K.J. Aiello is a Toronto-based freelance writer.
I wake up to my phone pinging. I have to check it before coffee or breakfast or even a deep, clear breath. Fumbling in the morning dim, I check the news, scroll through social media, look at the tasks on my list for the day. There are so many of them. They coalesce into a boulder, which I have to push up an insurmountable hill.
I continue working throughout the day, adding tasks to my list faster than I can check them off. If I do a task faster, I can get ahead and breathe later. But these moments to breathe are interrupted by e-mails, messages, family and noises outside that were never there before.
I work until evening. Overwhelmed with guilt, I crawl into bed around midnight, iPad in my hand, and plot the next day’s tasks, colour-coding them, scheduling them into tomorrow. The boulder gets bigger, the hill higher. I can no longer see the top.
This has been my life since mid-March and it’s not sustainable. The anxiety I feel in not completing my task list makes me work more, and as I do so, one thought percolates in my mind: What am I even accomplishing? Am I Sisyphus cursed to roll a boulder up an insurmountable hill of worry and anxiety and meagre attempts to gain some sort of control in an uncontrollable situation?
I’m not alone.
Working from home creates workdays that are no longer just work-related; they’re blended with household tasks and interruptions, Zoom calls and e-mails. The Monday to Friday job with delineated borders has now morphed into one endless, undefined mass. Kids interlace with online meetings, groceries take careful planning and employers increasingly micromanage. All for the sake of “producing.”
The hill gets bigger.
Julia Moore, a behaviour change psychologist who studies burnout, argues that we’ve expected our previous hyper-productivity culture to continue into lockdown – and it just isn’t working. This can be explained by self-determination theory, Dr. Moore argues. The theory states that three factors need to be in place in order for us to feel accomplishment: a sense of competency; autonomy; and authenticity to self.
During this pandemic, our sense of competency has been challenged with demands that many of us have never experienced before. Remote-work technology that we struggle to use can creates barriers to feeling accomplished. Blended days with multiple interruptions take us out of our focused, productive work state. We end up spinning our wheels, checking task after task, managing interruption after interruption, and yet are producing less and feeling overwhelmed in the process. The boulder gets heavier, the hill higher.
Our sense of autonomy then breaks down as work expectations are watched even more closely with new working-from-home protocols. Employer use of “tattleware,” or employee-monitoring software, has increased three-fold since mid-March, according to a CTV News report. And while the completion of many little tasks may look good when reporting to your supervisor, these tasks can feel mostly like work for work’s sake. Meanwhile, motivation tanks and a sense of competency plummets even more.
And the boulder rolls back down.
It’s the authenticity to self that seals the burnout deal. Dr. Moore states that this burnout isn’t a result of the amount of work, but the type of work we’ve been assigned. When one pursues work that is valuable to them, motivation and productivity skyrocket. These days, a job that may have been fulfilling in the past can become blended with all facets of life, fractured into tiny chunks of interrupted time and completed mostly at the kitchen table. Deep focus is nearly impossible and multitasking has grown exponentially out of need. Every time our focus is broken by an interruption or massive list of small tasks that looks good to the boss, it takes that much longer to dive back into deep focus, where the fulfilling work lives. And so we work harder.
Up the hill we go again.
I have a difficult time recognizing the space between my personal and professional lives, both metaphorically and physically. This has only been compounded by the anxiety driving me to answer every e-mail, every text, every phone call right away in case I miss a work opportunity or a friend in need. And I feel it bearing down on me as I struggle to find that in-between space where a healthy life resides. I know this will be a continuing challenge – not just for me, but for everyone.
I wonder, even despite recognizing this, if slowing down is possible. Can we focus on value, both professionally and personally, and acknowledge that we simply have no precedent for the work-life-balance standards of a time like this? Is it possible to let go, step aside and watch the boulder as it rushes back down the hill? Is it possible to walk up, unencumbered?
I wish I knew.
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