Brigid Schule’s book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time just blew my effing mind. From the fact that constant stress and overwhelm causes our brains to physically shrink (something of which I am already in constant fear) to the revelation that women have been virtually conditioned away from leisure for all of human history, it’s overflowing with information that is both so personal and logical you feel like you’ve known it all along and so revolutionary you are apt to want to change everything about the way to do everything. It’s a good book. You should read it. It contains things important for every employee, employer, woman, spouse and parent to know to be better at being any of those things.
A major takeaway for me as a freelancer, however, was the concept of the ideal worker that permeates American work culture, and the startling realization that we freelancers, who have every reason to not ascribe to it, self-impose it all the same.
You know the “ideal worker.” This is the person who gets to the office early, stays late. Always says yes to overtime. Is always able to be reached, even if he’s supposedly on vacation. He’s back in the office within a week of his kids’ births. No one doubts that work is his top priority. In the American workplace, this person wins. He gets the promotions and the raises. But as Schulte reveals, he doesn’t actually do the best work. Studies show that all that face time and constant availability does not translate into higher quality work than those who create boundaries and protect their work/life balance. Science, people. Science.
So why do we, as freelancers — who purposely escaped the oppressions of the corporate world — still allow ourselves to strive toward the qualities of the ideal worker? We’re constantly logging insane hours. We’re always working to make sure our clients feel we’re ever available to their whims. Even if we get away, we take at least some of our work with us. Not only do we have the freedom to avoid these things, as no ideal worker boss is pulling our marionette strings, but it also turns out we could actually do better work if we just cool it and have a life.
I say this like I am not hardwired to be an ideal worker. I am. Many of us who have the skills to be full-time freelancers are. But we shouldn’t be. Because, as Schulte quotes Annie Dillard in her book, “The way you live your days is the way you live your life.” And so many of us chose freelancing because it’s a better way to live. But it is only better if we ensure it is so.
So here are a few ways I find ideal worker culture creeping into my freelancer psyche, as well as the reality check I’m taking from Overwhelmed to reorient myself, work smarter and live a better life:
IDEAL WORKER CREEP: I have no way to convey to my client how busy my schedule is this week, so I can’t expect them to know this is an unreasonable deadline. I’ll just make it work somehow.
REALITY: Clients don’t know how busy my schedule is. I have to tell them. When I do good work, they’ll wait a reasonable amount of time for me to fit their project into my schedule.
IDEAL WORKER CREEP: If I don’t respond to this email right now, my client won’t think they are my top priority and they will not value me as much.
REALITY: If I don’t respond to this email right now, my client will probably assume I’m busy doing something because I’m a professional with a great deal of value.
IDEAL WORKER CREEP: This has to be done at 11pm tonight because it is here on my to-do list, and if I get behind and have to adjust some deadlines or reschedule an interview, I am failing at life.
REALITY: Meetings get rescheduled every day. Deadlines get pushed back. As long as I don’t make a habit of being unreliable, clients understand that sometimes things come up.
IDEAL WORKER CREEP: I can’t take a real vacation/maternity leave/a half-day on Fridays for the summer because I will seem like someone who is not prioritizing my work over leisure.
REALITY: Ideal workers expect themselves to work all the time. That doesn’t mean they’ll judge me for being a human with a life that doesn’t suck. As long as I give them advance notice and work out a plan to complete my work before and after my absence, they shouldn’t need to interrupt my time away.
IDEAL WORKER CREEP: My identity is my work. I am as valuable as the hours and effort I put into it.
REALITY: My identity is, in part, my work. It is also the kind of friend, wife, daughter, mother (almost!), dog-owner, book reader, conversationalist, yogi, adventurer, thinker and helper I am. It is what I write off the clock. It is what I cook, who I call, what I show up to and how I play. If I only prioritize my work, I have not only lived part of a life, but I will have only been one part of myself.
And that’s no good. The only way to start living a better life is to start living better today. Isn’t that what we’ve been after all along as freelancers?