January 31, 2013

Joie du Travail for Life

Do you know about Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee? It's a project from Jerry Seinfeld with a very simple premise: drive to get coffee, pick up a friend along the way, drink coffee with said friend. 

It's hilarious. And insightful. 

Jerry Seinfeld could be sitting around enjoying life in retirement, but you can tell that he actually enjoys working. He loves hearing what his friends and colleagues are up to, brainstorming new projects and reworking old ones. You can tell that he never stops thinking about his work. Granted, his work is telling jokes... but still. He takes it very seriously. (Do you know about the Pop-Tart joke that took him TWO YEARS to finesse?)

Here is an episode from the Comedians in Cars series, featuring a shared coffee between Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.  The one with Alec Baldwin is also a must-see!

January 30, 2013

Use (and Mis-use) of Temporary Workers

This week, NPR's Talk of the Nation featured a show on the "permatemp economy": the idea that today's employers rely more and more on part-time employees, without providing benefits or a guarantee that a job will still exist next Monday. No strings attached. It's a tough concept to think about: on the one hand, the unemployed need every bit of work they can get their hands on. Temp jobs offer a way in the door, a diverse resume, good references and a paycheck. On the other hand, temps are often strung along with promises of a more permanent, full-time job that never materializes and employers save thousands of dollars on benefits never paid out.

You can listen to the whole story here.  

Interested in the history of temporary workers?  There is an excellent piece by Erin Hatton in the New York Times about the transition from "Kelly Girls" to "permatemps".  You won't want to miss the explanation to this advertisement:

Source: The Office (January 1971)

January 29, 2013

Rise of the Freelancer

I confess, I do not know a lot of freelancers personally. Not career freelancers, who pay all their bills, make doctor appointments and who are not artists waiting for a "big break", anyway.  That said, there is a certain "Joie du Travail" element to the idea, no?  Being your own boss, a part of the growing "Gig Economy", choosing your own projects and timelines... it all sounds sexy to this nine-to-fiver.  The allure, I suspect, is control: the ability to take charge of your own career success and schedule without a manager or supervisor middleman.  

Going down this path of daydreams invariably leaves me feeling anxious, though. What if my skill set is too narrow to build a business? What if I'm a terrible rainmaker? What do I know about advertising or an IRS 1099-MISC? Branching out on one's own is scary in so many ways, but I really start to twitch when I think about whole no-safety-net thing. But are those the only two options available: Working for the Man or flying solo? While that was once the case, a new path is beginning to emerge.

For example, did you know that there was a Freelancer's Union? Their mission is based on strength in numbers, specifically "helping the diverse self-employed community build a powerful voice - in politics and in markets." The Freelancer's Union offers members a wide array of resources, including health insurance, tax advice, corporate discounts, retirement planning and, perhaps most importantly, community. In many ways, they are creating a safety net for all the freelancers out there who work independent of a business, government or non-profit organization. (They claim as many as 1 in 3 in the American workforce.)

There is also a wealth of books out there - both traditional and electronic - on how to survive the shift from cubical proletarian to freelancer. Many are simplistic and outdated, so spend some time at the library to limit your investment in unproductive boredom.  Here are just a few that peak my interest and are in the queue:

January 25, 2013

A Desk for Small Spaces

I currently work on a hand-me-down Parsons Desk and, while it's in much need of refinishing, I could never imagine replacing it. (I'm currently wavering between glossy white or a bright lacquer red.) Here are the upsides: it's highly functional with sturdy legs, two drawers and plenty of room for my laptop and daily essentials. It doesn't distract from anything else in the room or scream for attention on its own. The downsides: it's small, which can be both a blessing and a curse. The size forces me to be organized, but also limits the amount of projects I can work on at once.



The company west elm has the best range of Parsons Desks that I've seen, customizable by size, shape and finish. You can learn more about the history of these desks and peruse the whole collection here. I love the cloth-covered and bone inlay versions...

January 24, 2013

Be Flexible

Ever heard of behavioral flexibility? It describes a person's ability to respond and adjust his or her actions based on external stimulations. Ben C. Fletcher, who writes "Do Something Different" for Psychology Today boils it down like this:

People with LOW behavioral flexibility tend to:
- stick to routines
- go to the same places
- have strict schedules
- hang around the same people.

People with HIGH behavioral flexibility tend to:
- act differently in different situations
- try new things
- resist routine
- not rely on habits.

Mr. Fletcher uses behavioral flexibility to explain work-related stress: people who are inflexible tend to describe themselves as stressed, anxious and depressed while at work. He argues that it is not the job itself that causes these feelings, but rather a worker's inability to meet demands, leading him or her to blame the workplace instead of reacting in a resilient way.

