A couple of weeks ago I got a telephone call from the office of my doctors. A voice that I thought sounded nervous said ‘It’s about your MRI scan results. Mr R would like to see you. ‘The words sent me straight to a place I thought I had left behind. An hour later I was clear that everything was fine, he’d apparently just wanted me to travel up to his clinic to be told that! The upside of the incident was that immediately I saw again very clearly what is important – and it wasn’t the report that had been troubling me all morning! I had a concrete reminder of why I embarked on this process of imposing balance in my life (and that I seemed to have lost that).
It’s been a few months since I have posted a blog. How have I been doing in terms of my own small steps? I’d like to say ‘pretty good’. There have been a couple of significant victories. In April we went away for a few days break. I went straight from work which meant that I had all of my electronic devices with me. But I didn’t even turn them on! I spent the whole of the Wednesday doing a jigsaw in my pyjamas while everyone visited a country house and it felt great! OK, I admit to feeling like I should be doing other things, work things. But I got over it! Then after one of the May bank holidays I came into work on the Tuesday morning and literally couldn’t remember what I had been doing on the Friday – which felt like a very long time ago. It felt like I’d been away – I had switched off completely.
The campaign has been based on four simple steps.
Step 1: active diary management. I have said that I don’t want to work inLondon more than twice a week. I’m working on the other days of course, but in the office that is close to home. A diary audit of the last ten weeks shows a 60% success rate. Twice I have failed because extra stuff has gone in (although in both cases I was watching other people do stuff rather than doing it myself – so I wasn’t expending as much effort) and twice because a personal commitment (a hospital appointment and a lunch with friends) required me to be there. And it’s worth commenting that on only one of those two latter occasions did I take the opportunity of slipping in a work appointment!
Now as I have said before, I’m the first to admit my very privileged position. Such control of my diary is a function of me being my own boss and the fact that my recent health history (and their saintly natures) mean that my colleagues are supportive to the point of being protective. And a big six country trip in May that would have meant working much more than a couple of times a week was cancelled because of the Arab spring. But there are always things I could be doing and people I should see. The point that I am making is that if you are committed to diary management, it can work.
Step 2: I’ve made a promise to myself that I will only go into the office at the weekend if I really have to. The office is conveniently (perhaps enticingly) located about 200 yards from my front door. In the past my default was to be there for a couple or three hours early on a Saturday or a Sunday morning most weekends and always late on a Sunday evening sorting things out for the week to come. And, when I had a lot on, I’d be there on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon too. I’m reminded of the joke I used to tell about everyone who works at our place having a flexible work arrangement and mine being able to choose which part of the weekend I had off!
I have been largely successful in getting out of the routine of weekend office visits. And the (three?) times that I have found myself there in the last ten weeks, I have been doing cricket admin not work stuff. There’s a whole other question there about non-work interests competing with home, but I’ll leave that there for now. My campaign to not work at the weekend has been largely successful and there has always been stuff that I could have/should have been doing. Papers that have been left unfinished, thinking that hasn’t been done, proposals that have been sent out later, catching up that hasn’t happened.
I think that I’ve been successful with my weekends for the same reason that I have been successful with the diary management. Because of the work that I did up front on my mindset, because I was mindful about what was happening and what I wanted to happen. And because I looked carefully at what it was that I was actually doing when I went in at the weekend, and whether I had to do it or whether the business could manage without me doing it. So now, when my mind proposes a weekend office visit, there is a presumption against it, a sense that to do so would be somehow ‘wrong’.
My assessment (that appears to have been correct) was that no-one would really notice if I lay in bed after waking at 6.30 on a Saturday or Sunday. At least nobody in the business would notice! People at home notice I think. Also I notice because I feel less stressed, my weekend days are my own. I now see that a weekend day that starts with three hours work is ‘tainted’; time spent at work somehow sets up a mindset of achievement that sits badly with a good Saturday or Sunday.
Step 3: on the three (sometimes two) days that I work in the office I have made a point of not getting into work horribly early. Before I was ill I reasoned that I should get into work at the sort of time that I got onto my train when I was going to London. So 7.30am would have been a late start. Incidentally I know where that originated – when I was the first man to request a flexible work arrangement under my then law firm employer’s shiny new flexible working policy, I argued that I could spend the time that I would otherwise spend commuting on productive work! Over the last few months I have fallen into a routine of getting up to dress Boy 3 before crawling back into bed feeling very fatigued and waiting till the bathroom is clear – only actually getting up once they have left on the school run. Occasionally I will get a cuddle or one of them will sit on the bed and do their teeth. There’s some chat, but I’m not really doing anything, I’m just present. Interestingly in my childhood memory my Mum was always in bed when I was getting ready for school. My Dad made breakfast and after that I would sit on her bed. There is something very comforting about that memory. And in a way I think I’m consciously recreating that, hoping that on some level this will have some positive impact on my boys.
Step 4: on those office days I am much more conscious of the time I get home (which, of course, is about two and a half minutes after I leave!) In the past I would shamelessly time my arrival to coincide with dinner time. Now I see that being home at six or half past is a good time to be at home. Not necessarily to do anything domestically productive, just to be there and pick up on some of the stuff that’s happened and is happening around me. I can’t claim anything like a 100% success rate on this one, but I have often got an extra half hour or so to experience the everyday life of the family unit.
The fact that I am not being domestically productive in the mornings or when I get home early is obviously unfair and something that I am reflecting on as I write this. Possibly I think that it’s a function of the changed family dynamic following my illness, of my ongoing tiredness. And the fact that the dynamic has always been one of me doing what I’m asked to during the week. But I am clear that my increased presence in family life is making a qualitative difference to my relationships with the boys. I say that from my perspective obviously. I have a sense that the same is true from theirs too. A while ago we both picked the boys up from school. I can’t remember why it was, but it’s certainly something that the rational, pre-illness me would have frowned upon as a criminal duplication of parenting resource. We pulled up at a set of traffic lights on the way home and Boy 2 said à propos nothing at all: ‘We should do this more often.’ And he didn’t mean stop at the lights! He was commenting upon us all being together and it stuck with me.
I think that I’ve made a start at rebalancing stuff and the means I have used are very simple. First I looked hard at what I was trying to achieve. Then I set diary targets and changing the way you work to accommodate them. I made promises to myself based on realistic assessments of what has to be done (and what I was currently achieving in the time spent at work). Those targets and promises need to be revisited and are current in my mind. My experience is that I’m seeing pay offs in my family relationships.