Monday, February 21, 2011

Wet monday and waiting for the postman

I'm on holiday this week and it's pouring. And I mean properly pouring; the decking swamped, the sky a soggy lilac, next door's cat sheltering in our outhouse. It's going to stay all day. Meanwhile Dylan is beside himself because the postman hasn't arrived. He's been up since six-thirty waiting for the knock on the door that signals the parcel from Amazon. If I suggested going out, it would tip him over the edge.

So it's a miserable day and we're stuck in the house. A few years ago I'd have been swearing at the clouds, insisting we 'get on and do', make the most of time away from the office. When I first came to Wales I took up kayaking as an alternative to climbing because it rained so much. And yet, despite the damp weather, I'm quite content.

I'd like to think I've mellowed, acquired a stoicism that transcends immediacy and embraces what can't be changed. But that would be bollocks. There's a part of me that can still get annoyed at the weather and waiting for the gas man is as irritating as ever. No, the truth is more practical than philosophic - a few years ago I bought some time.

To be more precise I negotiated a flexible contract. My company agreed I could work an 'eighty percent' arrangement, which isn't quite the same as a four day week. About two thirds of the year I work Monday to Thursday - it's like having a bank holiday every weekend. For the remaining months, I work full time and accrue holiday that I use in blocks. Previously, I'd never have had sufficient spare to take the February half term.

What has struck me most about my new arrangement is the disproportionate difference it has made to the quality of my life. The change in ratio from five and four to four and three, may not seem huge - but it's fifty percent more freedom. And in reality it works out more than that, because so much of our supposed spare time is spent in chores and other prosaic tasks.

When I asked for the 80% contract I had grand ideas: I'd write in the library, take long weekends camping, return to painting, run every day - make up for the years sacrificed to my desk. It hasn't turned out like that. I usually spend Fridays faffing about, going for a stroll, filling the bird feeders, having lunch with Jane... I might write a blog post, or even two.

At one level this might seem an indulgence. My reduced contract didn't come for free - it cost me 20% of my benefits, and though I kept a senior job in a good firm, realistically it killed any prospect of promotion. That's a high price for a stroll and lunch with Jane.

But what I've come to learn is that by allowing myself to be less frantic (just some of the time) I'm better able to appreciate and participate in what remains. It's not only the extra time I've gained - it affects all the time I have, including when I'm at work - and especially rainy days in Pembrokeshire.

I often say to people that there's a time in your life to do something like this - and it's probably not when you're twenty five. The implication being that anything less than full time work will reduce salary and career prospects to unacceptable levels, especially for the young. In saying this, you might say I'm trapped in the old thinking - that what matters most is cash and career, security and seniority.

Perhaps, but I'm not so unrealistic that I don't recognise I only made the change based on enviably solid foundations. Not everyone can afford a 20% drop in salary - though perhaps more could if they reassessed priorities. There are others who  would not want the change - I have many colleagues, particularly senior managers, who define themselves by work. They find it hard to see how commitment means anything less than 150% - and in my experience, this remains the dominant professional culture.

As more of the population gets older the incidence of flexible working is predicted to increase. It would be pity though if that shift is restricted to mums with young children, those boosting pensions, or to low paid jobs stacking shelves.

It's a pity too that so many organisations are not far sighted enough to see that flexible working increases satisfaction and productivity. That its possible to be 100% committed (or 150% if you like management bullshit) for 80% of the time. That by working a little less, we might actually work more creatively, more intelligently, less wastefully. And that our lives might just be better as a result - which is, after all, why we work the first place.

These are hardly unique insights, but to me the practical impact has been a revelation. And today, as the rain drums the windows and Dylan interrupts me for the third time in ten minutes - why isn't the hour hand moving; do you think the mail man knows we're waiting? - I can sense it more than ever.

Two years ago I'd have been bouncing off the walls. As it is, I've got some books to review, some cooking to look forward to, and oh how lovely, Dylan's just got out the Buckaroo...

Look, here comes the postman.


  1. How do you do that? How do you write a whole blog post about waiting for the postman? You clever bugger.

    I have worked part-time ever since becoming a single parent, but recently my hours have been increased to 4 full days a week. When I was asked recently to go full time, 5 days a week, it didn't take me long to turn it down. I love that extra day off, Fridays for me, when I too can take my daughters to school, take the dog for a long walk, do the odd job around the house or just faff around (there isn't enough faffing in my opionion, the world would be a better place if everyone had time to faff).