I certainly fall into the inflexible category of routine, schedules and living within a well-defined comfort zone. Work stress is also a complaint near and dear to my heart, so this perspective is a challenging one for me. I want things to happen my way, on my timeline, according to my standards. When that doesn't happen (nearly always), I end up dissatisfied, disappointed or angry. Thankfully, Mr. Fletcher's theory isn't all gloom-and-doom. His suggestion? Ride the wave! By being flexible, "people become better equipped to deal with the world. As a result, they perceive it as a less difficult place."  Doesn't that sound nice?

The bottom line is to go with the flow. Look for ways to reconcile situations instead of fighting them with predictable tendencies. Try to see things from your boss's point of view or adapt to a coworker's work style, even if its just for one project. Who knows? Maybe their approach isn't as infuriating as you once thought. And just think of how laid back you'll appear to your coworkers!

To read more about behavioral flexibility and coping mechanisms, check out this article. To learn how to "Do Something Different", head over to Psychology Today.

January 23, 2013

Can Money Buy Happiness?

Relating to yesterday's post, check out this 3-minute video on the relationship between money and happiness.  

My two favorite takeaways?  
1. When Americans achieve incomes of more than $75,000, they do not see a corollary uptick in level of happiness.  
2. Encouraging employees to spend money on each other or charities increased both job satisfaction and performance more than an individual bonus.  Sounds a little more meaningful, doesn't it?

January 22, 2013

Happiness vs. Meaning

Do you describe your work to others as "meaningful"? I don't mean the paper-pushing, clock-watching, cat-video-watching part of the day, but the actual work you produce and your goals for the future.

My guess is that very few people in the present-day working class would answer "yes" to that question, even if he or she happens to enjoy the job itself.  Thanks to the economy, competition, unequal pay for unequal work and the managerial pyramid, it's hard to find deeper meaning in the work day, especially when the basic struggle to find sanity with a side of paycheck is so great. (Remember TPS reports?) Anecdotally, we know that identifying personal passions and happiness is a huge part of achieving a successful career path, but I have yet to find an example in my life of passion paying the electric bill.

However, a new study soon to be released in The Journal of Positive Psychology challenges the assumption that happiness and meaning are one in the same or, for that matter, even directly related.  Its authors explain that happiness is "largely present-oriented" and highly associated with things being easy or taking the best away from a situation.  Meaning, on the other hand, goes much deeper, "integrating past, present and future" assessments of one's purpose and contributing or giving back to society.  Taking versus giving.

The research concludes that finding happiness at work does not automatically guarantee a sense of meaning.  In fact, the opposite may be true: withstanding a difficult situation may not bring you happiness, but it is very likely to leave you with a sense of meaning, resiliency and adaptability to the ever-changing world around us.  More on this later this week...

The Atlantic recently highlighted the life of Viktor Frankl, a Jewish concentration camp survivor and prominent psychiatrist, and his work on this subject.  Frankl wrote, "It is the very pursuit of happiness, that thwarts happiness."  

January 18, 2013

Working From Home

I work from home. No, those are not magic words. Consider this a wake-up call, Oh Ye Cubical Dwellers of the World.

To begin with, my desk is within view of laundry. Dirty laundry, clean laundry, folded, unfolded, whites, darks, you name it. When you work from home, there is a constant pressure to multi-task, with the majority of tasks being housework-related. In theory, it sounds like no big deal, right? I imagine you rolling your eyes and thinking "can't you listen to conference calls while tidying up?" 

Well, no. Not with any real attention being paid to the people on the phone. Not when the UPS guy comes and the dog goes ballistic at the door. Not when your husband comes home for lunch and can't find the mayo. And certainly not when the washing machine does that thing when it's too full and starts jumping around the laundry room like a 500 lbs. gorilla.

Working from home isn't glamorous. There are no coworkers to shame you to clean up your desk, empty your trash or wash the old coffee cups laying around. It's certainly not classy to start work in your pajamas and, eight hours later, realize that you're still in them. There's little human interaction beyond GoToMeeting, no office gossip, no lunch out, no YouTube breaks. (They aren't as funny by yourself, trust me.)  Worst of all, work assignments and to-dos are with you day and night.  It's just too easy to be lured into answering one more e-mail from the couch, or worse, your bed.

