Monday, July 29, 2013

This is burnout.

I have no advice today.

I have no wise words, no helpful hints, no simple tricks to try in a sticky situation. I'm bereft of helpfulness for anyone, including myself. I'm in a place where I've used up all my smart, all my funny, all my helpful, all my useful. I can no longer lean in, step up, take charge, be strong, and make things happen. It's because I've been leaning in for the past year at work on a big, fast, impossible project, and I'm burned out.

When I say "burned out", I don't mean that I'm tired and could use a week's vacation or maybe a couple months of normal workweeks and workloads. I mean BURNED. OUT. It's the kind of feeling where the thought of answering one question regarding that project--or any project I've been working on or helping out on--sends me into a fit of rage, tears, or sighing, followed by the words "I don't care; do what you want." I mean running to the bathroom every couple of hours so I can cry for five minutes, so I can go back to my desk and answer more questions and emails, be smart, be helpful, and be kind to my staff, who are not particularly the cause of my tears. I can't stand the thought of working on my existing project. I can't stand the thought of starting something new, with more ridiculous deadlines and panic and half-ass information from the client and lack of staff and mixed messages from my bosses and every other thing that has plagued me for the past year. I can't stand the thought of doing simple administrative tasks at the office--things that aren't project related but are appropriate for someone at my managerial level. And I can't stand the thought of being at home, where I'm not supposed to be at 2pm on a Wednesday but it's clear I'm not getting anything done at work.

I'm struck with the overwhelming feeling that I'm weak and I've failed. I can't bear the burden of running projects, can't stand the thought of sticking with the project and seeing it through to what kind of role model does that make me for the interns and young architects in my office? How can I tell my interns that they need to be diligent and follow through and think through RFIs and questions when I hate the thought of looking at those drawings so much that I've stopped wearing mascara because I just cry it off before noon? How can I reinforce professionalism to my staff when I'm constantly holding back the urge to give my bosses a five-finger death punch to the neck? How dare I admonish someone for a casual email or statement on a phone call when my two favorite words are "fuck" and "goddamn"?

And where do I get the nerve to post anything on this blog, giving advice to young professionals and telling them how they need to act and speak and write emails and arrange their resumes when I'm a dumpster fire in an Ann Taylor pantsuit?

I don't know what any of this means just yet. Readers have said nice things about this blog, so on the one hand I'd like to keep it up. But I'm utterly worn out to the point that even the most basic of tasks seems impossible. I also feel like a fraud telling people to get their shit together when I can't get my own together. It may mean that I'm posting less regularly, less forcing of the content and more posting just as something interesting comes to me. It may mean that this blog goes quiet for a while as I sort out this feeling of ants crawling just beneath my skin and the sound of blood constantly rushing in my ears.

I feel like I owe you all an explanation and perhaps even an apology for the poverty of content in recent months. My writing has been half-hearted and hollow, even platitude-filled to the point of being trite. You  all deserve good, thoughtful writing and discussions on meaningful topics, and I haven't really been providing that. You deserve better, and I ask your patience as I work towards whatever that better is.


Monday, July 15, 2013

Work-life balance: a sine curve, not a scale

I just took a week off from work. I almost made it the whole week without checking my email, but I caved on day 5 when I realized I had 200 emails in my inbox. Fortunately, a fair amount of them were things like "there are cookies in the break room" and "the copier is up/down/depressed/homocidal". I was able to handle anything that truly needed my attention easily with email, and everything else appeared to be well in hand, thanks to the great interns that work on my team.

This week off is part of my summer-of-scaling-back, which was preceded by the months of October 2012-May 2013 being fast and furious (sans Vin Diesel) with deadlines and workload. It was during that time that I remember a phenomenon that is arguably particular to architecture. It's the phenomenon of our work-life balance. The general world of white-collar work gives us this image of work-life balance as if it were scales, like the sign for the zodiac sign of Libra: always in perfect balance and harmony. We're told that every day is balance: some work, some play, some chores, some sleep.

But the truth, especially for architects, is more complex: it's more like a sine wave. There are times where the work calls for more of your effort, time, and attention. There are times where your health calls for the most attention. Sometimes it's your partner or spouse. Sometimes it's your parents. Sometimes it's your hobby or side business. Life's demands ebb and flow depending on what's going on, and the illusion that everything is always only demanding X or Y is a myth. The sine wave shows this a lot better than the scales: above the X axis is work and professional demands, below the X axis is personal demands.

After my major deadlines passed in May, I pulled my boss aside and let him know I needed some rest this summer, and he concurred and has been supporting me in that. The project and the team are in a place where I can do this, and even better, they can get rest too. (I wasn't the only one who was worn out.) So I'm planning some vacations and time off this summer with my husband to make up for answering work email on our anniversary trip in February.

Accepting the ebb and flow is a lot easier than constantly struggling to make things balance every single day, and it's a lot more realistic. Allowing yourself to deal with demands and deadlines by month Or week instead of by day takes some pressure off. But do remember: it's up to you to say when the sine wave has gone too far for too long in one direction.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The pitfalls of informality

The workplace--architectural and otherwise--has changed radically in terms of formality in the last twenty or so years. Suits and ties have given way to khakis and jeans, typed letters are being replaced by emails, and even language itself has slid into a casual territory. Colleagues call each other "Dave" and "Becky" instead of "Mr. Swenson" and "Ms. McNeal". "Sir" and "ma'am" have been replaced with "yeah", "hey man", "yo, lady", "sure thing", and "no problem". 

While there's a certain ease and indeed relief to be associated with this new informality, let us not follow that slippery slope down to an absence of respect, for our clients, our consultants, and our colleagues. A client recently emailed an intern and me for a rendering image to be included in some marketing and fundraising materials. The intern sent back the image to the client with just this in the body of the email: "Here you go." 


This is not your aunt or your friend. That's right--your client is not your friend, they're your acquaintance at best. You don't get falling-down drunk in front of them, you don't make yo-mama jokes to them, and you definitely don't dash off three words to them in an email. The intern and I discussed this, and the next email in which the client asked for something got this response from her: "Mark, attached is the file you requested. Please let us know if you need anything else. Thanks, Sandy." Much better.

The formality--even and especially from interns--reminds my intern's client that even with her young age, she went to college, is a properly-trained professional, and she respects the fact that he cuts the checks that keep our lights on and doors open. Furthermore, an email that looks like someone took the time to write actual, coherent sentences subtly tells the client that the writer also takes his/her time when working on other things, like floor plans and details, renderings, meeting notes, and so on. 

Casualness in the workplace is overall a good move. Keeping a little formality in your business writing is also a good move, and it's just good business.