The Art of Not Gathering

Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels Alt text: Little girl wearing a virtual reality headset, arms out for a hug.

I dream about sitting at my Grandpa Pete’s table. Grandpa Pete is my maternal grandfather, and growing up, his was the house we went to when we hung out with my mom’s side of the family. Grandpa Pete and Grandma Bea are the sort of people who keep their house ready for visitors to drop by. You could call him at noon on a Tuesday, and when you showed up at five with a six pack of beer and a pasta salad, he’d have the chips and salsa set out, and beans and rice warming on the stove. I learned how to host gatherings by watching my grandparents work a room.

Every year, the week before Thanksgiving, my family gathers at Grandpa Pete’s to make tamales. We buy masa preparada–prepared masa–from a specific Mexican grocery store because we aren’t masochists, but otherwise make tamales from scratch. My grandparents always made the fillings ahead of time, so when you walked in the door, you were hit with the smell of chilies and corn, pork and oregano.

This year, there’s no tamale party. And I couldn’t go visit in any case. My grandpa is in his eighties, and my kids are in school. The risk is too great. Instead, I watch videos on how to make my own masa harina from dried heirloom corn and dream about visiting when I’m vaccinated in the summer.

How are you doing? Are you travelling to see family or friends for American Thanksgiving? Canada had Thanksgiving in October, and we’ve seen an exponential rise in cases in the weeks following that holiday. I’m going to take a harm reduction approach and give you a link to an article in The Atlantic that gives strategies for making a risky action safer if you choose to travel and gather with family this coming Thursday.

Working On: A Remote Work Article

A little over a week ago someone asked me for advice about online parties. This person was tasked with throwing a team party over Zoom and had no idea what to do. I gave an off the cuff answer and then realized that I have a better, more researched answer that I should give. I’m working on that article now and hope to have it up for you soon.

If you’re looking to answer more existential questions, like why are many gatherings so bad, check out Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. I borrowed it from the library after the fine folks over at Workplaceless talked about the book in a recent blog post. I’m only a chapter into the book but I’m impressed so far. I’ve definitely gone to events that felt alienating for no reason. I’m hoping to learn some tips to keep that from happening to anyone else when I throw parties. Because I dearly love to throw a party–online and off.

Procrastination is Magical

There’s nothing more inspiring for my writing than procrastination. If I’m feeling blocked with one type of writing, I can get over it by diving into a different type of writing. My inner toddler feels like it’s getting away with something. You could say that most of my work is fuelled by manic glee.

I was feeling a little blocked in the nonfiction and comedy departments, so I dove head first into writing a Fantasy novel for NaNoWriMo. I did that for the first two weeks of November before I ran out of glee at 28 thousand words. My creativity compensated me for this loss with a whole bunch of ideas for comedy and nonfiction articles. It was like being hit with a firehose of shiny distractions. (I realize this metaphor only works if you squint really hard, but let’s go with it).

I’m not saying it makes a lot of sense. I’m just saying it works. You should try it sometime. Something similar happened in October, which is why I can present the following comedy pieces for your reading pleasure.

Comedy Articles

If People Appropriated White, Midwestern Catholicism the Way They Appropriate Yoga is up at Points in Case. A few years back, a Buddhist friend from India mentioned how off putting it was to attend her first week of college classes in Vancouver, only to be asked to hold a church session (yoga) before they talked about research methods. That comment stayed with me ever since.

Are You Parenting a Toddler or Napoleon? is up at Slackjaw. I love writing lists because you can be clever about the things you’re comparing. And really, toddlers are little Napoleons. Put them in a French officer’s uniform and give them a hat and a sword and they’d probably take over Europe.

Should You Fly on the Boeing 737? A Flow Chart was one of two pieces I wrote last week and published in Greener Pastures Magazine, the comedy magazine I co-edit. There might be a worse time to clear an airplane for flight than the Pandemic, but I’m not sure when that is. I will not be applying my butt to one of their seats any time soon.

Incidentally, if you write comedy I’d love to consider it for publication. Give our submission guidelines a once over for all the info.

