Living a Self-Directed Life One Week at a Time

Human society is gradually transitioning from hierarchies of domination and control towards egalitarian circles of equals. At least that’s my take on things, and my “life’s work” including this writing that I do is all about bearing witness to and championing that transition. A critical aspect of moving away from other people (including ones employer) controlling your life, is to develop the ability to exercise that control yourself instead. So moving beyond the realm of just an abstract philosophical discussion I want to talk about how I try to make this a reality in my own day to day life.

What I’ve learned over an almost six decade span of this life is to essentially “create my own reality” (a mainstay of new-age thinking) as a key part of directing my continuing life and development. Nowhere is my creation more evident these days than in how I am able to build most of my weeks to meet my unique mix of needs to be productive, have fun, maintain my health, and generally live a balanced life. Each week is a seven-day “opus” mainly written and wholly performed by me. Each week includes some regular facilitating rituals, but hopefully enough variety as well to make each a unique expression of who I am becoming and the worldview I champion.

I have not come to this point easily or without much personal development of my own sense of agency and how I manage my interactions with others, including my supervisors and other colleagues at work. I have been working in the corporate world for over twenty years, and my current comfort level with that sort of work environment has been learned incrementally over those years.

Being Productive

What it’s all about is being productive in what I regard as my “life’s work”, which revolves these days around writing for my blog “Lefty Parent”. My goal each week is to spend two to three days focused on my writing, creating pieces for my blog (which eventually could be components of larger essays and even books) and getting my written thoughts distributed to and read by as many people as possible.

I have found that I need to devote all or most of a day to this writing if I hope to be productive. It does not work for me to squeeze a couple hours of writing in the evening after working all day at my “day job”. My more long-term goal is to be able to write full-time, either by figuring out how to make money with it and/or retiring from my paid work with enough retirement income to live on.

To bankroll my life’s work, I have a salaried full-time employee job working as a business analyst for a non-profit company in the health insurance business. To this end I need to account for forty hours a week of work. Given six paid holidays and twenty-one vacation days I get per year, I can dial down my effective work-week to more like thirty-six hours on average. My preference would be to work closer to thirty-two hours per week, but that’s problematic because it would involve unpaid leave that would complicate and could compromise my employee status.

But even creating the reality of a 36 hour work week is not an easy task. To do so I need to challenge the conventional Calvinist American work paradigm which says that if you are not working “hard” (which usually means putting in significantly more than 40 hours work a week in a salaried position) you are an unethical “slacker” and justly deserve to be fired, laid off, or otherwise end up losing your job. I actually work for a company that is very humanistic and worker-oriented and has an oft stated goal of promoting “life balance” for its employees. Still the Calvinist “Puritan” work ethic persists, and some of my colleagues proudly share their martyrdom of working long hours to the point of anxiety, loss of life balance, and the degradation of their health.

My strategy in challenging that prevailing ethic is twofold. First, I attempt to, as they say, “work smarter not harder”, and scrupulously triage my time so I spend as little as possible in activities where my skills and wisdom are not fully leveraged. This includes declining to attend fully half of the meetings I’m invited to, particularly those where I’m not playing a role as a facilitator of or a subject matter expert on the meeting’s agenda, and I can get what I need from the meeting by reading the meeting minutes or notes or from a quick briefing from a colleague attending. Other time-consuming activities that do not contribute significantly to my expected work output I do my best to anticipate and avoid as well. Add to all this that I don’t work well under time pressure, so I have to constantly and judiciously think ahead to minimize such occurrences.

Second, I carefully manage the expectations of my supervisors and other colleagues as to the amount of work I can accomplish in any given week. If getting something finished by Friday would push me over my planned work hour total for the week, I only spend those extra hours if absolutely required for a deadline that can’t be pushed to early in the next week. I don’t ever try to “make points” by working extra hours to get things done quicker by choice. This way my colleagues don’t get used to a level of output from me that is unsustainable within my 36 hour per week target for what I would consider a balanced life.

Building Each Week to My Liking

The conventional approach to work that most people have is that you as an employee conform your schedule to match your employer and their requirements. But it has become accepted at my work (I certainly have and continue to lobby for this) that we don’t have set hours when we have to be in the office as long as we get our work done in a timely fashion and participate in all the meetings and collaborative work sessions where we are needed. This includes typically being able to work remotely one or even two days a week. To that end most of us work remotely on Fridays, along with one other day of the week that works best for our individual schedules.

This remote work is facilitated by technology, having the ability to log into the company’s network remotely from anywhere there is Internet access, and having meeting tools like Webex that facilitate audio conferencing while sharing your computer screen with other meeting participants. This is also facilitated by the fact that so many of my colleagues that I meet with most are not local to my worksite and are scattered throughout California or even beyond that.

