The discipline of a master procrastinator

I’ve never really thought of myself as disciplined. I’m actually a master procrastinator. Sometimes it can inexplicably take me forever to get around to doing something – inexplicably because the things that don’t get done are usually really not a big deal. They wouldn’t necessarily take very long to do at all if I just got around to them.

So imagine my surprise when people started telling me they really admired my discipline. It all started when I was on maternity leave with my first child and taking social psychology classes. Since I was living abroad without a network of friends and relatives to help, I couldn’t leave my baby and actually go to class, but I would study the literature at home and then go to the university to take the exams. And this is what I did: I would spend time with the baby in the morning and when I put her down for her nap I would devour as much of the course literature as I could until she woke up. Then I would spend time with her again until her next nap and then I was off again to the world of group dynamics, prejudice, dialogue, disorder… you name it I was reading it. I was tired and my house was literally a mess, but I loved every minute. Studying social psychology was something I had wanted to do for a long time, but it also provided a pretty good counterweight to the sometimes lovely and oftentimes uneventful days at home with a baby.

I was told that I was amazing, so disciplined.

Another time I heard this was when I was working on my PhD at home in a different country than the university where I was enrolled, and also finished within the designated time. People would wonder how I had the discipline. Some people talked about how they would never be able to write a doctoral dissertation at home because they would get too distracted. Well, the discipline part really wasn’t that hard. After I enrolled as a PhD student, my job was suddenly to read again and think, as much as I possibly could. The things that might have distracted me at home, were things like laundry and dirty dishes and other never ending tasks that, to be honest, I didn’t want to do anyway. No, I didn’t feel particularly disciplined; I was just doing what I really wanted to do.

The other day I attended an event where I heard Paul Auster being interviewed. What an interesting man. Paul Auster, when asked about having the discipline to write every day, said that he always thinks that’s an irrelevant question. Because it’s not a matter of discipline, it’s a matter of wanting or not wanting to do what you do. If you really love what you do, discipline isn’t an issue.

So what do we learn from this? Well, maybe if you like what you do you don’t have to worry about discipline, but if you have to force yourself to do what you’re supposed to be doing, maybe you don’t really want to do it in the first place?

But I also have to say, procrastination really isn’t such a bad thing. It’s not the enemy of productivity, nor the opposite of discipline. There is a study that shows that procrastinators are, in fact, more creative than people who don’t procrastinate. I mean if you think about it, maybe procrastination is a way for creative people to allow themselves a break to actually reflect. We don’t generally get a lot of time to reflect in society, even though we know that you need to have time to reflect to actually be able to create.

So on that note, I think I’ll have a cup of coffee and procrastinate for a while. No discipline needed for that either.

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The times they are a changing, and we can be part of that change

I’m at a conference at the moment in the beautiful city of Turku, Finland, and the topic of the conference is the future of work. You can imagine, I kind of feel like a kid in a candy store. I mean, this is what my research on opting out and in is all about: to decipher clues that might tell us something about how people want to and will work in the future.

Well, I listened to a very interesting keynote presentation yesterday. It was given by Marina Gorbis, Executive Director of the Institute for the Future. Gorbis said something that really hit home: you can shape change as it is happening, but you can’t put it back in the box thinking that things can continue as before. Because they won’t.

We’re living in an extremely interesting and exciting, if not also somewhat frightening, time in history and things are changing at a mindboggling speed all around us. The nature of work is being completely revolutionized and we need to be involved in shaping this change. According to Gorbis, jobs are being broken down into tasks and micro-contributions and organizations have access to large networks rather than just a finite number of employees to complete these tasks. To a certain degree, management is being replaced by algorithmic coordination.

Gorbis talked about machines as economic agents and how many people feel threatened by this, by machines, technology, and artificial intelligence, but that these are, in fact, not part of the problem. The real problem is that we’re competing not against machines when shaping our lives and work, but against social processes and institutions. We’re in a time of dramatic change and development, but we are stuck in our ways, which makes it difficult to influence the change in a way that will serve us – humanity – in the best possible way.

And this is true. This is what I see in my research. People want to work differently, to create alternative ways of understanding and organizing their work. However, many organizations are stuck in routines and mindsets that date back to industrialization. When these organizations are unable to change with the times and accommodate the people who work for them, and who would most likely continue to work for them under different circumstances, some people see no other alternative but to leave – to opt out.