Speaking Gigs

I have an upcoming virtual keynote for a summit based in Australia. I was a little worried that I would have to try to sound articulate at 3am. It’s hard enough for me to filter my words before 9 in the morning. I’m not sure there’s enough caffeine in the world to make me make sense between the hours of 11pm-6am. Fortunately my portion will be pre recorded. I’m tempted to open my home office window and shout “I’m huge in Australia!” Instead I’ll share the link when the summit goes live in January.

I’m excited about getting a link to share. The majority of my keynotes have been for private companies. I hope you get something out of it.

Finding New Boundaries When Everything Happens in One Place

Photo by Diana from Pexels Alt Text: Great Wall of China with trees displaying fall colours.

In the play Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson comes back from France to the tune ‘What I miss?’ While Jefferson was in France, the newly formed United States of America was working on establishing the sort of country it would be. The new Secretary of State had some catching up to do.

This week feels like that process in reverse. Last week, if it wasn’t about the election, few in the US wanted to talk about it. Even the news sites here in Canada were dominated by the election down south. This week will still be dominated by US news, but there’s room now to talk about other things too.

Like COVID. British Columbia is staring down an exponential increase in cases, and if we can’t get ourselves together we might go back into a lockdown. Just the thought of my kids going back to online school has me writing like I’m about to lose my ability to do so disruption free.

Which made me think of all the people who are still involuntarily working from home, with or without children. These next suggestions are for you.

Rethinking Your Boundaries

Successful remote workers erect boundaries between their home and work lives. But for some folks, putting actual walls between their personal and professional lives isn’t possible. Perhaps you have to parent your children during video meetings. Or you may have to get work done while your roommate teaches music lessons over zoom.

When the literal walls between your work and home life go away, that’s when you need to rely on psychological boundaries. This can mean starting (or recommitting to) a routine to enter and exit work. Pavlov taught dogs to salivate when he rang a bell because he associated something they understood (treats) with something that wasn’t intuitive (the bell). Getting yourself to slide into work mode when you haven’t left your home works the same way.

If possible, start and stop your work day at the same times every day. Rituals can also be powerful tools for building a routine. Pour your morning beverage into a “work” mug. Choose a work uniform. Build a “go to work” playlist and listen to it at the start of your work day. Take a 4pm tea break. Or put dinner in the oven.

In the end, it doesn’t matter which actives you choose so long as you perform them consistently over time. Doing certain things at certain times will create a sense of movement and structure in your day. And there is a lot of value to having structure when COVID can make you feel like somebody took the distinct pieces of your life and ran them through a blender.

What’s that Douglas Up to Now?

Four days ago InfoQ published a Q&A about my book Working Remotely. All three of us authors participated in this one. Ben Linders was a great interviewer, and I am especially appreciative that he took the time to help us edited our responses so we didn’t all say the same things.

At the end of October I gave a keynote about balancing mental health and caregiving duties while working from home. Can you believe October was two weeks ago? It feels like a decade has passed.

The biggest news right now is that I’m participating in NaNoWriMo. I didn’t plan to. It’s just that I kept getting those emails about National Novel Writing Month and I fell in with a bad crowd. I have over fifteen thousand words written on my novel and I am a little gobsmacked that this hasn’t turned into a train wreck yet. It still could, but for now I’m riding the novel-writing wave.

Performance Reviews and Robots

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Good morning! I’m writing a short post today to share some of the writing I published last week in other places. I was working on a different post for today but sadly, my time this week was spent kicking some spam bots off my blog.

Incidentally, if you’re a subscriber who hasn’t re-subscribed to my blog AND clicked the link in the confirmation sent to your email (I sent out a note about that Monday July 20th), this is the last one you’ll get in your email before I retire the old list. You can sign up again over on the right side of my website. Check your spam folder for the confirmation email. Dang bots.

How Do We Rate People Working in a Pandemic?

In this article, I talk about whether we should hold people accountable for underperformance during the current crisis. Managers, please ask yourself, ‘Is this person really the problem, or am I trying to fire the virus?’