    I'm holding onto my Fridays, and even though the extra money would be welcome for working on that day, it just wouldn't do as much good as that extra day off a week does for my wellbeing.

  2. p.s. I do know how to spell opinion, I just decided to spell it like that for a change...

  3. Couldn’t agree more Mark. This is a beautiful and poignant post. I was for many years defined by the small but constantly busy, multi faceted business I’d created, but then as it grew I began to realise the business culture had in fact, ‘redefined me’.

    I was no longer the small, independent entrepreneur, working all hours to buy his own freedom and choices. I’d become a prisoner inside my own little kingdom, peering out at ‘all those other people’ going off on re-energising weekend breaks and indulging in trivial pursuits such as meaningful conversation and contemplation…et all.

    And then it was always Monday morning all over again, just three days after the previous Monday morning, I’d gone grey overnight somehow, attracted some blood pressure problems and a growing pile of pills to keep other stuff at bay. I was completely incapable of relaxing, and had not a clue as to how I could switch myself off.

    So I sold it. For a small sum. Not a pension by any means, but enough to shove off on an extended lifetime journey of rediscovery - through France and Spain. No future plan. Just a few wings and a prayer. But most of all – I truly experienced a deep sense of freedom for the very first time, tempered by a fuller and hugely meaningful appreciation of life’s more precious and sustaining values.

    That ‘Balance’ word has always been central to my little lot and always will be, but while life all too often comes with a hefty cost and restraints for most, life’s essential key ingredients cannot be bought at any cost – excepting an investment in time.

  4. How interesting that you should write about this, we were just having the "whose bright idea was it to work for 5 days and only have 2 off? conversation at the weekend. A shame my husbands company dosent offer the same flexibility.
    ps I am jusy reading Pollard, I like it very much, it's so nicely written. I especially like the references to the birds and animals and how Anne survives. They are just building the walkway through the tree tops.
    I have come to like and feel protective of her. I almost can't bear to read on in case she comes to harm.
    Thankyou for recommending this book.

  5. I envy you. I dislike my current work / "me time" ratio but it is necessary. My ambition is to get to the point where work diminishes and the "me time" increases. For me this is a fine goal and a clear indicator of my continued sanity. Should I ever give up this goal I will know that I have fallen to the sword of The Man and I may as well blow my own brains out (what's left of them).

  6. Yep, I agree. Changing the weekend to three days instead of two makes a huge difference. I would have done it if I could have.

    In France people seem to be much more aware of the issues of work/life balance, but the problem lies in the point you make. You can't do it from age 25.

  7. I loved what I did...I ate, drank and slept it and thought I'd be facing a crisis when I had to give it up when my husband became ill.

    Far from it...I realised how much I'd been missing in the pleasures of everyday life because this was the part of life I was shortchanging while concentrating on work.

    But money and responsibilities play a big part when considering the work/home life balance...if I'd had to stop working in circumstances where we were scrimping and counting the pence I'm not so sure I'd have made the transition so happily.

  8. Not sure you are in a position to do what I did but I quit my job in R&D and gave up my insurance and 3 weeks paid vacation and reserved parking space to become a teacher. I did it precisely for the contract. 185 days each year. The rest of the time is mine. Or was. I retired in 1976 at the age of 42. I have pretty much done what pleases me since then. Though my wife has worked a couple of times. Once as a newspaper delivery person in the country. Once as a helper in the grocery store deli and about 18 years as a secretary for adult education in the school system. That gave her a retirement income and now that with social security we are able to live without too many problems.

  9. I have often wondered if we have it all wrong in America. Working like a dog in our 20's and 30's and sometimes 40's and missing all the special family moments. Slowing down as we age but our families are all grown and gone.

    I love that you can go for an afternoon stroll or have lunch with your wife. How beautiful.

    Treasure the moments for life is short.

    Nice to meet you today. Popping over from Abraham Lincoln's blog for a visit.

  10. as a one day a week man.....
    its amazing what you wont go back to eh?