Another thing that I have found is that the change that is needed for these people to want to stay is really not that dramatic. They aren’t asking for much, just some flexibility, freedom, and control over their lives and their time. They still want to work, and they want to do so in a meaningful way. No, the change people crave isn’t necessarily really that great, but it involves a change of mindset; a change of the social processes and institutions that Gorbis talked about.

So to tell you the truth, as I was listening to her talking about the future, the future that is already here by the way, and describing the innovative ways in which people already organize their work – for better and for worse – I realized how ridiculous the situation really is. The fact that these organizations that people have opted out of are worried about things like flexible hours or working offsite is laughable. Come on organizations, catch up already!

100 reasons

My opting out and in journey has been going on for years now. I usually say it began in 2009 when I left my job in consulting to work on my PhD, but really it started way before that. It had been going on in my head, more or less consciously, for years, as I would ponder whether or not this was it or if there was some other lifestyle out there for me.

And I have to say, despite the ups and downs of academic life, I don’t regret my decision at all. I love doing research – more that I realized I would when I jumped – and although there is a lot of uncertainty regarding the future, I’m thoroughly enjoying where I am right now and have faith that when the time comes (read: when my funding ends) one step will lead to the next and new opportunities will appear.

This blog has been an important part of my journey. As I’ve negotiated my terms with myself and others, and thought about what compromises I am and am not willing to make; the opting out blog has been a space where I have been able to do things my way. I have been the one who has decided what to write, when to write it, and how to go about it.

To me the blog is about opting out on several levels. I write about my research around opting out and anything related to that, and I write about my own opting out experiences. But part of doing it on my own terms is that I don’t only limit my posts to opting out. I opt to also write about other things, things that I think are important or things that I have been thinking about, and I do so in whatever way I please. Having this ability to be the one to decide all this has been both liberating and empowering. It has been my breathing space and the one place that has been all mine to do with as I please.

About a year ago, I was asked to think about my blog, about what and how I write and who I write for – my audience. These questions were a part of a larger process and were definitely relevant. The thing is though, that as I was asked to analyze my blog, I started to find it more and more difficult to write my posts. From having had a situation where texts just flowed from my head through my fingers onto the screen whenever ideas came to me, writing suddenly became a chore and just one more thing on my to-do list. I continued writing anyway because I wanted to keep updating my blog regularly, if not for myself then for my readers, but it sort of stopped being fun.

Well, I’ve been thinking about this and I’ve come to the conclusion that not everything has to or even should be analyzed and quantified. I could probably be more strategic in my writing, but what good would that do me if takes all the fun out of it and kills my creativity? So my conclusion is that this particular blog needs to be left alone, as it plays an important role for me just the way it is. Besides, I do believe that if I write what I feel like writing and it makes me happy, my posts will inevitably be better and more interesting to read.

So I’m going to keep writing what I want to write, when I want to, and for as long as it brings me joy. Besides, this is my 100th blog post. That if anything is 100 reasons to continue.

Sometimes slow is faster

I remember when I was working on my PhD. I would get so stressed over how long everything took. As I wrote chapter drafts, I couldn’t believe how incredibly slow the writing process was. Academic writing is a very particular and exact art form, not like jotting down a blog post. Well anyway, it felt excruciating at times and what I thought would take one week, took two or three, and then I would wait for feedback, after which I would have to rewrite parts… At a certain point I thought I would never finish, and never make the four-year deadline.

Well I did finally finish, but the thing I realized as I was working on my thesis was that the faster I tried to work, the slower it went. When I rushed, which I tend to do when I get stressed, I ended up having to rewrite more, not to mention rereading and having to go over my sources again more carefully. In other words, rushing really slowed my process down. So when stressed, I forced myself not to let my impatience get the better of me, and my mantra became “it has to be allowed to take the time it takes”.

I know this doesn’t sound very profound, but to me it really was. Because things do just take the time they take, whether it’s writing or learning a new skill or recovering from an illness. In this age of quick fixes and instant gratification, this can be hard to accept, but sometimes we just have to.

A while back as a group of us at work were fretting over looming deadlines and too much too do in too little time, a friend and colleague recommended a book by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber titled The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. This book is about academic life, but many of the points the authors make are definitely relevant to all of us.

The authors talk about what they call a “culture of speed”. In fact it is exactly this – the sheer speed of things – that many sociologists have argued is what makes contemporary life different from any time we have ever experienced before. The problem as Berg and Seeber see it, is that there is a constant pressure to increase productivity, which means that work tends to take over what should be our down time. As a result we end up having to manage also our free time in order to squeeze everything in (work, spending time with kids/friends/family, exercising, having fun…). And this, in turn, can lead to stress, a feeling of time poverty, and even mental health issues, in addition to stifling creativity, which at least for an academic trying to write is absolutely vital.

