Time after time

Horrible bosses, time tracking, and fighting against work's ever-increasing presence in our lives

A quick note: Hopefully this is one of the last election day reminders you’ll get, so I’ll keep it short. If you’re in the U.S. and haven’t voted yet, please make it out today and vote if you can. NPR has a guide on how to vote safely. If you’re not sure where to go, Vote.org has a good tool to locate polling places. 

In the often aimless pursuit of professional fulfillment, it’s an inescapable truth that you’ll encounter at least one or two horrible bosses. This is especially true if you’ve spent more than a couple months bouncing between careers, plummeting back to the bottom rungs of the corporate ladder with every fresh job title. Even if, like me, you’ve mostly had great bosses, you’ll probably encounter at least one Bret* or Kathleen* throughout your career.

By the time Bret* offered me a job as a personal trainer in 2015, I had been a member of his gym for about six years, so I’d mastered tuning out his over-the-top sales pitches and chummy laughs. Once on the clock, my headphones could no longer save me from his torrent of jokes that ranged from mildly inappropriate to shamelessly creepy. Since I built my schedule around each of my clients, I mostly steered clear of extended interactions with Bret*, but even that was short-lived.

As our team grew and we tried to steer a sinking ship, Bret* encouraged us to take courses and attend seminars to hone our knowledge. Tucson’s a small town, so most seminars usually took place up in Phoenix, about two hours away—just enough time for Bret* to make me wish I’d kept bussing tables. No job, no matter how cushy the paycheck and flexible the schedule, is worth spending a Saturday in a jammed car listening to a grown, married dudebro giggle with joy as he gloats about the relationships he’s nearly broken up.

If Bret’s inability to establish or acknowledge boundaries made him a horrible boss, so too did Kathleen’s* disregard for any such boundaries. As the only other worker in our nonprofit’s Southern Arizona office, it typically fell on me to work events that ran late into the evening. “You’re young, you’ll be up anyway, right?” Sure, at 24 I was usually up far too late, but after a long day at work I wanted to spend my nights catching up with friends or binging Love on Netflix, not explaining away our director’s absence at yet another event.

Those night shifts were especially rough following days when Kathleen* would email me before working hours, sending follow-up texts if I hadn’t responded quickly enough, which usually resulted in miscommunications that left us both frustrated until we could speak in person. I tried to avoid this by getting into the office an hour before her, theoretically giving myself some time to get things done unencumbered by micromanagement. Tragically and unsurprisingly, this backfired once word got back to Kathleen*. Rather than signify my desire to be alone in my work, my new schedule prompted her to join me in my seemingly eager 8 am task blitz—Kathleen*, to my dismay, was inevitable.

My luck with bosses has greatly improved since Bret* and Kathleen*, but the ways in which they pushed professional boundaries remain problems in the workplace. This is especially true in the midst of the pandemic, where our living rooms, dining room tables, and even our beds have become our offices. This effect—of work breaking down physical and mental barriers between it and other aspects of your life—is explained in Melissa Gregg’s book Work’s Intimacy:

Presence bleed explains the familiar experience whereby the location and time of work become secondary considerations faced with a “to do” list that seems forever out of control. It not only explains the sense of responsibility workers feel in making themselves ready and willing to work beyond paid hours, but also captures the feeling of anxiety that arises in jobs that involve a neverending schedule of tasks that must be fulfilled especially since there are not enough workers to carry the load.

Gregg goes on to note that smartphones have only exacerbated this problem by giving us more work to do, and requiring more thought outside work hours. Sure, Slack makes it easier to stay in touch with your work pals and get quick answers to any questions you may have, but it also means that unless you’re the first one online, there’s usually a good chunk of messages to catch up on before getting to your actual work. But just to be sure you see everything, Slack also offers the wildly invasive feature of letting people charge past your Do Not Disturb status in the app and send a notification straight to your phone, boundaries be damned. Even though you’re able to avoid this feature by managing your own settings, its existence is an ever-present reminder that we have to remain vigilant in establishing our own boundaries at work whenever we can.

It’s about time

Eight months into this pandemic, it’s no secret that work is taking up more of our lives, and employers are finding new ways to keep tabs on you while you’re on the clock—this is true for those of us who were used to working from home prior to March as well. Between that, all-things COVID-19, the ongoing stress of the election, and whatever else may be going on in your personal life, everything is exhausting, so trying to find a way to stop work from creeping more into your life may not be at the front of your mind—that’s okay, you’ve got a lot going on.

