After going through this past Friday like a scalded dog, I didn’t have high hopes for today. I mean Monday is bad by its very nature. Non-telework Mondays pile badness upon badness. I expected today to be an unmitigated shitshow – just a continuation of Friday by other means.
A perk of my generally pessimistic view of the world is that every now and then things don’t go as abysmally as I anticipate. That’s not to say they go altogether well, but from time to time, the universe momentarily forgets to conspire against you and all your works.
That was today. It wasn’t great – cubicle seating and fluorescent lighting made sure of that – but the day had a reasonable ebb and flow that last week lacked in its entirety. The day had breathing room instead of presenting eight solid hours of things that needed to be reacted to immediately. That’s not to say that all the things with immediacy issues were important. My experience in the belly of the bureaucracy is that the really important stuff almost never requires an immediate, off the cuff reaction.
I fully expect there’s a price to pay for avoiding ridiculousness today. The universe will have to balance the scales… but just now I’m hoping to skate through two more days and get to my long weekend. Then balancing the scales can be a next week problem.
Most people wouldn’t see a lot of up side to sliding into work at 6am. I won’t say all those many people are wrong, but they don’t speak for me.
One thing stands out as a real perk of starting the day at an obscenely early hour… and that’s seeing the “end of tour” rapidly approaching immediately after lunch. All things considered, 2:30 doesn’t feel like a bad time to end the working part of the day. If it were an option I could convince any of the bosses to consider, hell, I’d probably volunteer to take that on as a permentant schedule. Lord knows it’s not as if I’d mind going to bed a little bit earlier to compensate.
There are, of course, reasons why that won’t happen – chief among them is the penchant my particular organization has for starting meetings after 4PM… and more than a handful that spring up at 5PM or later, depending on the vageries of when any given uberboss may have some white space on their schedule. For reasons surpassing understanding, free time is almost invariably at the end of the day. Somehow I think I’d be more sympathetic in these cases if suddenly they decided to come in early and stack the extranious meetings on the front end of the day instead of at the tail.
Late afternoons are a time I find myself to be generally less effective. You might be able to physically keep me in the building, but I promise you that once we’ve passed the end of my normally scheduled service day my brain has turned to mush. Eight hours of bureaucratic jackassery is just about all I’m wired to tolerate in a single sitting. A reasonably smart man knows his own limitations and accounts for them. You’re getting my best and most focused effort between the hours of 6 and 11 am. Outside of those times I can still be pretty good, but for every hour either side of “prime time,” you’re getting a deminishing marginal return on investment simply because the world doesn’t exist to accomodate how I work best… which is a pity, really, because I’ve long suspected I could be far more productive in five focused hours than I’ll ever be in eight hours that stretches across and well beyond my natural sweet spot.
1. “Free” college. Almost a decade ago, the federal government stepped in and allowed people to refinance their mortgages during the housing crisis – but only if you let your payments fall behind. If you took your word as your bond and paid on time even though it was hard, well fuck you sucker. That’s why it took me $30,000 out of pocket to close the sale on my Tennessee house. I played by the rules and got properly fucked for the trouble. Now Senator Warren comes along and wants to push student loan “forgiveness” as the brave new way ahead. If she gets away with it, once more I’m a sucker for playing by the rules, doing the hard work, and being responsible for paying my own debts. I really do despise the 21st century.
2. Morale. Apparently as a moral boosting endeavor we’ve installed a wall-sized mural with my organization’s name blazed across 30-feet of graphics and some fancy new signage in our bit of cubicle hell. I’m sure someone thought it would be a good idea and that everyone was sure to find it inspirational. I’m just not one of them. I’m probably too jaded and cynical at this point to ever be bought off by new signage. That’s just the kind of guy I am. Want to improve my morale? Throw me a step increase in recognition of the work I’ve done. Hit me with a time off award – that one is my personal favorite. Order up some office chairs that aren’t low bidder junk or computers that aren’t crippled right out of the box. If you’re going to spend the money, spend it on something that matters… because new wallpaper doesn’t get it done.
3. 5PM. Being a creature of habit, there’s not much I value more on any given weekday than leaving the office on time. I value arriving on time, too… because getting to work on time is a reasonable employer expectation. The converse should also be true – leaving on time should be a reasonable employee expectation. Except the average office is full of subtle signs and symbols that it isn’t the case. No one will come right out and say it, but you’re supposed to just understand and not mention that someone at echelons higher than reality has scheduled a meeting to start an hour or two after you’re supposed to have departed the area for the day – and that’s assuming that the meeting will accidentally start on time, which of course it won’t… The not so subtle message being that anything you have outside the office walls couldn’t possibly be as important as what’s happening inside them. Then again, this is often driven by the same people who think they can fix morale problems with wallpaper, so it’s whatever I guess.