Besides, we cannot constantly create or write, we also need time to reflect so that we actually come up with something to write or create. We need quiet down time not only to recuperate, but also to actually be productive. Productivity does not necessarily come from doing more.

So let’s make sure we have enough down time this weekend so that we can be more creative and productive and whatever else it is we need to be.

What’s wrong with providing employees with mindfulness training?

I have very mixed feelings about mindfulness. It’s not mindfulness as such. Being mindful is not a bad thing. Research has shown that being mindful can help people be more resilient and prevent them from overreacting in different situations. This, in turn, has a positive impact on work environments in organizations. If people aren’t shooting from the hip so much, but instead taking a moment to reflect – to being mindful – then it is bound to have a calming impact on situations that might otherwise be conflicted.

No, I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is when we use mindfulness to fix a symptom instead of solving the actual problem.

I was at a conference last week organized by the European Association for Work and Organizational Psychology. Being a sociologist, this was a new crowd for me. Sociologist and psychologists do have a lot of research interests in common, although the methods used are often different. One thing that struck me was how popular mindfulness research was also at this conference. Although studying the effects of mindfulness can be interesting and intriguing, the problem is that much of the research focuses on the individual and not on the systems and structures in which these individuals are embedded.

But not only are we researching mindfulness like never before, I also constantly see new consulting companies that specialize in mindfulness and that provide programs to help employees learn and practice mindfulness.

Work environments today are incredibly hectic. Focus is more on short-term wins than on long-term development and sustainability. Jobs are insecure and as Richard Sennett observes, past experiences aren’t so important anymore. It’s rather about potential and you’re only as good as your next accomplishment. However, since seriously questioning and changing the system is hard, instead of going to the source if people aren’t coping well in their jobs, we try to fix the symptoms by helping people deal. And the latest fad on that front is mindfulness.

So instead of creating sustainable working cultures where people can thrive and can work to their full potential, we give them tools so they can be better at dealing with the hectic work pace and organizational culture. By teaching them mindfulness we help them cope.

And yes, it’s good to be able to cope. But it’s bad if it means ignoring the actual problem, which in this case is organizational cultures and structures that don’t necessarily work anymore. They just no longer correspond to how a lot of people want and need to live and work.

So by all means, practice mindfulness. It’s good for many things, and something I probably need to do more of too. But let’s not use mindfulness to ignore the real problem at hand. And please, don’t provide mindfulness training to your employees thinking that you’re off the hook. We still have a lot to do when it comes to creating better and more sustainable working models and environments.

Be whatever you want, sort of

In many ways we live in very exciting times. We really do. There are a lot of scary things going on politically, and at times it feels like everything is up in the air, but it is during times like this that you can really make a change. We have a chance to take a stand and shape the future.

Sociologists like Anthony Giddens and the late Zygmunt Bauman talk about how this is a time unlike any we’ve ever experienced before, partly due to the speed at which everything is happening. And I do agree; for better and worse though because not all of it is good, but not all of it is bad either.

One of the things that has been argued to define this exciting time in which we live, is the fact that tradition really isn’t as important anymore as it used to be. We aren’t bound by certain professions and we don’t have to do things in certain ways; we can reinvent ourselves at the drop of a hat. Not only can we, we are encouraged and pushed to do so too. Ulrich Beck coined a very illustrative expression; he talks about contemporary society as a tightrope society. If you don’t constantly keep your balance and reinvent yourself to stay competitive you might just crash to the ground. Not a very uplifting picture.

But still, even though there undeniably is societal pressure to reinvent and stay competitive, the promise of reinvention is also quite intriguing. If traditions don’t matter so much and you can reinvent yourself as you wish, you can do anything you want. Or can you?

This whole idea of individualization, reinvention, and having a multitude of choices has been criticized. They say that it may be true for a chosen few, but many, if not most, are bound by issues like gender, class, and race. The ones who aren’t, are according to these critics basically white men. Not all white men obviously, but white upper and middle class men. And I have to say, I have seen first hand how women, for example, can be bound and held back by traditional gender roles and norms both in the workplace and at home.

