14 Apr 2009

Ingrained and Insane

I left full-time work five weeks ago, and I'm only now beginning to see how long it's going to take to adjust to having my time to myself. It's only in the last few weeks that I've had some unadulterated days by myself - prior to this I've either been doing agency work, or been rushing between agencies undertaking all the admin that working for them requires. It being the school Easter holidays now, there's not a lot of call for classroom assistants so naturally things have gone quiet. What's noticeable though, is how guilty not working every day still makes me feel.

When you've resigned yourself to unquestioningly handing over 9 precious hours of your waking day to a corporation you neither like, nor respect, nor even see the point of, it's a sharp decompression and switch of routine to suddenly find yourself with all that time plonked back in your lap. Some of it I have unapologetically spent sleeping, as I will never be one of those people with a natural disposition to spring out of bed at 6.30 of a morning - about 9.30 is just fine, thank you. Some of it I've spent, as planned, writing, which has been fantastic yet still feels like such a guilty pleasure, probably because it feels 'naughty' to actually do work I'm enjoying. At my last job, enjoyment was what I got from the occasional surreptitious surf on the net, sarcastic email to a colleague or typing up exercises for my private tuition students. You'll notice that my actual job was absent from that list, because it was composed of tasks so tedious that it was simply impossible for the human mind to take any pleasure from them. Yet it was expected that I would smile sweetly and surrender the majority of my time to such work. Now that I've rejected that idea, it's still taking a lot of getting used to the idea that working can be pleasurable, and can sometimes not even feel like work. I suppose I'm just not quite convinced yet that I can really make a career from writing, and as I'm still doing part-time work, the days when I have an organised schedule are still the ones that feel 'authentic', whereas the days I spend at home writing feel slackerish.

I suppose it's just going to take time to shrug off the oppressive mantle of the 9-5 world (not that anyone is actually allowed to work such skimpy hours any more, but you get the idea), and whilst my own career is up in the air things are bound to feel uncertain and scary. Still, I do think it's worth noting just how much the workaday world of offices warps you into feeling that, unless you're sitting in the same chair for 8 hours a day, doing something you get no pleasure from, it's not really 'work'. I mentioned this to a friend and she pointed out that this is a 'learned response', which made me consider just how much of the pressure we put on ourselves is a result of conditioning. I recently read a fantastic book called 'Willing Slaves: How The Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives', and as the self-explanatory title implies, it took to task the despicable trend of people working longer hours for no reward and using this as a tool to ingratiate themselves with bosses and try to 'psyche out' their colleagues. What the book identified was that, rather than being 'policed' by bosses breathing down your neck (although there's plenty of that still going on in offices, believe me), people are pressured into working insane hours by their own colleagues and an unspoken culture of expectation around you. Your contract may say your working hours are 8.30-5.30, but when you see people getting in at 7.30 and not leaving til 7, you're going to start feeling wrong-footed fairly soon if you refuse to surrender your precious extra hours too. At my last job I never bought into this bollocks, as I frankly resented working even my contracted hours, when I often found myself with little to do having completed my day's work by lunchtime. Sadly, I saw other workers who I liked and respected falling victim to the long hours propaganda, and I felt deeply sorry for them. I vowed it would never be me, and I suppose by leaving I have guaranteed that - for now. However, I've realised I was more conditioned by my workplace than I thought I was.

Another point the book made was that the vague, open-ended concept of 'leisure time' has been replaced by planned activities shoe-horned into the day so we can convince ourselves we are getting some of our time back by playing squash with Steve at 7.30, or taking the kids for a swim at 6. The idea of leisure time that doesn't have a definite beginning and end and can be filled with anything or nothing, seems to have become a taboo in the modern quest to be constantly justifying your existence with activity. Not that there's not still great swathes of society happily versed in doing Sweet FA - talk to a teenager or a student and they'll gleefully remind you that there's a whole world of time wasting out there, and you just need to jump right in. But I do think once you get into the world of work, and adapt to the idea that 'your time' is only evenings and weekends - and even then that time may just be spent collapsing and regrouping in time for the next daily grind - you forget how to simply bugger about, be lazy or unproductive, because you're so aware that your free time is limited. You don't want to waste your holidays 'doing nothing' - you feel obliged to justify them by undertaking travel or cultural pursuits. Lie-ins, lazy mornings, afternoons on the sofa reading all feel like deeply guilty pleasures, and they shouldn't be - they should be an option for everyone. Unless, of course, you have kids, in which case I don't know how much I can stick up for your right to be lazy seeings as you've voluntarily created a being which will persistently and vocally object any time you refuse to entertain it or crave a few minutes to yourself.

It would certainly be easier to feel content that I can spend days with only my laptop, books and chinchillas for company if I wasn't watching my bank account slowly start to empty itself out whilst I wonder and wait where my next piece of work is coming from. It'd also be easier if some more success on the writing front was forthcoming, but I'm aware it's an industry in which patience is going to be a seriously required virtue. But more than any of this, I'm pissed off that I've been so conditioned by a job I hated and only did for over a year because I was too depressed and demotivated to find a way out, that I can't relax now my time is my own. A pretty clear warning about letting the world of work consume your life, I think. Even those with nothing but contempt for the corporate world can't leave it unscathed by its insidious attempts to shape your world. I'm just glad I've got the insight, the strength and the brain to recognise it for what it is and say NO THANKYOU.


Guignne J. Humberbucle said...

On the other hand, there is the issue of writer's procrastination coming around and biting you in the arse. Spent any mornings watching Jeremy Kyle lately?

Chas said...

Really, really, not. As indicated, the guilt factor is far too strong to permit such cavalier fritterings of my time. I'm proud to say the TV stays off in the daytime, until the other half gets home from doing a real job.

londoner said...

have u thought about shift work? leaves u with lots of days off to pursue time-wasting/other pursuits...

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