Over the past two weeks, I have been on a bit of an emotional roller coaster on the work front. I say work front but by that I mean the day job. I finished my M.A. in September last year. For two years, I juggled work alongside my studies. It was tough but I did it. It helped that with the coursework submissions, workshops and lectures, I had a structured timetable to work within. Now, without those deadlines, I have been freewheeling to the point where the wheels almost came off.
I knew I needed a break after the Masters but after a couple of months off, I wanted to knuckle down to my second edit at the start of 2017. It is now nearly March and I have been faffing around. I have a couple of agents interested in seeing my finished manuscript, but even with that motivation, I haven’t been able to focus. I miss my characters, I miss my story and I want to get back to the writing.
Whatever job path I have followed in my career, and there have been a few, I have always been driven to do the best I can. Long hours have never been an issue for me. I have always derived a huge satisfaction from knowing I have done a good job, no matter how much overtime it has taken me to get there, but now there has been a shift. I love my work at the University and supporting the Professor, but if I am sitting at my desk at 7pm at night, I no longer get a sense of achievement. I am knackered by the time I get home and it is not ‘a good fatigue’. I feel empty and flat and I know why it is. I am too tired to write.
To address this, for the past few weeks, I have been battling to get out of the office at 5pm but desperately failing to do so. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, a few days before I went on holiday, I couldn’t cope. I scooped up all my workbooks, went home, and sat there for 48 hours, sobbing over my keyboard as I worked from home. I was miserable. Or as I said to my work colleagues, I was over-tired, overwhelmed and like my little nephew needed some quiet time.
Luckily, as I have mentioned, I was going on holiday to beautiful Devon, with my sister and her family, staying in the idyllic South Hams, and I got the breathing space I needed.
With that extra time to stop and think, I soon realised there was only one thing preventing me leaving work at 5pm and that was me.
Up until that point, I had been blaming my workload, technology and the hundreds of emails that come into my inbox every week. Certainly the pace at which office work now whirls around you is exhausting and I was beginning to wonder if I had got too old for it all. I was speaking to my friend Michelle about it. She’s a high flyer, working for a top tech company in San Francisco, heading up an International PR team and living on a plane. She knows about technology, she wouldn’t have a job without it, but even she got to a stage where she had to monitor her social media activity.
‘I had to switch off from Facebook. I found myself clicking on videos of sloths sleeping on tree branches. Then I started googling about sloths and how long they spent sleeping on tree branches. Within half an hour of pressing play on a video of a sleeping sloth, I would be an expert on the animal, and the thing is, I really don’t need to know about sloths.’
This is nothing new. The amount of recent studies saying technology is bad for our health and we need to learn to switch off is huge. So it was clear, I needed to tame the technology beast, rather than letting it overwhelm me, but even so, I wasn’t confident I would leave at 5pm.
At the end of my week’s holiday, I spent the weekend with the brilliant writer Finn Clarke, at her beautiful home in the Devon countryside. We spent two glorious days plotting and discussing our writing. I mentioned my work predicament and how I was too tired to write.
‘You need to just leave at 5pm.’ She made it sound so simple but she had a point. ‘Do it for a month,’ she continued, ‘and you will become Liz who leaves at five, not Liz who sits at her desk ten hours a day.’
‘But I will feel guilty if I don’t get everything done,’ I moaned.
‘You do enough,’ she said. ‘You don’t need to do the overtime to hear how great you are. As women we so often look for the pat on the head to acknowledge what we have achieved but you don’t need to hear that, you do enough.’
She was right. I know I have always been a bit of a ‘praise junkie’, seeking that validation through acknowledgement. It is not that I don’t want to do a good job, or that I am not proud of the job I do, it is just the ‘isn’t she brilliant’, is no longer enough. I don’t want to be the office superstar, I want to go home and write. If I needed any more proof of that, the fun I had with Finn spending 48 hours working out how to circumnavigate a range of plot holes was validation enough.
Luckily for me I have a great boss in the Professor. When I returned to work and announced that I had to leave at 5pm, not only for my sanity but also because that was now the direction of my personal, as well as professional development, he met the challenge head on. Like I say, I love my work at the University and I will do a good job but I was finally embracing that office buzz phrase, ‘establishing a work/life balance’.
Ironically though, having twisted the tables and finally acknowledged the importance of my life outside of work, I have had probably one of the most productive working weeks in a long time. I am now so focused on my 5pm deadline, my prioritisation skills have hit stellar heights and I am whipping the arse of the email beast.
For five days in a row I have left the office on time and I have found myself sitting bewildered on my sofa, looking at several hours stretching ahead of me, which I now understand is called ‘the evening’, ‘my evening’ when I can do what I want. Step one has been achieved.
Like I said, everyone at work is very supportive. The Chief Operating Officer said it was important to make sure I let people know I now leave work at 5pm. So, in the interest of full disclosure…
‘My name is Liz. I work 9 to 5.’
Well on the day job anyway. As I come through the door at 6pm every night, I am met with something I have been neglecting for far too long, a story that needs to be written.
So this week step two. The edit begins….