I wake up every day torn between the desire to save the world and to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day. — E.B. White
On April 1, 2010, I began what I’m calling My Year of No, and it’s not a joke. It’s an experiment in setting limits, creating boundaries, and simplifying, and it’s a holistic project that encompasses every area of my life. I’m nattering on about it at length via Facebook Notes (friend invites from Constant Readers cheerfully accepted), but for alchemical purposes we’ll stick to the library sphere here.
I’d been thinking about a work-related project like this ever since I read Emily Ford’s phenomenal essay, How Do You Say No? at Lead Pipe last December. She articulates, much more logically and rationally than your passionate alchemist ever could, the benefits of setting limits, and offers concrete, practical resources and techniques for professional boundary-setting. Click there toute de suite, s’il vous plait, because it’s marvelous.
This is hardly a slam on Ms. Ford’s writerly excellence. Putting theory into practice, however, is always difficult because there’s that messy, human, emotional component that makes saying no and setting limits very, very difficult.
Most libraries are, right now, being asked to do more and more with less and less. Legislators nibble at state budgets, ruthlessly nickel-and-diming us. Staff members leave, for whatever reason, and cannot be replaced, much to the chagrin of the Legion of Jobhunters. It’s no picnic for those left behind, either, as they assume more responsibility for the same amount of pay. And a simple cost-of-living raise becomes an occasion for celebration (probably with a potluck) because, hey, at least we got that.
I’m not casting aspersions, mind you. It is what it is, and there’s no point in grumbling or finger-pointing. No one person got us into this mess, and no one person can get us out. It’s a team effort. Which brings us back to the quandary of saying “no.”
In such a tense professional climate, it becomes difficult for those of us fortunate enough to have jobs to say no to anything, ever. The fear becomes, if we start saying no, that’s a demonstration that we’re not team players, not willing to “man up” in hard times and help us all get through this. No matter how nicely it’s said, even the most polite, professional “no” can sound like an unwillingness to go the extra mile in tough times.
[Those of you jockeying for tenure are, in a way, fortunate. You have a goal in sight, a holy grail, a promise of safety to work toward. In other ways, of course, you are just plain crazy, but it's the adorable kind of crazy that I decidedly appreciate, considering how often I refer students back to my colleagues across the lawn at Pitt, and up the road to CMU. Bless the academic librarians! Without them, we in the public sector have no measuring stick for professional pain, and we stand with you in solidarity against the onslaught of information illiteracy, and cultural stupid/lazy.]
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that, somewhere, sometime, something does have to give. But it’s hard to birth theory into practice.
What works for me is public humiliation accountability. I know darned well that I could try to make changes until I’m blue in the face, but unless there’s the possibility of a public pratfall, changes won’t happen. I will, for example, set my Facebook status to something like “has to finish writing the meeting agenda.” This spurs me to finish the agenda because if I don’t, I’ll have to publicly admit I didn’t finish. There’s the added benefit of the “go you” and “get ‘er done!” type comments from my peers.
So I’ve printed Emily’s lovely essay for myself (they call me Gothface Tree Killah around these parts, apologies to my WuTang overlord), and will be using it as a guide for the rest of the year as I craft my cunning plan to set professional limits. I also hereby vow to you, publicly, that from 4/1/2010 to 4/1/2011, LAV will not:
- Check work e-mail when she’s not working. This has been astonishingly difficult, and there are times when I have to sit on my hands to keep from logging into the exchange server. I keep reminding myself that my job does not (normally) involve blood or fire, and that whatever ends up in my inbox will keep until I get back.
- Work from home. Technology has made it easier and easier to be connected 24/7. This has had a deleterious effect on playtime with my cats and cosmopolitans with my girlfiends. Ergo, it must end. See e-mail rationale, above: there is no professional issue I could possibly have that waiting 24 hours would ruin. In some cases, it actually might help.
- Volunteer for any additional unpaid professional service. This is the one that has me uneasy, because it calls into question all my yardsticks of success, to say nothing of my professional goals. Can I really spend a year saying “no” to committees and task forces and volunteer projects and conferences, and still become a library director someday? I’ve already said no to at least three amazing opportunities, and part of me is wondering if I’ve ruined my future forever, or look like a slacker. I’m also afraid that, no matter how nice I was about it, I’ve ruined at least one professional friendship. That’s kind of a scary place to be. And yet…there is so much more to success than the number of add-ons on your resume. Surely I can achieve more than one kind of success?
- Say “yes” to any new work opportunity without subjecting it to a 24-hour discernment period. I solemnly swear, I am working very hard at the job I get paid to do. That being said, I have a bad habit of immediately saying “yes” to every new, cool opportunity that comes down the pike at CLP. Given that we’re a 19-branch library system, there’s something cool going on almost every day. No sane person can accommodate that. So I’ve been waiting a day before signing up for anything new, even though this, too, has involved a lot of biting my tongue and sitting on my hands. What’s been helpful in this regard is my Fabulous Boss’s assertion that I’m working too hard. When your ambitious, energetic, multi-tasking supervisor tells you you’re working too hard, you can probably ease up a little bit (have I mentioned lately that he’s the Best Boss Ever?).
The punch line to my latest humanifesta is, of course, that I am writing this particular Alchemy essay from home.
This is in large part because of the wise advice I received from a trusted co-worker: it’s not enough to say “no” to what’s not working for you; you also have to say “yes” to the things that uplift you, professionally. Writing with and for all of you, and trying to make sense of this crazy library world together, is, I reckon, one of the most important things I do. No sense trying to shoehorn that into the framework of a 7.5 hour workday.
Any thoughts, comments, advice, or frosty adult beverages you have handy would be most welcome. I am going to spend the rest of my day off doing Nothing Work-related Whatsoever. And when we return, we’ll have a few book reviews before we get to the next-most-popular Alchemy poll topic.
ETA 5/1/10: Good heavens, all my intentions up in smoke already, and all of you too kind to call me on it. At the time I wrote this post I was reading Tana French’s In the Woods. I have since finished, and it will be one of my upcoming reviews.