Like many industries, here at Tharp Weddings and Events LTD (a tiny subsidiary of Giant Bureaucratic Organization, USA), we have a busy season. At the moment we are directly in the middle of it. Which explains the random nose bleeds and increasingly surly attitude.
The simple fact is the next five weeks are going to fuse into an undifferentiated and increasingly frenetic hail of emails, phone conversations, meetings, briefing slides, and random conversations in the halls. It’s like being inexorable pulled towards an earth-based black hole centered on the first week of May that’s doing its level best to suck in every element of reality that surrounds it while spewing anti-reality out on the other side of the event horizon.
For someone who has to work diligently at being civil and talkative in a crowded room, the whole thing is basically a preview of what my version of a hell dimension might look and act like.
This time of year is something that is simply endured. If it feels like over the next few weeks that the writing here is suffering, it’s not your imagination. On the typical day I’m busy using every scrap of available energy to fend off the encroaching madness. Historically it doesn’t leave much in the tank to deliver the kind of online snark you’ve come to expect around here… and for that I am gravely sorry.
There is a world of difference between being busy and getting things done. I was looking at my calendar for the next ten days or so and it’s absolutely undeniable that I’m going to be busy. Meetings are stacked up like cord wood and on a few days there might even be time to eat a lunch that won’t feel like either a late breakfast or an early dinner.
Although I’m going to be busier than a one armed paper hanger, what I can tell you with almost perfect certainty is that I’m not going to be getting things done. Experience tells me that the amount of work accomplished is inversely proportional to the number of hours spent sitting in meetings. It’s a known fact across the bureaucracy, but doe some reason the illusion that meetings in some way equate to work accomplished persists in the minds of people who call meetings.
Maybe it’s possible to both attend meetings and be a productive and contributing member of society, but I’ve never cracked the code on making that happen when the meetings and the work insist on occupying the same eight hours of the day. I suspect that the people who pull off spending all day in meetings and also somehow manage to get something done are willing to slip in a few extra hours on the side.
If you’re sitting around waiting for the same from me, my best advice is to get comfortable, because you’re going to have a bit of a wait.
1. Joy theft. If I’m bluntly honest, I’ll tell you that I spend all day at work wanting to get home and lose myself in a book. By the time I’m home, dinner is made and cleaned up, and I’ve tended the creatures who share my roof, I’m so bleary eyed and tired that getting through a paragraph without my mind wandering is hard. Three nights out of five I can’t seem to focus on the words long enough for it to even be enjoyable. It’s just one more way that paying bills and being responsible conspire to suck all the real joy out of life.
2. Signals over the air. All I want to do in the few minutes between when I pull into the parking lot and when I have to be at my desk is get my morning Twitter update and find some funny, funny memes. Apparently that is too much to ask because for the last two weeks the parking lot has been a large dead zone. I don’t know if it’s my phone, Verizon, or just the Department of the Army trying to suck even a brief flicker of fun out of the surrounding air, but for whatever reason there’s nothing doing on my phone for those ten or fifteen minutes. If you think a few minutes of boredom and mindlessly staring out the windshield is enough to break my spirit and get me to my desk a few minutes earlier than I have to be there, well, it’s like you don’t know me at all.
3. Mushroom status. When grown in a farm setting, many mushrooms are simply left alone in a dark room and fed a steady diet of shit. I’m sure it happens in every organization of more than one person, but this great green machine of ours seems to have honed leaving people out of the loop to a fine art. It’s always exciting to come to the office and find an email from someone working in another organization letting you know that “your boss from high on Olympus said ‘X’ is going to happen.” It’s when you, as the person nominally responsible for “X,” have the exciting opportunity to let that individual know that no one in your own organization has bothered to tell you a fucking thing and thank them for the heads up before launching out on a paper chase to sus out how much time you may or may not have wasted depending on the veracity of your informant’s information.
Being a “senior leader” can’t be easy. I speculate that at best they’re surrounded by a few dozen “true believers” who have wholeheartedly embraced their vision of the future and then six thousand other assholes who only show up because they’re being paid to and don’t much care about someone’s vision beyond how it may impact them and their continued ability to pay a mortgage and put food on the table.
