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Sideways Looks #9: Productivity and Perfectionism, also Otters

Updated: Mar 25, 2022


This week I told someone I know (who is working too hard) two personal stories about work-life balance. I felt like they were useful so I’m sharing them here too.

While you’re here – I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on what you like, don’t like, and want more of in these newsletters. I’ve made a short questionnaire which you can answer anonymously (or leave your name if you’d like). I do these partly as an exercise to develop skills of writing engagingly, and constructive criticism is essential for that to work. Previous Sideways Looks can be found here.

Equally, if you have / are doing something that you’d like me to look at, just let me know.

Happy Sunday,


Thought for the Week: Working Less But Also Better

I have been lucky enough in my working life to be surrounded by general respect for mental wellbeing. That’s not the same as people always acting healthily; I’ve worked with lots of people who habitually send emails out-of-hours or casually talk about ‘working over the weekend’. But my colleagues have by-and-large supported the principle of avoiding overwork. I don’t know if that is a feature of the industries I’ve worked in, or if I’ve just been lucky. But I’m told it’s a growing trend in workplaces more generally, and I’m happy to believe that.

As noted, talking about work-life balance isn’t always the same as getting it. But it does provide language, like burn-out vs. rust-out, which can help identify and tackle problems. As well as those more general ideas, sharing stories can be useful. So here are two of mine.

Story 1: PhD days

I brought bad undergraduate habits to my PhD, initially treating it as a (very) long essay designed to show intellectual flair. It isn’t; it’s an extended research project, and flair can distract from more pragmatically just finding stuff out and communicating it. Another bad habit was filling all my unoccupied time with work. If I didn’t have plans in an evening or weekend, I’d just work. Why not? Get more stuff done.

We weren’t a competitive PhD cohort, thank goodness. But if it had been a race, I made a strong early start. I was the first to reach the ‘upgrade’, a mini-viva where you demonstrate you have a good project. We were all working hard. But other colleagues were more commonly taking weekends, sometimes even long weekends after completing a deadline. I’d just try and work through the adrenaline after each deadline.

But in reality I was doing stuff rather than progressing stuff. My PhD supervisors continually complained that my ‘redrafting’ was ‘completely rewriting’. Looking back, I was treating each piece like a mini-essay; if it didn’t immediately impress, it had to be redone. But I didn’t really notice that at the time. I suspect that is not unrelated to being too immersed in the work.

I got a bit better, though not much, over the next few years. In my third year I started a relationship with another PhD student who respected rest more than I did, which taught me better habits. But not early enough. Having been a frontrunner, I watched all my cohort complete before me. The one who took long weekends was amongst the first (and her work was excellent). The hard deadline from my funders was 4 years. I finished 4 hours before that. And after all that, my thesis was described as “looking like a good first draft” by the examiner.

I still didn’t have lots of PhD corrections to make, beyond millions of typos. But – in a final act of bad PhD habits – I allowed my tired brain to turn a relatively simple list into a sprawling amount of work, meaning I also didn’t have the energy to make a great first impression in my new job at the Cabinet Office. But I completed them, and could finally turn all my attention to the one job. Which is where Story #2 begins.

Story 2: The Cabinet Office

Due to the nature of my job (monitoring social media around breaking news) I’d often have shifts starting at 6.30am. When I did so, I had the option of leaving early. But as I argued to my manager ‘I struggle to leave at normal times – why do you think I could leave early?’

So one day he walked into the office and said ‘ok we’ve decided when you’re on the early shift you leave at 4’. I began to rehearse my familiar argument, but he cut me off. ‘Not that you have the option. You will leave at 4. I’m blocking out your calendar and frog-marching you out of the building’.

In truth, of course, this idyll was not stuck to 100%. There were still days I had to work late, because of major events or a shortage of other colleagues. But it taught me two important habits.

The first was to distinguish when I actually had to work late. I stopped thinking ‘if I work late I'll have less worom tomorrow.’ Doing that just created more work. I was forced to assess when there was an actually urgent deadline, or some breaking news, or something like that. Some of the things we worked on were genuine crises, which gave a sense of perspective on essay deadlines. I now have much less nervousness of saying 'do we need to complete this right now?'

The second was my attitude to completing work. At the time I was also learning about Agile project management. One feature of this approach is that you don’t move deadlines; but neither do you aim to do everything before a deadline. You do enough to regularly check you are definitely producing the thing someone else wants. Instead of pushing a deadline back a day and working overnight to create something impressive – potentially producing a mess in the process – the motto is ‘I want it done Tuesday, not perfect’.

Being more constrained in hours made me do this as a habit - send updates and iterations, not stress for something complete first time. And you know what? I think my work got better, not more rushed or incomplete, as a result.

That's the stories, quick final thoughts

Habits are notoriously hard to change. I don’t think I’d necessarily have changed without being told to leave an office at 4pm. And as I said up top, I’ve been lucky that I’ve had workplaces which don’t demand unreasonable working.

But comparing these two stories, I feel a completely different person. I used to delight in producing wide-ranging thought-journeys, and take pride in my ability to work late to do so. Now I delight in producing and sending things punchily and at pace. It scratches the perfectionism itch, the need to take pride in producing something, but with fewer hours expended and less time going round and round in my own thoughts.

Take this newsletter. There’s things I want to expand upon, other themes I want to weave in. It’s imperfect. But I produced it in a couple of hours. That gives me more joy than if I had produced some dense intellectual treatise. And I suspect, you probably prefer that too.

Fun Fact About: Otters

Fact-fans love collective nouns: a murder of crows, a flamboyance of flamingos, a rhumba of rattlesnakes. Loads more here.

One I find particularly interesting is otters. According to Wikipedia, “The collective nouns for otters are bevy, family, lodge, romp (being descriptive of their often playful nature) or, when in water, raft.”

What a lovely bit of extra detail the brackets add. But also – the collective noun changes when they’re in water? Apparently this is because when lots of otters get together in water, they huddle – even lashing themselves together with seaweed, the clever things – in a way which makes them look like a raft. Footage here.

Even so, I can’t think of any other collective nouns which change depending on circumstance. If you can, please do let me know.


This was a good piece on ‘vaccine diplomacy’ focussing on Russia’s exports of Sputnik vaccine to Africa and how that may have backfired diplomatically.

Amidst the various takes on Batley & Spen, this was a useful corrective from an account worth following for thoughts on polling. I will admit I found it while looking for takes on the Batley and Spen. My own view; the positive impression Kim Leadbeater gave is worth considering, given that local campaigns are often seen as basically subsumed to national mood and the candidates much less relevant than their supporters believe (though there are unusual by-election factors worth considering here).

While I'm recommending good data-driven Twitter content, Christabel Cooper and Tom Forth are both very good for that. Christabel does electoral politics, Tom does open data.

Finally, I used a visit from a friend as a prompt to explore two places in London I’d never tried before – the historic Troubadour pub in West Brompton, and the Draughts Board Game café in Waterloo. I strongly recommend both, especially the incredible honey mustard ribs at the Troubadour and the game Bärenpark at the Board Game Café (“like Tetris, with bears”).

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