We live in a fast-paced world of dread-drenched deadlines but this time of year usually allows us to take stock of ourselves and our lives. Totally Dublin contributor Aoife McElwain has penned Slow at Work exploring how we can take control again.
“For me, slow means calm and considered yet flexible and fluid — anything too rigid is the enemy of slow. It definitely doesn’t mean coming to a complete stop. It means stepping outside the cult of busyness to gain some perspective on the way we are choosing to spend our working days and consider whether we have the power to change how we work to make it more sustainable for ourselves. Whether we can learn skills to catch the rising panic before it takes over out work day. Whether we can slow down at work and still keep up. I hope what I’ve learned and what I continue to learn serves as a source of learning for you.” – Aoife McElwain in her introduction to Slow at Work.
What prompted the idea to explore the concept of ‘Slow’?
In the autumn of 2015, I had a moment of clarity while juggling a multitude of tasks and not managing to do anything well at all. The months that led up to that point had included a leap into freelance life and forced recovery from burnout by way of a back injury. After years of being on the treadmill of busyness and burnout, I knew it was time for to rethink the way I was working; I wanted to explore whether it was possible to slow down and still keep up. Because I’m a compulsively busy person, my way of slowing down was to launch a series of talks exploring these topics and to write a book.
Can you explain the instant gratification monkey and how we can get it off our backs?
The writer Tim Urban (www.waitbutwhy.com) explains procrastination so beautifully. He sees our brains as a ship, one that is easily commandeered by an instant gratification monkey. This monkey loves watching cat videos on YouTube and taking over control of your brain from the rational decision maker who is actually the real heir to your brain. The only thing that scares the monkey away is the panic monster, who finally shows up when a deadline is really upon us, and lets the rational decision maker take back control of the ship and actually get your work done.
You discuss the idea of percolation for ideas as a means of combating procrastination. How can we percolate? And can you square the concept of the procrastinator who gets things done?
I think the importance of percolation is being able to distinguish it from procrastination. So many of us torture ourselves by not being able to produce NOW. We accuse ourselves of being lazy, untalented, good for nothing. But sometimes your idea just isn’t ready to come out yet. It’s only half baked. Knowing when you’d be better served by going for a walk with your dog than by sitting at your desk trying to force out words/art/music is a helpful skill in managing your energy.
I love the idea of the productive procrastinator, and I most definitely am one. I am always putting something off. I will do whatever I can to not do The Big Thing, the thing I’m the most scared of. So I do loads of other stuff to avoid that Big Thing, and somehow I’ve now garnered the reputation as a person who gets things done.
Productively procrastinating is probably the best type of procrastination; at least you’re achieving something.
What is the Pornodoro Technique?
This is from Wikipedia:
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks.
It’s said to gets its name from the classic tomato kitchen timer.
Who is Aunt Linda with her “severe resting bitch face’?
Aunt Linda is my inner critic. She’s a real piece of work. She’s loosely based on Kristin Wiig’s Saturday Night Live character of the same name; her Aunt Linda gives consistently negative movie reviews on Weekend Update and is never, ever satisfied. Ever since I can remember, I have always struggled with a loud and vindictive inner critical voice. It was on the advice of my therapist that I gave the inner critical voice a name, as a way to distance that voice from myself.
I chose Aunt Linda because a) it helps me to externalise that critical voice and take away some of its power and b) at the very least, thinking of Kristin Wiig as Aunt Linda makes me laugh. Aunt Linda works for me because it has helped me see that I can choose how my inner critical voice impacts me. Recognising when Aunt Linda is around helps me to catch when I’m being too hard on myself, or when my negative thoughts have taken hold. Also, Aunt Linda is a member of my family so it’s likely I will have to live with her for the rest of my life. I’m trying to develop a relationship with her where I can be in the same room as her but she doesn’t automatically make me cry. Accepting that she is a part of my life, but not the most important voice in it, is helpful for me. I feel I should point out, for the record, that my real life aunties are all lovely.
You discuss how imposter syndrome thrives in a fixed mindset. What does this mean?
The fixed mindset vs a growth mindset is a theory put forward by Stanford professor of psychology Carol Dweck. According to Dweck, a person with a fixed mindset believes that their gifts, talents and intelligence are fixed traits that can’t be developed whereas someone with a growth mindset believes that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort and learning. A person with a fixed mindset tends to avoid challenges; they see effort as something “less than perfect” people have to do; they feel threatened by the success of others and tend to be perfectionists. People who are talented are often told that they are gifted, smart or special from an early age. This unintentional pressure can be a breeding ground for The Imposter Syndrome, as in “soon they’re all going to find out that I’m actually not that gifted, smart or special. Where will I be then?” If your identity is built around your talents and the praise they bring you, your work can become a precarious source of self-esteem.