The biggest difference I notice isn’t actually in the conference room, though. It’s in the parking lot first thing in the morning. The run of the mill line employees start showing up at 6:00, maybe 6:30, basically as early as whoever they report to will allow them to come in. The flood gates open between 7:00 and 8:00. While the cubicles fill, I’ve noticed the reserved “executive” parking spots directly in front of the building remain almost consistently unoccupied until 8:30 or maybe 9:00.
I’m not in any way assuming that means the people whose cars occupy those spaces are lazing about in bed while a weary workforce struggles into the office. It’s just that they are thinking and operating differently. For me, and I assume most of the rest of the masses, the operational intent is to start the day as early as possible, let 8.5 hours elapse, and then get the hell home as expeditiously as possible.
The seniors, either by choice or necessity, start their days later and inevitably end up ending them later – much later in many cases. They’re the ones who wonder why people rolls their eyes when they mention scheduling a 6pm meeting or why their workforce doesn’t want to participate in evening or “non-duty hours” social events. Again, I can only speculate that because they don’t see the cars in the parking lot at 6:30 AM, they feel slightly betrayed that theirs are the only ones left in it at 6:30 PM.
One on one, outside of the cubicle hell that we inhabit, senior leaders are probably decent enough people with their own interests and personalities. Their lofty position in the c-suite gives them a necessarily different perspective. On a day to day basis, though, my assessment is that we are simply two very different creatures, with distinctly different motivations, who just happen to be residing under the same roof for about a third of every weekday.
What we have here tonight isn’t a lack of things to say, but rather a lack of motivation to put in the time ckick-clacking at the keyboard to make anything meaningful appear. It’s probably safe to write that off to being the backlash against spending the best part of eight hours today turning out evaluation reports, project kick off emails, and trying to answer what felt like several thousand questions that revolved around the difficult task of putting 100 people on a bus two weeks from now.
Maybe it’s not exactly a lack of motivation so much as it’s just the idea of spending another second sitting in front of a keyboard making me want to violently spew my dinner all over my nice home office. No good every comes from that feeling. It seems that this week is determined to turn itself into a case study of knowing when not to say things. I recognize that has being an important skill even if it happens to be one I have never completely managed to master.
So I hope you’ll forgive me just now if I step away from the computer, set the phone down for a minute, studiously avoid tuning in to any form of news and find myself something absolutely mindless to spend the evening doing. It feels like exactly what the doctor might order as a salve for missing motivation.
After some thought today it occurs to me that I spend upwards of 60 hours a week doing things that by definition I don’t want to do. How do I know I don’t want to do them? Well, because someone has to pay me reasonably well to convince me that it’s how I should spend my time.
That thought leads to the corollary that I’m so completely resistant to doing things that I don’t want to do in the 44 or so waking hours that I haven’t sold off because I spend so much time doing shit that I really don’t want to do in the first place.
When you spend 60 hours a week doing that which you do not naturally want to do, the calls of “you should go to the gym,” or “you should stop eating red meat,” or “do you really need that second whiskey sour” tend to fall on deaf ears. Honest to God, I don’t even hear “you’re cutting years off your life” anymore because I just assuming a good portion of what I’m cutting off are the years at the end when you sit around a nursing home shitting yourself. That’s way up there on the list of things that I don’t want to do.
The 40 or so hours that I’m awake and not being paid, are for the things that I want to do. It’s a freedom that certain life decisions have afforded me and I intend to take advantage. I’m going to drink the good whiskey. I’m going to eat the steak. I’m going to sit in the comfy chair with a book. I’m not going to spend what is currently my most limited resource on the damned stair master or learning how to make tofu “taste good.”
I just don’t want to… and that’s not a statement I get to use nearly often enough.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: There are only a set number of hours in any week that are designated for “work stuff”. This week, that number happens to be 32. When you deduct the hours designated for meetings (7), at least one hour of prep time to build/update slides for each meeting (7), and thirty minutes following each meeting to field questions (3.5) that leaves a total of 14 and one half hours to do the actual work – write the memos, hammer out details, do the planning, and apply the academic rigor to the job. Those same 14 and one half hours are also sliced down by people stopping by the desk for random conversations, being called on the phone, being sucked into random small meetings that aren’t on the calendar, and occasionally getting up to grab a cup of coffee or take a leak.
Fourteen and one half hours isn’t a lot of time when you’re dealing with plans and projects that tend to be complex by their very nature. It often means you’re forced into devil’s bargains about what gets worked and what has to sit and wait. What it doesn’t mean, of course, is that you’re going to somehow defy the laws of time and space and be able to do 32 hours of actual work in the fourteen and one half hours that are available.
This reality of ours has certain limits. At some point you just have to settle for doing less with less.