Even thinking about addressing the problem of feeling overworked can knock down your spirits. Maybe you hear echoes in your head of an old, terrible boss telling you to just work smarter, or think of the time you were unfavorably compared to another colleague who seemed to be doing Just Fine despite an overbearing workload. Those are all reasons enough to bury the problem under everything else that’s too much right now, but, attempts at further blurring the lines between free time and work time won’t slow down. The first, and most helpful, line of defense in any work dilemma is having receipts, and the best ones aren’t printed from your manager’s desk.

Most of us have had to fill out timesheets at some point in our careers. It’s an easy way to make sure you’re at work when you’re supposed to be, but it doesn’t provide much beyond that. It also doesn’t account for working through lunches, late night pings from your boss, or the emotional labor of worrying about your job security in the middle of a pandemic. Nor does it factor in the times you’ve felt the need to work over time after a boss has said “I’ve always felt that if you care about something, you’ll make the time” while also remaining adamant that nobody works over 40 hours a week. If you want a realistic overview of how much time work is really taking up, you’ll need your own form of time tracking.

With Toggl, you can easily track your time based on projects, so things like work, home improvement, reading, or anything in-between can all be timed with ease. You can even go a level deeper by adding different tasks within each project, so you can tap a timer for catching up on emails, time spent in meetings, or anything that you might want to make sure isn’t taking up too much of your time.

The app syncs across all the devices you download it on, so you don’t have to worry too much about setting things up multiple times. If you’re using it on your computer, it can even track how much time you spend in a given app, which you can use to fine-tune your time entries—I’ve found this useful if you use one browser for work hours and another for non-work hours. If you’re on iOS, I highly recommend using Timery, which plugs into Toggl’s API while extending into the iOS Shortcuts ecosystem, so you can create a Shortcut that will open your text editor of choice and start a timer to track how long you spend writing on a given day.

Like any new system, the variety of configurations to choose from can feel overwhelming. If you’re simply feeling like work is occupying too much time, you could set up a few quick timers for your main three or four work tasks, and start or stop them as you shift gears. However you set it up, it’s important to keep in mind that you’re doing this not to ensure that you’re doing enough work, but that you’re not doing too much work. There’s already plenty of pressure on you to meet work’s demands; if you’re going to start tracking your time, do it with the intention of taking back your time and doing with it what you wish.

Hit pause

Once you’ve spent a few weeks tracking your time, it’ll be easier to pinpoint what’s contributing to your feeling of burnout and come up with a plan. If you feel comfortable talking to your boss directly, having hard data that shows the time you’ve been putting in (which they may not always be aware of) can help them better delegate tasks and find something that won’t leave you feeling overwhelmed.

Understandably, that’s not an option for a lot of people. If you aren’t able to push back on how much time work is taking up, time tracking can still be a useful anchor in reminding you that work doesn’t have to extend beyond the determined hours, or that some other time exists outside them. In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell more eloquently describes the act of separating ourselves:

To stand apart is to take the view of the outsider without leaving, always oriented toward what it is you would have left. It means not fleeing your enemy, but knowing your enemy, which turns out not to be the world-contemptus mundi-but the channels through which you encounter it day to day. It also means giving yourself the critical break that media cycles and narratives will not, allowing yourself to believe in another world while living in this one.

Work is inescapable. But if there’s a silver lining to be found in any of this, it’s that our work dynamics are in a malleable state right now. We’re all still figuring out what extended bouts of working from home and little human contact will mean for the workplace, which gives us the opportunity to establish more healthy boundaries. Here, knowing your enemy means being aware of not only how much space work is occupying, but also ways in which that reach might slowly be extending, and devising ways to fight back. If that’s talking to your boss, great! If not, Toggl’s assessments of your time can help you reclaim your free time from the burnout and stress of work by giving you an overview of where your time’s going so you can better distribute it towards things that nourish and replenish you.

In How to Do Nothing, Odell suggests shifting our minds from productivity as a means of creating something new towards maintenance and care. What that looks like is totally up to you. Maybe you could benefit from a personal inventory day, or take time to call that family member you’ve been missing. Whatever it is, the simple reminder that this time is for you, and work has no place in your weekly game night with pals, can help keep some or work’s most overbearing baggage from trickling into your free time. It’s a small refusal, and one that others may not notice, but once you’ve seen how much of yourself you’ve given to work, reclaiming a little bit of that each day becomes easier. I won’t tell you what to do with that time, but I will tell you this: that time belongs to you, and you deserve to make of it what you wish—work be damned.

