I’m a fan of J. Michael Straczynski’s works and taking time to pause and reflect is a recurring theme of his. This time of year, with darkness coming so early in the day, is a natural time to stop, look back at what’s come to pass over the year, and take what lessons we can from it. When I sat down to write this article, there was really only one subject that I felt best fit with this theme. A volunteer maintainer I work with on the Atom editor recently asked me about techniques I use to maintain a proper balance between all of the various responsibilities I have between for-pay work, volunteer open-source work, and having time to myself. I don’t have a lot of wisdom to share but I know that there are many people that work in community management that deal with these kinds of challenges, so these are some of the things I’ve learned.
Taking Care of You Comes First
One of my first serious jobs was as a lifeguard at a water park. For a teenager who was into swimming both competitively and for pleasure, it was a dream job. I got to spend a bunch of time in or near the water. I was able to improve my swimming skills and hang out with other people who enjoyed it as much as I did. I had free admission to a place I would probably spend a bunch of time anyway and my friends got in for free as well.
I learned a lot of important life lessons there. But one of the most important and applicable to community management was when I was working as an in-the-water guard in the wave pool one day when a lightning storm was forecast. Where I grew up, lightning touching the ground was mostly a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. This particular day though, lightning had already touched down a few times before 11am outside of town and the storm was heading into town where the water park was. My supervisor came to me in a short break and told me, “If you hear the long alarm sound, get yourself out of the water, dry off and then help people out of the pool from the sides.” The long alarm was the bell we used to signal to the lifeguards that, for whatever reason, the pool needed all the guests to be cleared out of it. When I asked why I needed to dry off and help from the sides when normally I would have helped usher people out from in the water, he said simply, “You can’t help anyone if you’re struck by lightning.”
Most work culture tends to talk about work/life balance in terms of squeezing your personal life and self-care into the cracks between work. It works much better the other way around because you can’t do your best work if you’re tired, hungry, sick, worrying about whether the house caught fire because you forgot to turn the stove off, or dealing with the health or well-being of a family member.
Some things from my personal “taking care of me” checklist:
- Take a full lunch hour every work day
- If you must eat at your desk, do so while doing something not work-related
- I generally read longer-form articles related to science, open-source, software development or current affairs
- Don’t let a week go by without spending some time with family or friends
- Spend a little time every day improving your health
Be Honest With Yourself About Your Limits
For the longest time, I would sign up for way more things than I could reasonably handle. I would say to myself, “Yeah, I should be able to get that done.” What I didn’t realize is that “should be able to” was really “may be able to if everything goes my way on a really good day”. Then when I didn’t get three of the eight things done today, they would bleed over into the next day. And then even more would roll over into the day after. Eventually, it was just this task avalanche that I would get buried under and I would have to have this big reassessment that was painful for me and anyone else that was depending on me to get things done.
If you’re constantly unable to get everything done in the day that you set out to accomplish, the problem probably isn’t that you’re being lazy. It may well be that you’re expecting too much of yourself. You’re being too optimistic about what you’re going to be able to get done.
The tool that finally ended up helping me the most with this problem was to have:
* One goal for the day
* One goal for the week
* One goal for the month
This system helps to keep me focused on getting things done regularly but also to keep longer-term goals in mind. If I got my goals done then I would always find ways to get other things done around them but I never felt like things were falling through the cracks because my goals were always the things that were most important.
Be Honest With Yourself About Your Motivations for Working
There have been a few times in my life when I have really given my professional work absolutely everything I had. Each time was when something was going on in my personal life that I was trying to avoid. Once it was the slow end of a long-term romantic relationship. Another time it was lingering health problems and eventual passing of a close family member. I was using my work to avoid dealing with these emotional things. Eventually, because I was avoiding those things everything came crashing down when I could no longer juggle everything. It was always much more painful than if I had just dealt with things as they came up.
I don’t really have great suggestions for how to deal with this pattern, other than the fact that being aware helps me recognize more quickly when it is happening. And as they say, knowing is half the battle.
The Unexamined Life
Plato is credited with the quote, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” What all of these recommendations have in common is taking the time to pause and reflect, not only at the end of the year, but regularly. Examining your life and how you are living it will help you choose your path. And then at least it will be your path and your decisions guiding it.
As the last post of 2017 in Studies in Community, I want to take the time to wish everyone peace, health, and happiness in the remainder of this year and the new year to come. Thank you for reading.
— Lee Dohm