Thing two: pets do not understand work. They understand walks and potty time and snacks and toys. Dogs like to bark when you're on speakerphone and chew beloved items of clothing when you close the office door on them. Cats like to sit on your keyboard. When it's cold, my dog crams herself in between my feet and the small heater under my desk. (There is not room for both.)  

Hey, remember those school days when the weather was superb and everyone would beg the teacher to have class outside? Well, when working from home, you experience that feeling times 500. When it is nice outside, the longing to work outside is powerful, like the force, and you rationalize using that powerful wi-fi signal to your advantage.  But, the minute you step into the backyard... forget getting anything done. The sun glares on your computer screen, your iPhone overheats turning your ear red and you end up focusing on - you got it - yard work. Next thing you know, you're in the hammock with a beer in your hand.

What is the lesson here? The grass is always greener on the other side of the cubical/laundry pile. Make the best of your situation and take comfort in the fact that each work environment has challenges. Attempt to make friends with your coworkers, even if they are weird and steal food from the office fridge.  Myself, I try to set boundaries with chores, maintain a somewhat organized desk, stick to a realistic work schedule and enjoy the fact that sometimes I can begin work in my pjs (but should make an effort to look presentable by 10am).

N.B. I am not the only one who sets up shop in bed.  Writer (and famous spouse) Ann Leary has a whole series dedicated to her bed desk.

January 17, 2013

Office Lust: Rustic

The Hendrix desk.  




If that wasn't enough, here is a close up of the Archer chair...


Every desk needs an organizer and notepads.


Finally, speakers to play your tunes at work, or - ahem - ergonomically display your phone.


Check out Pottery Barn, Peg and Awl and Koostik for more rustic office ideas.

January 16, 2013

How We Spend Our Time

In case you found yesterday's post about the BLS Time Use Survey boring, here is an infographic from The Economist with lots of colors:

January 15, 2013

Where Does the Time Go?

Every year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes a Time Use Survey that tracks the amount of time Americans spend on work, household activities, childcare, eldercare and leisure.  Here are a few statistics that lend themselves to examination:

- On designated work days, the average adult spends 7.6 hours actually at work.
- Women spend 2.6 hours per day on housework, a full thirty minutes more than men (2.1 hours).
- Those providing for an aging parent or relative spent 3.1 hours on eldercare.
- Adults without children spent 4.5 hours a day on leisure activities, while working parents only had 3.5 hours of free time.
- Watching television occupied half of all leisure time spent, totaling 2.8 hours per day.  

What's even more interesting is how these hours and percentages compare to how other people around the world spend their time. For example, in a comparison of thirty countries around the world:

- Americans spend the most annual hours working (1,896) with Hungary (1,889) and Poland (1,806) following closely behind.
- Adults in Turkey spend 35% of all leisure time visiting or entertaining friends compared to only 16% of Americans.
- Only Mexicans watch more television than Americans (48% versus 44%).
- No surprise here: the French spend twice as much time eating each day (135 min) as Americans (74 min).
- Nearly every country surveyed reported sleeping more than Americans (8.6 hours).

While neither of these reports address productivity or output (topic for another day), I cannot help but feel woefully inefficient when I read stats like these. I could cut my to-do list in half if I gave up even one hour of television. Moreover, I cannot keep using work as an excuse for avoiding friends or enjoying a night out at a new restaurant.  Clearly, there are enough hours in the day for non-work activities if I choose to make them a priority.

January 11, 2013

If Money Were No Object

We all know that financial security carries its share of the weight in our mission to find sanity with a paycheck.  But, British writer, speaker and philosopher Alan Watts challenges us to become masters of the things we love to do first.  So, what is the work that you really want to do?

January 9, 2013

Bad Habits

I envy people who naturally and effortlessly make the most of every situation encountered. (I tend to fall into the other category: those with a predisposition to gripe and bellyache about everything.) Recently, I read a persuasive quote by writer Rita Schiano that shifted my mindset on the practicality of complaining: "Talking about our problems is our greatest addition. Break the habit. Talk about your joys." 

Noble intention, but easier said than done.

We all know that the workplace is the perfect environment to fall into negative, unproductive patterns like criticism, contempt, procrastination and apathy. The problem is that these bad habits follow us home at the end of the day, leading to eye rolling and interrupting at home.  Do them long enough and they become an essential part of your persona, no longer the harmless quirk they once were at the office.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, "It is easy to slip into self-absorption and it is equally fatal. When one becomes absorbed in himself, in his health, in his personal problems, or in the small details of daily living, he is, at the same time losing interest in other people; worse, he is losing his ties to life.  From that it is an easy step to losing interest in the world and in life itself.  That is the beginning of death."