* Some names in this story have been changed to prevent further animosity.


📚 Good Reads:

What it’s like to experience depression for the first time, in a pandemic (Elemental): I’ve written about my depression in past issues, but this year has caused a massive spike in depression, with an alarming chunk of those cases being people’s first experience with it. Whether you’re seasoned in the ways depression drags you down, or it’s your first time, this is a reminder that you aren’t alone, and these feelings pass. I’m hopeful things will start to get better, but until then, we can all make sure to support each other when we can, and share the tools we’ve found helpful with anyone else who might be struggling. 

What we’re voting for: Platform regulation (The Verge): As Adi Robertson notes, this year has surfaced the many glaring holes we have in tech policy and the ways in which platforms and companies manage our data. Robertson elaborates that while reigning in massive companies like Facebook and Google is important, so too is empowering smaller companies that provide some public good or service, and providing relief to groups who have been harmed by tech in some way, like incarcerated folk who can’t afford to call their loved ones. As we move into whatever happens next, it’s important for all of us to think about the sorts of things we should be demanding from both our government and the platforms that help shape our lives. 

The messy politics of Nextdoor (Vox): There’s a family that lives downstairs in my apartment building, and they have a little boy who’s about three. They recently put a small indoor trampoline in their backyard for him to go wild on. He’s out there a lot, and his laugh is infectious. One day I was talking to his mom, and mentioned that it sounded like he was having tons of fun. She immediately apologized, thinking the noise was a disturbance to me. I assured her that it was nice to hear someone having fun right now, and we started sharing our frustrations with the state of the world, and our city council (whose election this year is absolutely wild and mind numbing). Those interactions are what make our ties to community stronger, but if you look on Long Beach’s Nextdoor pages, you’ll see a lot of discussions about how to kick homeless people off your street without raising too many alarms, complaints about losing parking to a useful bike lane that runs through downtown, and plenty of other NIMBYisms. This year, the company has seen a surge in political posts and the hostility that goes with it. This goes back to Robertson’s piece on regulation, and highlights the problem with targeting specific companies. As long as the structure of our regulation remains the same, this vitriol and its consequences will always find a home.

🌐 Just Browsing:

🎮 Discord has become a surprising home for the kinds of online parks and communities we should be fostering. 👨🏼‍🔬 Algorithms are furthering racial disparities in health care coverage. 💻 Hackers are holding notes from private therapy sessions hostage. 🥳 Anyone remember fun? 🚽 The appification of everything continues as gig workers have to turn to an app to find somewhere to pee as lockdowns carry on. 💰 This graphic shows just how wealthy Jeff Bezos is. ✉️ It’s time for email’s reckoning. 📁 On the importance of the PDF. ⛱️ COVID-19 cases are surging, so if you must travel right now, don’t be like these people

🔧 Toolkit:

I recently hit my one-year anniversary of my last cigarette, which, unfortunately, turned out to be easier for me than quitting Twitter. Once I decided to cut my smoking habit, I started buying packs whenever I was stressed, taking one out to smoke, and handing the rest to my neighbor. It wasn’t great for my budget, but that was sort of the point. I had to question if the day was really bad enough for me to spend $13 on a quick stress reliever. Usually, the answer was yes, until it wasn’t. 

Twitter’s a little different. It doesn’t cost me anything to tap an icon on my screen to browse through tweets and takes, so the financial hurdle isn’t an option. I tried just deleting the app as a way of going dark on Twitter for a while, but that lasted about a day. Quitting Twitter isn’t a new idea, but as tensions rise, it’s not a fun or healthy place to spend huge portions of your day. So maybe, instead of trying to go cold turkey, start with pulling back on engagement. Don’t tweet as much. A few days later, try not retweeting anything. After that, maybe slow your roll with the likes. It won’t get you there right away, but baby steps are still progress nonetheless. 

💕 And now, here’s something we hope you’ll really like:

You’ve probably heard of Among Us by now, but for the uninitiated, it’s a multiplayer murder mystery you can play with your friends, or argue with strangers. Murder aside, it’s a genuinely fun way to spend some time interacting with other people while flexing your brain’s muscles a bit as you try to wiggle your way out of a red-handed kill. Also, it’s one of the few places you can genuinely feel the joy of winning right now, so let’s milk that for all we can.  

✉️ You’ve got mail:

I want to hear from you! How are you planning to replenish yourself this week? Let me know down in the comments, or drop me a line on Twitter.

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My thanks to Medea Giordano for editing this issue.