For my current project I have been interviewing men who arguably belong to this privileged group of people who can be whatever they want, and choose from a myriad of possibilities. I’ve been interviewing mostly in the US and Finland, and all but one of my interviewees have actually been white middle class males. Now you may wonder why my data set is so homogeneous. Well, Finland as we all know is somewhat restrictive regarding immigration policies, and the Finnish population just isn’t as culturally and ethnically diverse as in many other countries. In the US, the population is much more culturally diverse, but the fact that almost all my interviewees (so far) are white does say something about the people who get promoted and recruited to top corporate positions, which most of these men opted out of.

However, for people who are free to do and be whatever they want, I have to say that I have been struck by how bound by tradition and expectations my interviewees have been when choosing a profession.

You would think that these men who have opted out of their careers to create and adopt new lifestyles and ways of working, are the epitome of this age of reinvention. Yet many of them didn’t really seem to realize that they had that many options when they started out. In fact, most of them felt they didn’t. Many of them talk about how they chose what to study or what to become, based on what was expected of them, either by their families or by their peers. Again and again I hear stories of men who after high school decide to study business, engineering, or law because growing up that is what the men in their communities did. I’ve also heard stories of how men have based their choice of university or major on what their friends have chosen or what is considered high status and will make them rich and powerful.

Subsequently, for some of these men, entering the job market after university became a bit of a rude awakening. They worked for several years before opting out, but many of them reported not enjoying it or nor feeling that they were in the right environment. They often didn’t like the culture or they just didn’t feel at home, and when they finally did opt out they did so to do something completely different. I have interviewed a man who retrained to become a nurse, a few teachers, and a life coach to name a few. Others have opted into research, writing, community work, or they might have set up their own business where they could work on their own terms.

So for white middle class men who have so many options, they sure seemed to have been bound by traditions, expectations, and norms, at least when they were starting out. Thank goodness they had the courage and conviction to break out of that mold.

Men are complicated

You know what always drives me a bit crazy? It’s when I hear men say that women are so complicated, so hard to understand. What triggered this rant is a picture I saw on Facebook. It was of a man and a woman dressed in Victorian clothes and the man says, “Women are so hard to read.” The women starts to say, “Well actually we just want…” but then the man interrupts and says, “Such complex creatures.” The woman tries to say, “If you just listen…” where after the man finishes with, “So mysterious.”

And you know what, I’ve been there. I’ve been that woman, without the Victorian getup, but still. Every now and then I hear how complicated and hard to understand women are. Well let me tell you this. Women are no more complicated than men. It is just that men, being well versed as they are in the male social and cultural codes, are just more used to understanding men. But it doesn’t mean that men are any less complicated.

I should know. I recently started researching men and as I embarked on my research project I realized that, being a woman, some things just aren’t going to be as intuitive to me as they were when I studied women opting out. Things like social expectations and what it means to be a man among men. Although it isn’t like I don’t know any men. I am the daughter of one, the mother of one (a young one but never the less), I married one, and I have male friends and colleagues, so I thought that I still knew quite a bit about men and what they go through. But as I started delving into the world of masculinities, let me tell you, I realized it was a completely different world. There are social codes out there that I had no idea of. And some of the codes that I’m uncovering are really quite surprising.

Take peeing for example. Yes, that’s right, peeing. In a book I read, a man remembers a peeing incident when he was in his 20’s (this is a true story). A friend of his had a new sports car and asked him if he wanted to go for a ride. This was an extremely cool car; he definitely wanted to and so they jumped in. A few minutes into the ride he realizes that he needs to pee. Well, I as a woman would have thought that saying, “hey dude, pull over I need to take a leak” would be quite a masculine not to mention a normal (and necessary) thing to do but no, it wasn’t. This guy could not tell his friend that he needed to pee. It was like a weakness or something to give in to his bodily needs in this situation of ultra coolness and apparently one cannot limit oneself by giving in to things like that. Like don’t let your body limit you, or something.

What?!

Well anyway, what happened was that he just couldn’t hold it anymore and he ended up peeing on the seat of the car. Well, this was mortifying of course. Much worse than telling his friend that he needed to pee. But then he never intended to have an accident in the first place. He and his friend never mentioned it, but after that he never saw him again either.

I really had a hard time relating to this, not to mention believing that this could even be true. So I conducted a small investigation of my own and asked some men who I know if this could possibly be true. Is this really a real male experience? Well, apparently it is. They all said that they could sort of relate, although none of them would have let it go so far as to pee on the seat. But surprisingly, it was not a completely alien notion to them.

So there you go. Women may be complicated, but so are men.