I recently packed up the office where I’d been working for the past four and a half years. I loved that space. I’d painted it turquoise, filled it with books, rugs, candles, pictures, and plants. I wrote three books to completion during that time, started another and did lots of coaching. There were times when I did not rise from my chair for many hours at a stretch and countless days when I worked more than ten hours without speaking to another human.
I’m not recommending that approach, though I certainly enjoyed it (most of the time). Previously, I’d been working from home for years, grabbing time here and there, accepting that my kids shared my work computer, allowing for interruptions. I’d learned to work pretty effectively in snatches (although I always preferred the deep-dive method). So when the time came for me to have my own space, and my kids no longer needed me constantly, I grabbed the chance to buckle down and work hard.
It was glorious. But over time, I got tired of being alone so much. And slowly, I began to understand that there was a very real possibility that my work might never pay off in the way I’d dreamed. Still, I decided to forge ahead. I thought I liked my routine, and I definitely liked the feeling of getting things done.
In the process of re-assessing my work life, however, I realized that I didn’t actually want to work so hard anymore. I wanted to engage more with people and get out and about more. Less sitting and staring at a screen. More light-heartedness, less angst. Could I work differently, and yet be more satisfied and engaged?
Our optimal work habits change over the years, as do our psychological and physical needs. It’s smart to check in with ourselves every now and then to see whether old habits—based on ideas about how we like to work, how we work best, and what we are striving for—are serving our best interests or not.
Here are some big questions I was asking myself:
- Are my old goals still valid? Should I consider changing my goals or abandoning them altogether?
- Why am I so attached to achieving this one specific goal?
- Is being productive necessarily a positive thing, or can it be negative? How might I benefit from being less productive?
- What is missing from my work life?
- Can I change ingrained bad habits like getting lost in my work for hours on end and not moving from my chair? How can I best actually DO that (instead of promising to myself to do it)?
- Am I having enough fun day today? Do I experience joy?
- What are some things I could do that scare me, that might also be exciting?
Almost as soon as I decided to change my work habits, my life started changing in dramatic ways. It all happened so fast that I have to believe there was something almost magical going on. In a surprising twist, I sold my novel—not just the one book, but two. This not only altered my outlook but also meant there’d be significant—and welcome—changes to my schedule and responsibilities. Cool, I was up for it.
Then, my youngest decided to go away to college which freed me to leave brutally cold winters behind. I let go of my beloved office. As I cleared out all 20 boxes of books and swept up behind me, I considered the hundreds of hours I’d spent in that space writing and I felt an enormous sense of achievement—even while feeling equally ready to close the door on that lonely intensity. My solitary life in that room was over and that was okay. What would come next?
Go figure, a job opportunity materialized out of the blue—in an office with colleagues! Doing something that pays an actual salary and is related to writing! I was offered the job as program coordinator for an annual literary festival and I took it. I never even knew I wanted an office job. Soon, I’ll be biking to work and running around putting out fires. Movement. People. Change.
My point here? Hard work doesn’t always pay off the way you think it will. Hard work is meaningful and powerful, but not necessarily a guarantee of success. Hard work can take on different forms. Life can surprise you in good ways. It’s important to be open to shaking things up.
So now I sit here in Key West, staring at new bookshelves full of my beloved old books, looking out into the brilliant sky, preparing myself for all the newness coming my way. New responsibilities, new colleagues, new office space, new books—it’s all a bit intimidating. But I got what I needed—change—and I think it’ll do me good.
This article was originally published by Grub Street.
Katrin Schumann is the author of the novel The Forgotten Hours (Feb 1, 2019) and numerous nonfiction titles. For the past decade, she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system. In 2019, Katrin will become the Program Coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other media outlets. Born in Germany and raised in Brooklyn and London, Katrin now lives in Boston and Key West. For more information, check out katrinschumann.com or her author page.