  11. I like your style sir... I like it a lot!

  12. So many wonderful comments from folks...and I can't add much more than that...although..I will confirm notSupermum's comment...

    "How do you do that? How do you write a whole blog post about waiting for the postman?"

    PD Clever is right. But..that's why I follow...))

    I will say..I loved "sky a soggy lilac"..because you know I like these kinds of words and the photo was beautiful.

  13. I'm only just catching up on posts and I agree with the person who said Americans have got it wrong slaving away and missing more important things.

    For those of us who cannot work a forty to sixty hour week, finding employment can be difficult...I may never work in my field if this situation persists...

    I enjoyed your reviews of the books you're reading...

  14. Ahh, you have it right, young man. I'd say it took me a good 15 years longer to reach the same conclusion. Glad the light finally dawned for us both.

  15. Before he was made redundant last autumn, my other half wouldn't contemplate reducing his working hours. He wanted to get the mortgage cleared first, then maybe... but I knew from past experience that he would carry on, it's in his blood, the work ethic; he denied it at first, but then had to admit I was right.
    Then he was made redundant at 60. He was quite anxious, which showed itself in weight loss. I was the calm one for a change - this shows how much I have changed for usually boot is on t'other foot - we had mortgage protection, and as long as he shows up at the job centre weekly, that will cover the mortgage payments for up to a year. At the end of which, I told him, we would just have to use our savings to clear it if he didn't have a job.
    He was restless for quite some time... we don't get benefits at all, of any sort, because of a small Forces pension you see... we live on a third of the income we had before, and apart from the mortgage being covered, we still have the same outgoings for utilities and so on. It concentrates the mind this living on less lark. You do see what is important, and for us that's decent food and a book or two a month. We are going to grow more of our own fruit and veg this year. A job seems highly unlikely, they just don't exist, even worse in a rural area of course. But we have settled into a slower pace of life, no clock watching, lie-ins and late-ups, cooking together, sharing chores, walks and shopping done when we feel like it not because they're being fitted in to spare time slots.
    OK so there's no money for holidays - which we've not had in years anyway, not being holidaying folk - no money to change the car - but we drive an old one anyway and cars mean nothing to us other than a means of getting from a to b. No money for a social life, but we never had one anyway, not being sociable folk. We have a little put aside for emergencies that's all. And that's all we want or need. In my younger days, I would never have expected me to be so content with this way of life, but I am.

  16. I am a bit concerned...
    I was here and read this and left a comment on the 21st. Then I come back 'cause you commented on my stuff and it is the same post. Are you stuck in a time warp or just marveling at the post? LOL I hope you don't take me too seriously... you can always go have a look at my wife's blog. She is 74, you know, and still puts out a joke or two.

  17. I had forgotten just how much I love reading your posts!

    I've just started making sure that Friday is a day for me! I've got so much on and am away so much of the time that I really need a day to re-group and re-charge!

    Money, career...well they are nice but having a good home life and having time to spend with those we love is, in my humble opinion, more important! I can't remember who said it but there was a quote that went along the lines of 'No-one has ever lain on their death bed and said I wish I'd spent more time at the office'

    C x

  18. I cant tell you how many times i've commented onm your blog recently only due to circumstance lose it- telephone calls, computer crash and a work block on pop ups! I am reading anyhow and I do want to get that Butterfly book it looks just up my street.
    Your blog today has really made me think. One of the reasons I feel so fed up about my job situation is that I think I define myself by my job. Its really heartening to hear this and read some of the comments. Its helping me think in other ways.
    Thank you Mark, as ever.

  19. I hate that phrase "laugh out loud" because I thought all laughing WAS out loud. I'll stop being pedantic...because I DID laugh out loud at your bollocks comment. Great comic timing!

    It is why I left the City (amongst other things)...the whole macho culture - who can stay at the desk longest. Don't get me started.

    I just hope I can pull off this new stage of my life when I try to create career out of what I love to do....

  20. Hi! I regularly enjoy reading your blog and have awarded you a stylish blogger award. Should you wish to accept, for more details visit

  21. Life is so short. Time is more valuable than anything. We 'dropped out' and escaped to Wales many moons ago.

  22. Hi Mark, I just popped back to say thank you for your kind comment about my dear old dog. I appreciate it.