Having become very comfortable with leading or otherwise participating in these sorts of virtual meetings and work sessions (rather than being face to face in a meeting room) I rarely schedule a face to face meeting. And as most meetings led by others (even those in a meeting room) include remote access (Webex or at least dial-in voice access), I can participate in most every meeting when I’m not physically in the office, and even on my cell phone while I’m walking, or commuting by bus or train (I never commute by car).

So given our own control of our work hours and when we have to show up in the office, I tend to structure my week with two long days on-site Monday and Tuesday, in the office from 7am to 4:30pm, with additional time spent working on the train to and from work (including participating in meetings on my cell phone from the train). Wednesdays I often take a vacation day to write, or work a long day, but do so remotely. Thursdays I generally go into the office at 7am but then leave at lunchtime and take buses across town to meet my partner Sally and her folks at their house to spend the afternoon and evening. It’s two hours of bus-riding, but I have my laptop and my cell phone so I can participate in meetings (tho I generally would not attempt to lead a meeting) or work on documents that I am creating or review and annotate printed documents. Friday’s I tend to work remotely again, and I work as few hours as I can get away with, so I can focus most of the day on my own “life’s work” writing.

But then each week tends to vary in some degree from that norm given say an all-day on-site meeting scheduled on Thursday, or a meeting back east that I need to dial into at say 5:30am Pacific time. This is where each week becomes its own “opus”. In the case of the former situation, I might try to work just a few hours on Wednesday (when I’m working remotely) and try to make space for some of my own writing. For the latter I might work from home that day, starting at 5am and (since I don’t have to take the time to commute to and from work), log even 12 hours of work until 5pm.

Note that I keep careful track of my hours worked, even tho I’m salaried and not paid hourly, and bank any extra hours worked one day to be used to work less on another. This is not conventionally how a salaried job is supposed to work, but I do it anyway because it facilitates me ensuring that I am neither skimping or overdoing my work time. I feel the conventional approach to a salaried position encourages one to work beyond 40 hours per week on a regular basis.

Building in the Fun

It is important to me that I build a certain amount of fun into my week to make it enjoyable and something that I look forward to. A day without some fun I can accept once in awhile if there is a very compelling reason, but beyond that such a day feels like drudgery to me. So if I’m going to be architect and driver of my own life, I’m going to build a fair amount of fun into it. That said, some of the things I consider fun may not be what would come to your mind.

I have always loved to travel and consider any form of it one of life’s best adventures. Just about any journey from point A to point B qualifies in my book (the longer journeys certainly are best), particularly when all the variables are not completely under my control and I’m not sure what I will encounter along the way. So I try to make all my transportation during the week as much of a “travel adventure” as possible without it being so out of control that it disrupts the rest of my week’s activities. To this end I avoid driving anywhere if at all possible, since it is too boring, predictable, and also is stressful for me because it requires my constant attention (while bored) lest I space out, get in an accident, and possibly injure or kill people.

So instead I enjoy every other form of transportation, from humble walking, to more high-stakes urban bicycle riding, to mass transit by bus or train. Particularly when engaged in the last three, I never know what I will encounter after I “saddle up” or climb on board. And even walking can throw me a few curves when mother nature is a factor (I love walking in the rain if I have an effective umbrella) or I’m walking somewhere I haven’t been before. Walking and bicycling also double as exercise and can be meditative as well… so such a deal! Climbing on a train or bus puts you in contact with so many of your fellow city-dwellers and gives you such a better gestalt of the place where you live. When you drive a car you mainly just see other cars… boring! Given all the above, my favorite day of the week is usually Thursday, since besides my normal commute to work on foot and by train, at midday I take three buses across town to my partner Sally’s folks’ house by the ocean. Three buses for most people might seem like an ordeal, but for me its a joyful adventure.

Also fun for me is the opportunity to design things. My paid work gives me opportunities to do so, as I’m often called upon to create some sort of diagram or other presentation, or occasionally called upon to design something bigger like a new or modified business process. Even facilitating a meeting or other work session can have aspects of design in applying ones facilitation skill set to the unique zeitgeist of any coming together of human beings and the challenge of helping them be successful in their efforts.

My love of design carries over to the realm of storytelling and fictional narratives. In this regard I particularly enjoy watching well-crafted science-fiction, fantasy or cloak-and-dagger type TV shows with great writing, characters, acting, direction and well-wrought overarching stories that play through many episodes. My partner Sally and I try to reserve several nights a week for watching these sorts of shows, ideally online thru Netflix if possible so we can watch multiple episodes without commercials in one sitting, to better see the larger story arcs. We like to discuss how the stories are skillfully crafted and rendered.