Satire About Micro Managers

Last month I enrolled in a satire class from The Second City. Before I did so, I wrote a comic personal essay about finding accidental alone time via dyeing my hair in my bathroom. I realized after writing that essay that I don’t really know the common structures for humour. So I remedied that gap in my knowledge. Humour–especially short humour–is a tricky beast. Which makes it addictively interesting if you’re me.

In any event, I published this piece on a humour site called Robot Butt. Satire is the humour of outrage, and it probably comes as no surprise that I am outraged by micromanagers.

Summer Writing

I’d forgotten what life was like before I had to educate my children and work at the same time. The kids’ last day of school was June 25. A week after school ended I wrote both of the pieces linked to this article, plus an assigned article that hasn’t been published yet, and a couple of satire pieces that aren’t yet ready to shop around. It’s like all of the creative energy I funnelled into making my circumstances work turned into a creative writing tsunami.

Summer Learning

I swore that I wasn’t going to put my kids into online summer camp. We’ve had enough online class to last us the entire summer, thank you very much. Then I saw a ‘how to make mods in Minecraft’ class that had some good reviews and decided to let the kids do that for a week.

And you know what? The class was fabulous. And required very little involvement from me. I shouldn’t be surprised by this. When you approach remote work thoughtfully, you can have great outcomes. I’ve been living that dream for the last 10+ years. Remote learning is no different. If there are educators or decision makers reading this, please–for the sake of kids and parents everywhere–spend this summer researching how established online schools run their classes.

Pandemic Pets

We’ve also become the people who get pets in a pandemic. It’s Friday morning as I write this, and I’ll find out this afternoon if the pet rats we’re getting from a breeder are ready to go home with us.

I made the mistake of telling the kids about the rats two weeks ago. In my defence, I had to set up the three storey rat palace in their bedroom, and that isn’t the kind of thing you can tell them to ignore. The rats were supposed to be ready for us last Friday. If you have kids, you can imagine what happened when we found out that they weren’t ready yet. Here’s hoping I have better news for next week’s blog.

Mental Health During COVID is a Marathon Not a Sprint

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Long ago in a (pre-COVID) galaxy far, far away, I ran four half marathons in a year. And while it takes a certain level of physical fitness to run for multiple hours, the truth is that endurance races are won or lost inside your head. There comes a time in every long run when you’re tired, uncomfortable, and questioning your life choices. That’s the point when you are most at risk of quitting. The people who make it out of the rough patch talk themselves through it.

It made a lot of sense to me the first time someone framed coping with COVID as a marathon. This virus has been around far longer than many of us expected, and we still have plenty of road ahead of us before we get to cross the finish line. Buying mountains of toilet paper isn’t going to save us. The only way we’re going to get through is by tending to our mental wellness.

Everything I Learned about Mental Toughness I Learned from Running

I’m not a mental health expert. I also don’t want to imply that I’m skating through this pandemic without a care in the world. Two of my relatives died in April in the space of six days. I live with the same financial uncertainty that touches us all. But running taught me a technique for slogging through the tough bits. Maybe it will help you.

Acknowledge the feeling.

At the beginning of my run training I couldn’t run more than two miles. I tried running at different times of the day. I experimented with when I ate in relation to when I ran. Nothing seemed to work. Twenty minutes into my run my energy would tank and I would quit running.

Eventually, I realized that I needed to pay attention to what I told myself when I got tired. Usually, I said ‘I’m so tired. I don’t know if I can do this.’ Then I tried talking myself out of my exhaustion. (This is what I thought positive self-talk was.) It didn’t work because I was lying. And no one believes a liar.

After a lot of trial and error I discovered what works for me. I treat the whole thing like a cross between a therapist’s visit and a hostage situation. When my brain says ‘I’m tired,’ I think ‘Yes I’m tired, but I’m not injured, and I know I can go a little bit longer.’ And you know what? I usually can.

Re-frame the Situation.

At some point you’re going to feel like you’re doing the pandemic wrong. If you’re a parent, you worry that you’re breaking your kids because you can’t home school with a smile. If you’re childless you may be disappointed with your inability to write a novel or get in the best shape of your life.

