Friday, May 25, 2012

Work and non-work: Decompartmentalizing

It was probably the most trivial item on my entire To Do list this week, and yet it made such a difference in my sense of personal organization.

“Fix email folders,” I had jotted down on my tasks list. I wasn’t sure what exactly I needed to do; I just sensed that there was probably a way to re-organize my email folders that would be more visually satisfying to me.

As it was, I had one main folder called “Work,” under which were numerous subfolders for emails related to upcoming articles and those already in progress; and another main folder called “Personal,” in which were folders for volunteer activities, community events, family correspondences and vacation plans.

I hadn’t chosen the designations “Work” and “Personal”; they were the default folders assigned by Gmail, but they seemed logical enough to me when I set up my mailbox. Everything presumably related to one or the other: work or personal life, so surely this was as good a way as any to start the process of dividing one’s correspondences.

But somehow it just didn’t work for me on a psychological level. The work items didn’t necessary feel like work, and the personal items sometimes did feel like work. It made sense to put emails related to an event I was covering for the Globe into a work folder, but when I received tickets to the same event by email, the tickets didn’t seem like they should be classified as work. And organizing the faculty/staff luncheon at my kids’ school is a volunteer activity, which made it by definition personal; yet it certainly felt more like work than leisure as I sent out countless emails asking people for food contributions and reiterating once again the school kitchen’s nut-free policy.

So I simply removed the “work” and “personal” designations. It was such a trivial act, but it did so much to clear my mind, because on a symbolic level, it seemed so much more genuinely reflective of my life. I do a variety of different things every day, and since I’m self-employed and write from home, “work” assignments don’t always feel so different from “personal” assignments. In the course of a typical week day, I might research an article, interview a subject, vacuum the carpets, make up the next month’s schedule for school library volunteers, select a recipe for dinner, draw up an agenda for the adult ed class I teach, and respond to an email about an issue related to church. What’s work? What’s leisure? What’s personal? What’s domestic?

This isn’t a complaint. Not at all. It’s life the way I believe it should be lived. Yes, I need to keep the revenue-producing tasks on my radar as a priority; given the choice between taking on another volunteer role at the kids’ school and accepting an assignment from a magazine I haven’t previously written for, I’m likely to gravitate to the latter, both for practical and ideological reasons. Writing is still one of my greatest interests as well as what I get paid to do. But I also really value the fact that as a self-employed person, I’m able to integrate so many other aspects of my life into the so-called “work” day.

When I was in my early 20’s and still new to the professional realm, working full-time in a corporate role, I was a little stunned to realize just how much of every day most people spent at their jobs. Even as an entry-level employee not expected to take work home or put in extra hours, I was there from 8:30 to 5 every weekday. “That’s the whole day,” I marveled silently during my first week of employment, a little bit horrified to discover this secret of adulthood that I’d previously chosen to overlook.

I realize how lucky I am now to be self-employed now. It gives me time to do both what I get paid for and what I like to do, whether those two categories are discrete or overlapping. Dissolving the “work” and “personal” designations in my email box was a token gesture, but for me they held a lot of symbolism. It was useful to me to override the Gmail defaults and acknowledge that in my life, “work” and “personal” are often indistinguishable, and that’s one of many things about my life for which I am truly grateful.

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