How's that for an ominous warming?

It isn't hopeless, though. On any day, at any moment, we can choose another door: to talk about what's going right in our lives and invest energy in that instead. It doesn't have to be a new year's resolution or something we do when we turn 40 or on the first day of retirement. It certainly can't require any more effort than keeping up with all the things we are annoyed about. (Here, here and here.)

For more on bad habits that doom relationships, at work or at home, check out Dr. John Gottman's work, which is also well-documented in the book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking by the very funny and insightful Malcolm Gladwell. You can read more of Eleanor Roosevelt's thoughts on happiness here

January 8, 2013

Office Lust: Minimalist

This stark office might require a willing suspension of disbelief, but hey, we can all fantasize of a world without clutter, right?


January 7, 2013

Go to Bed

Look around your office.  How many co-workers would you guess need more sleep?  How many would have a better mood or more positive approach to projects (or even basic human interaction) if they got more sleep?  My guess is 90%, because let's face it: at least 10% of coworkers are simply ornery all the time. The US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention say that than more than 35% of Americans do not get enough sleep for optimum health and productivity.

Again and again, sleep experts note that there is no "magic number" when it comes to how many hours one needs per night.  Both quality of sleep and sleep debt are significant factors in the amount of shut-eye that each person needs. That said, there are serious benefits to be had from upping your hours each night: improved memory, weight management, better judgement, less anxiety, even a longer life! If you don't believe me, take it from Bob Pozen of Brookings Institution, Harvard Business School, Harvard Law School and MFS Investment Management fame.  He just published a book called "Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Improve Your Hours" and recently spoke about the importance of sleep, napping and productivity on MSNBC's Morning Joe.

If you're like me, you probably roll your eyes at "better sleep tips".  I follow a nighttime routine, my bed is pretty darn comfortable, I keep the bedroom a little cool and I don't sleep with my significant other iPhone anymore.  Done.  But here are some things I never considered before:

1. Go to sleep when you're truly tired.  If you find yourself lying awake thinking about work, kids, tomorrow's to-do list or the latest Homeland episode, you should get up (and out) of bed.  While this is certainly no time for Jazzercise, there are plenty of relaxing things you can do to ease into the night without tossing, turning and generally feeling pitiful about how wide awake you are.  Read a book, do a crossword, take a bath, even take the dog on short walk... all of these will make you feel better before crawling into bed.  Caveat: keep the screens off!  Once you open up your laptop and see that e-mail icon, it's all over.

2. Avoid alcohol.  That glass of wine will actually NOT help you sleep.  In fact, chances are that it will rudely awaken you a couple hours later.  Don't be fooled by the seduction of a nightcap as seen in old movies!

3. No big meals.  I know, I know. There is really nothing better than eating a huge feast and then passing out on the sofa to watch football.  However, if you really want to improve your sleep habits, you'll stop eating so late and stop eating so much.  Once again, the French have it right when they designate lunch as the biggest meal of the day.  Big meals force your body to spend energy digesting, not relaxing.  Give yourself three or four hours after mealtimes before hitting the sack.

Check out Harvard's Get Sleep program or the National Sleep Foundation if you want to learn more about becoming a better sleeper.

January 4, 2013


Enjoy this infographic of suggestions from AGBeat to start your year off on the right foot.  (You can still be thankful that this was a short work week...)

Monster also has a good list of career resolutions for 2013, many of which make for great guidance in one's personal life too, like taking time to understand your peers' responsibilities and communicating clearly about goals and challenges. Work and Life do not have to be separate balls that we juggle continuously.  My resolution for 2013 is to make them one and the same, with the hope that balancing each aspect (sanity + paycheck) will lead to a more complete, fulfilled and happier me.  Now, who doesn't like a two-for-one deal?

January 3, 2013

And now for something completely different...

Welcome to Joie du Travail: a grand experiment to alleviate the mountain of aggravations that plague the working world each Monday through Friday. "Joie du travail" translates from French to mean "the joy of work."  At first glance, this oxymoron sounds like an unrealistic - even impossible - goal to achieve. However, since retirement is at least three decades away and my lotto numbers have not been called yet, my only hope is to turn the focus away from daily drudgery to the creation of inspiring, productive, and yes, perhaps even enjoyable career moments.

Join me as I look for creative solutions to career ruts, stale routines, uninspired offices and onerous officemates.  There will be a lot of humor along the way too, as seen here by Monty Python demonstrating a common office scene when management asks for a volunteer:

I hope you will join me on this personal quest for the "holy grail": sanity with a side of paycheck.