I can only spend so much time each day in the concrete “muggle” world of earning a living, running a household, or otherwise meeting survival needs. So for me, part of a day well spent has got to involve dealing with the world at a more abstract level, discussing trends, ideas, underlying currents and the like. I was fortunate enough to find a life partner who revels in the same sort of discussions, so all our daily encounters at the kitchen table or in front of the TV/computer screen are peppered with this sort of exchange.

Orchestrating the Balance

I continue to learn each day that balance is critical to leading my life to the fullest. When I overfill my life with the hard challenging stuff because that’s what moves forward my “life’s work” or my paid work (to better finance my life’s work), I inevitably reach a point where I can no longer give that work freely without beginning to feel like the world owes me something in return. That I have learned is a recipe for disappointment, burnout, and generally unhealthy self-medication of various sorts. When I leave sufficient time instead for the fun activities that are not necessarily associated with any productive work, there is no need to resort to any sort of self-medication.

Balance becomes a matter of both budgeting how much time I spend on each aspect of my life – work, play, exercise, exploration, etc – but also sequencing these various aspects thru the hours of each day. That budgeting and sequencing creates the “opus” of each week of my life, no two exactly alike, but like musical compositions, tending to follow certain repeated conventions. As with musical or other compositions, some weeks are better crafted and/or better performed than others.

In a well crafted week, each component of activity added to the opus achieves the maximum benefit (to you and to the larger efforts that your activity enhances) at the minimum cost, while looking for all the possible synergies between the sequencing of tasks. So for example, if I’m going to go thru the whole process of commuting to my paid worksite and back on a given day, I might as well leave home as early as I reasonably can and spend as many hours at the worksite as I reasonably can before I come home, to get the most return for the commute. And since after such a long day I’m not good for much of any sort of work at home (beyond a couple quick chores perhaps), then my partner Sally and I have dinner and then have an evening of fun in discussion and/or watching a movie or multiple episodes of some TV series available on the Internet (thru Netflix or otherwise). But after two such long days (usually for me, Monday and Tuesday) of paid work at my work site, I generally benefit from a day doing something different. So I’ll either plan to take Wednesday as a vacation day (and do my writing as part of my life’s work), or at least do my paid work remotely, from home, or even better, from the little coffee place with wifi I like to hang out at.

Thursday afternoon we generally like to spend at Sally’s folks (both of them are turning ninety in the months ahead), while Fridays I almost always do my paid work remotely. So I generally feel it is most useful to make another appearance at my worksite Thursday mornings (for any of those interactions with colleagues that are best done face to face) and then do my weekly bus adventure (taking a series of three buses) from my worksite to Sally’s folks’ house. I am such a mass-transit junkie that the usual two-and-a-half hour odyssey is the high point of my week, a significant part of my budget of weekly fun.

Part of what makes that Thursday bus adventure so much fun, is that once I board that first bus I feel like I’ve begun the half of my week that is more under my own control on the turf of my choosing. Fridays, though I’m available all day for meetings as needed, I generally spend at my favorite coffee place, and only do a few hours of my paid work, spending the rest of the hours focusing on my own writing. Saturdays and Sundays are completely my own time, which can be devoted to writing, gatherings with family or friends, or a range of other activities.

The Power and Joy of Self-Direction

For some other people I know, they frame their weeks as being orchestrated by their employer or other external entities, and they play their part within another’s creation as best they can, but allowing the lack of balance to take its toll on them in terms of health and well-being. Maybe its about a longer vision of a better future down the road, at the expese of the present. But for me, orchestrating each of my weeks becomes an exercise in self-directed design, and as each week is designed a bit differently, “executing” each design (that is actually living those seven days) becomes a bit of an adventure. It is my own creation, built to my own specifications in and attempt to implement a soul-enhancing gestalt of accomplishment, play, and connection with others that I care about.

I don’t see this as a selfish act on my part. Having the agency and ability to create and live a balanced week to my own liking means that I am more fully present in my paid-work environment and with every other person I interact with during that week. If I do that good balancing job, everything I give to others during that seven-day stretch I give freely with no simmering hidden agenda that I’m somehow “owed” more than I’m actually getting.

As I said at the top of this piece, my life’s work is all about championing our societal transition from hierarchies of external control to more egalitarian circles of equals, where each person person controls their own destiny, their own engagement with others in the world. How better can I live that goal than to exemplify a self-directed soul in how I approach every day of my life?

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