Here’s the thing. None of us were meant to function optimally in a pandemic. They don’t cover how to do that in school. Our circumstances have changed. And as any savvy business person will tell you, when the market changes, a savvy business leader changes her approach. She changes her goals and expectations to suit the current conditions.

So when that little voice inside of you tells you that you’re a bad person for eating cupcakes for dinner, or for letting your kids play Minecraft for 10 hours straight, you tell it that you aren’t lowering the bar. You’re being adaptable. And when the pandemic passes, you will adjust your approach like the resilient person that you are.

You’re doing your best. And your best is good enough.

My Book is Turning Japanese I Really Think So

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How is it even May? On some days it feels like the date is March 147th, 2020. Still, as I write this at 8:40, there’s some light left in the sky, so I know Spring is well and truly here. Time doesn’t stop because we have to spend a lot of it indoors. And it’s been a pretty busy Spring.

At the end of March an agent who handles Japanese translations emailed me. She wanted to represent my book. I referred this respected person to my publisher, and tried to forget about it. Just because someone offers to represent your work doesn’t mean it will get published. All it meant was that someone liked my book and thought it was marketable to their particular audience.

On Wednesday my publisher told me they had signed a contract for the translation rights. My book will be translated into Japanese! I’m going to get a copy once it’s done and everything. What makes this even more meaningful is that one of my co-authors has a deep connection with Japan. He went there to teach English back in his college days, and ended up meeting his future wife. They spend time living in Japan every year so their kids can maintain a connection with that part of their culture.

Traditional publishing takes time even when you don’t have to translate the book first, so I don’t expect to see a physical copy of my translated book this year. It’s nice knowing it’s coming though. I’m celebrating the occasion on Thursday by getting some takeout and drinking a margarita.

April was Hairy

I’m learning new things during the pandemic. At the beginning of April I learned that inviting my children to steal my stuff and write me ransom notes to get it back in an effort to make education fun was probably a bad idea. At the end of April I learned to cut male hair. It was super intimidating. I don’t know why. Hair grows back. And we all had to stay home and stay away from people in April, so the stakes were low.

It can’t be the idea of cutting hair in general. I layered the front of my own hair in April, and tasked my ten year old daughter with trimming the bits I couldn’t reach. I cut my son’s hair when he was a toddler. None of that scared me. But all of that cutting was with scissors.

The little buzzy shaver intimidates me. I feel a little stupid admitting this but it’s true. Just the idea of accidentally lopping off a hunk of hair makes me wince. It’s like the semi-automatic rifle of the hairdresser world. I had visions of accidentally driving that thing right through the middle of my husband’s hair and giving him the world’s worst male-patterned baldness.

I dealt with my feelings of inadequacy the way I usually do. I researched the crap out of hair cutting. There are approximately eleventy-hundred ‘how to cut men’s hair’ videos on YouTube, and I watched them twice. Then I girded my loins in courage and practiced cutting hair on my son. The boy doesn’t care what he looks like, and I care more about what his father looks like, so my son became the guinea pig.

There’s a Reason I Outsource my Son’s Haircuts

I promptly remembered why I outsourced his haircuts when he turned three. The boy hates sitting still for me. He’ll do it for his hairdresser. All of the ladies at the salon make a big deal about how handsome he is, how good he is, and he eats it up. Also, they give him lollipops. And they can finish his hair in ten minutes.

The social distancing haircut took an hour. Right at minute 45 he had a great haircut going, if a little long. I should have stopped right there. But I got greedy. Just a little more feathering in the front, I thought, would make this masterpiece complete. I swapped the buzzer for my scissors and leaned in to cut a bit off the front.

And my son, who was tired of standing still, looked down just as I snipped. I ended up cutting a chunk off the front that made him look like a Vulcan from Star Trek. I was so upset. I spent fifteen minutes trying to fix it before I gave up in disgust. “This is what happens when you move!” I said sternly. Unrepentant, he glanced at the mirror and said “It’s rough, I like it,” and wandered off.

