Do you love your job? Do you jump out of bed eager to get to the office? Or do you have days when you wish you were someone else? Probably a bit of both I imagine. We spend more of our time at work than ever before. But not all of this is in the office. Some is squinting into our phones late at night or first thing in the morning. Or on the journey to work - typing with one finger with a plastic coffee beaker glued to our lips. Or in the toilet during a meeting because we have to send a mail and there hasn't been time to pause.
The flexibility that technology offers us - the fact we can access work at all hours has been positioned as a good thing. It means less time at your desk clocking in the hours. It means more 'working that fits around you'. And there are benefits. It means on non-working days, parents can tap out a mail whilst their children tear around the park. It means the journey into the office can be spent catching up. It means that whilst you're making dinner you can also be emailing. It's the modern, multi-tasking ideal.
The reality is we need to work when we can and fit it in around everything else. Alain De Botton has a great quote about this. He essentially says the whole idea of 'balance' and work is out of synch with modern times:
'There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances life.'
And he's right. I've never met anyone who has 'balance'. It's a bit of a myth. The 'typical day' profile of the super-successful women who gets up at five thirty, eats kale bars on her way to a 'new start up acquisition meeting', scheduling in a session with her personal trainer on the way - all before eight - isn't anyone I know (or like).
I remember reading that life is a bit like a hob with four burners on top. Each burner represents a specific aspect of life (family, partner/friends, health, work). And the thing is you'll never have all four burning at once. A conference I attended a few years ago promised that you could ensure each area of your life was a 'ten out of ten'. I didn't believe it then and still don't. It piles on the pressure to believe this. We aren't put here to live perfect lives. We were put here to learn, develop, stretch, be happy, sad, conflicted, confused and anxious. It's not about achieving equilibrium and all the burners simmering nicely thank you.
My own work path was very zig-zag. When I was fifteen I got a Saturday job at a grocers. At the end of my shift the boss would give me a fiver and a pineapple. My next employer was McDonalds. It made my hair smell terrible. Soon after this I got a part-time job working for a fashion stylist. I ironed clothes and ran around London like a motorcycle courier without a motorcycle. I lost a stone in three weeks. Then I got a cleaning job. I earned enough for essentials and a nice shampoo once a month. I joined a band and became a singer. I gave it up because I suffered from crippling stage fright. I combined studying for a degree with working in Habitat. On it went. There were times when burners came on and went off again.
Now I'm quite senior in the research and consultancy agency I work for. I've been here for more than fifteen years. When I first joined we had fax machines and big paper diaries. We booked holidays by filling in a slip of paper and putting it into an A4 folder. I could walk from one side of the office to the other in two strides. Now all that has changed and the agency is bigger and more successful than ever. It's also (thankfully) maintained it's close-knit feel. It's a long way from those 'pineapple days' and I'm happy with that.
But when I talk to friends I'm hearing mutterings about work and the way it's taking over their lives. They feel like maybe their hob has blown up and none of the burners are working properly. They feel like they're cramming stuff into small moments of time. They talk about the dream of setting up their own 'organic beanie hat' business or opening a café. Of becoming yoga instructors. And this isn't just old folks like me. It's young folks too. They're feeling like they don't have enough moments. But maybe some of this is about what we choose.
Okay I understand that most people can't become a yoga instructor and make a good living. And beanie hats are rarely going to pay the mortgage. But what about instead of plotting an escape we think about how to work differently in our current jobs? There may sometimes be aspects of our wellbeing that we can take more responsibility for (And yes I accept this isn't possible for everyone. I'm lucky to even be thinking about choice).
But at the moment phones don't thrust themselves into our vision first thing in the morning. They haven't learnt how to leap out of our bags and attach themselves to our eyes. They may bleep and make funny noises. They may be hard to ignore. But we need time to stare. To contemplate. And to think. In fact it's been proven in studies that cognitive ability decreases the more dependent we become on our phones. So it's actually beneficial in terms of what you deliver at work too.
A couple of days ago I was wishing I could take my laptop into the bathroom so I could do some typing in the bath. I thought- why isn't there a waterproof laptop so I don't have to sit in the bath getting bored? (maybe there is) But that's not very healthy or at least it's not very healthy for me.
On the train this morning everyone had their eyeballs glued to their screens (me included). There was a lot of catching up to do. Even the people checking Facebook and Instagram looked solemn and absorbed. No one noticed anybody else. We were each alone in our own 'technological wormhole'. When I looked up there was a tiny patch of pink sky on the horizon. There was a plastic inflatable Father Christmas with his arm trailing in the breeze. A tree that had shed all its leaves looked like a skinny old man. All we needed to do to notice these insignificant yet oddly beautiful things was to look up. To stop filling the time with more stuff.
For a moment, all we needed to do was nothing.