How important is bringing our ‘whole selves’ to work and its association with the power of saying ‘no’? How can we end up doing what we value? What can aid us figure out what our good life looks like and how important is giving our gut a seat at the negotiating table where decisions are made?
Only you can figure out what your good life looks like, but I think getting to know yourself and your values can really help direct you in figuring out what you really want to do with your life. This can be as simple as googling “list of values” and circling words that seem important to you; my core values are community, creativity and craic, for example. Working with a life coach or a talk therapist can help you unpack your inner values, too.
To me, using your values to make decisions and harnessing the power of no are rooted in the ability to consult the head, heart and gut. In their book mBraining: Using Your Multiple Brains To Do Cool Stuff authors Grant Soosalu and and Marvin Oka explain that we all have three brains; the head brain, the heart brain and the gut brain. Each have information for us if we are able to learn how to listen to them.
Let’s say you’re thinking of leaving your current job. Your head might say “I can’t leave because of the financial security this job brings me.” Your heart might say “But what I really want to do is give my passion project my full attention and turn it into a business.” Your gut might be telling you “You aren’t happy in your job. It’s time to move on.” They’re all right. I think we get in to trouble when we only listen to one of our brains, and ignore everything the others are telling us. If you can figure out what all three of your brains are saying, you can weigh up your options properly. You might realise that, this time, you really have to listen to your brain over your gut, but just being aware of what your gut is telling you can help arm you with important information to help you navigate work.
How can we connect with our ‘Future Selves’ and recognise they may have different needs from us now?
The idea of really understanding that your decisions in the present impact who you are and how you are in the future is something that many of us struggle with. This is a constant challenge for me. I still think that Future Aoife is some kind of superhero because Present Aoife still tends to put too much on her plate. This lack of connect can be a strength in some ways; being a freelancer can be better served by living in the present and not worrying too much about future income, for example. But for the most part, the disconnect can lead to tears when Future Self finally becomes Present Self, which it always, always does. My strategy is to attempt to be more aware of the decisions I’m making. I try to consult my head, my heart and my brain to make sure I’m making the best decision for my present and future self. To check in with my Future Self before I say yes to anything.
The book is interspersed with personal insights into your own life amid academic research and interviews. How important was it to ensure the reader had your personal take as a means of making other insights relatable?
If anything, this book is a myself-help book. I wrote it to help myself. When I talk to people about the book, they often say “Woah, I really need that book in my life.” And I say “Yeah, me too. That’s why I wrote it.” Writing my own personal insights helped me make sense of my day to day life at work.
In this regard you also share with the reader that you take anti-depressants and their benefits to your life. Was this revelation hard to wrestle with in terms of the sense of exposing yourself?
I think it’s so interesting that you used the word “expose” in this question, because I think that stigma still surrounds anti-depressants in Ireland. I’m asthmatic, but I would never take a close friend aside and explain quietly that I’ve started taking an inhaler to address an imbalance in my body. Why should I be ashamed of taking medication that helps address a chemical imbalance in my brain? There’s a big difference between secrecy and privacy, of course, but taking anti-depressants has made such a positive impact to my life that it felt insincere to not mention it in the book, as if I was leaving out an important part of the story. Before I started taking medication, I had tried so many things over the years to help keep my anxiety under control. I stopped drinking alcohol four years ago. I eat well, most of the time. I had been exercising, a bit. I tried to meditate when I could. But I was still regularly reaching crisis point. When my anxiety got too much for me, it would often lead to bouts of depression where I would be stuck to my bed for a couple days, hiding under my duvet from Aunt Linda with Jean-Luc and Captain Janeway as my shields from the real world. Taking anti-depressants gave me a base layer of support which has helped me manage my energy. Because I don’t tend to have as many obsessive anxious thoughts these days, I can direct that energy to looking after myself properly by swimming in the sea, eating proper breakfasts and generally prioritising my mental health over everything else.
One of your conclusions is that “the secret of slow work is giving ourselves the space and time we need to master the art of knowing when to go fast and when to go slow” Do you feel you have achieved?
Some days, I totally nail it. And on other days I feel like I’m back on the treadmill of busyness. My internal life is a much calmer, compassionate place than at the outset of this project. Myself and Aunt Linda are kind of friends now; her voice has definitely softened. I think making change in your life is the ultimate slow work; it takes time to become the person you want to be and it’s an ever-evolving project. It’s quite an exciting one, really.
Slow at Work is published by Gill Books and out now. Priced €14.99.
Words: Michael McDermott
Portraits: Malcolm McGettigan