My husband thought I did a good job on the boy’s hair, and asked me to do his next. Fortunately my husband has some personal dignity and an idea of what his hair should look like, so the haircut went a lot better. I won’t be hanging up my pen to pursue a career in haircuts, but at least I can keep the Douglas males from looking shaggy. Mostly.

The Writing Keeps Rolling On

Some point soon I’ll have an actual remote work article to share with you. I have it partially written, and if I can manufacture some alone time I’ll finish it off. There are two other finished pieces currently making the rounds looking for a good home. Once they find somewhere to land I’ll share the links.

As Do the Appearances

On Friday I’ll be on The Round Table Talk Show with Sharifah Hardie at 8am Pacific, 11am Eastern. Log on and have a listen if you’re so inclined. Other than that, I’m doing various presentations on working remotely while parenting, and on remote worker wellness, for various organizations. Those talks have fallen into my lap, and it’s been super fun talking to people about how to make the best of the current circumstances.

I hope you’re doing okay in YOUR current circumstances. Every day isn’t a holiday over here. We’re all doing the best we can. And just in case someone hasn’t told you lately, your best is good enough.

‘How Are You?’ Is Becoming A Real Question

Video calls aren’t just for business anymore. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

In large swaths of a California and in the parts of Vancouver I frequent, the accepted answer to this question among acquaintances is ‘Fine.’ No one expects to find out how you really are. The question is just a greeting, or a prelude to a different conversation.

I feel like this pandemic is changing our answer. We’re in the middle of a mass trauma; things aren’t fine. The old knee-jerk answer feels a little silly right now. We may not bare our secret fears during Zoom happy hour, but few people claim to be fine.

This is the sort of balanced honesty we need to take to work.

We Can’t Be All Business

Business runs on relationships, whether that business takes place in a physical, shared office, or in a video call. But you have to tend to those relationships differently when you’re remote. When you work in a shared office, you can wave to people as you walk to your desk. You can glance significantly at your work best friend when someone says something ridiculous. And then you can laugh about it over lunch. There are so many opportunities to see each other, you can afford to focus purely on business in team meetings.

The same can’t be said when you work from home. Remote workers have fewer opportunities to see each other, so we have to make the most of them. We need to reach out proactively to see how people are doing. At the beginning of video calls, we need to ask colleagues how they are.

Managers need to take the lead in modelling this behaviour. If you want your workforce to do it’s best, if you want to help them avoid burnout, then make sure you know how they’re doing. And provide some outlets for stress relief. Consider hosting a coffee break over video call. You can even hold a company sponsored group lunch. Give everyone a dollar amount to spend, tell them to submit an expense report, and let them order their own take out.

When you mix personal attention with business, you show your remote employees that you care. And we can all use a little bit of caring during this time.

Places Where I’Ve Talked About Remote Work

it’s been an action-filled week at Remota HQ. I spoke to a reporter in the United Arab Emirates about tending to your mental health when you’re cooped up inside. I was also on the Radio Health Journal on Sunday talking about how to ease the stress that comes from working at home. Incidentally, the host Reed Pence has a very knowledgeable and soothing voice. He was born to be on the radio. On Tuesday my interview with Andi Simon went live, as did the interview in USA Today, where I was interviewed about employee wellness. Check them out if you’re so inclined.

The Douglas Family is Surviving

On Sunday my daughter made a Devil’s Food cake. It was moist and delicious. She even modified the frosting so it was flavoured with peppermint. By the time this pandemic is over I’m going to have a mini dessert chef on my hands. I will also weigh 300 pounds, but that’s a problem for later.

Right now, the kids are dealing with being cooped up by making nice things. It’s an urge I can understand and support. I also make nice things when I need to cope, which explains why I’m designing a sweater as my pandemic activity. My son is making a rope ladder. My husband bought a mini fire pit. He told the kids he bought a flame thrower. They were severely disappointed to find out what it actually was. On the other hand, we can now roast marsh mellows on our patio and pretend we’re camping. I’ll take all the breaks from the news I can get.

How are you doing? Let me know. I’d love to hear from you.