Then my birthday was the following Monday, and my mother came to visit.  We planned our family celebration for Thursday night, so I spent that week hanging out with my mother and sister.  I did have a project to do and a meeting with a client, so it wasn’t like I didn’t do anything at all for two weeks – but it was damn close.

I’ve found that the whole vacation thing is one of the most difficult concepts to get my head around in this new way of working.  It used to be very clear-cut; vacation was a proscribed number of days that had to be carefully planned and approved by others.  I never had the ability to just not work if I didn’t feel like it.  I can do that now – at least until my work picks up.

I’ve also found that I have a hard time allowing myself to enjoy my self-created “vacations”.  There’s always this vague sense of guilt associated with them, a feeling that I really should be figuring out how to find more clients, or networking, or writing industry articles.  I felt pulled in two the entire two weeks.  I enjoyed the time, sure, but not as much as I remember enjoying my time off when I had a regular 9 to 5.  There’s a sense of virtue in taking your allotted vacation time when you work a normal job.  There’s a sense that you’ve earned it, you deserve it.  I struggle with feeling like I “deserve” the time off, since I haven’t worked steadily since I finished my part-time gig a year ago.  It’s one of those things that is so different about my life now.  It seems strange to me (although I don’t know why it should) that I’m still re-programming how I think about work and vacation and life three years after getting laid off.  I wonder if I will ever stop feeling guilty about not working like I used to.

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Deadlines

I’m one of those people who works well under pressure.  If I’ve got a huge task in front of me and a very short amount of time in which to complete it, I really shine.  I’m very good at prioritizing steps, delegating work (when I can), and making decisions.  I relentlessly move forward until the goal is achieved.  Whether it was opening a play, closing on a shopping center purchase, or putting on a conference, if I had a strict deadline, I always met it.  Always.

I’m finding that working the way I work now is in some ways harder than anything I’ve done before.  I do have deadlines – for articles I’m writing, for projects I’m involved in – but it feels very different.  Because my workload is lighter, I have more time to accomplish things.  You’d think I’d be happy about that.  What actually happens is I allow myself to get distracted and I put things off.  I may have two weeks to write a promised article, but you can be sure I won’t start it until the day before it’s due.  I may have a meeting scheduled in a week with a client to show him the progress I’ve made on his project, but I won’t start working on it until the last possible moment.

I’ve also found that my attention span seems to have shrunk.  If I’ve got multiple projects going on (which I do most of the time), I often jump from one to the other randomly.  I have a much harder time keeping focused on any one thing.  Some of that is due to the distractions of working at home – the cats demanding my attention, the dishes that need to be put away, the husband who needs my help with his computer – but not all of it.

I think the challenges I have are because I don’t feel the pressure to get things done the way I used to.  I experienced such clarity about my work when I was racing for a deadline.  I knew what needed to be done, and by whom, and in what order.  As the unexpected cropped up I would adjust course and keep moving.   It was a challenge, it was exhilarating.  I loved it.  I miss it.

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