My first job out of college was as a junior copywriter. We sat in an open bullpen and everyone’s computer screens were visible. Understandably, others grumbled about how much time I spent giggling over the GChat conversations I juggled between projects. But when I was confronted about this behavior, my manager defended me. “She gets all her work done and it’s good,” she said with a shrug.
Millennials have been criticized for the lack of boundaries between their professional and personal lives since they entered the working world. Coming of age with AOL taught us to write papers while flirting with three screen names at once, and bringing a laptop to college lectures helped us surf the web while taking notes. The Recession forced us, as recent graduates, to take side gigs just to avoid moving back in with our parents.
Who knew I was training for this moment—living, working, and parenting under the duress of a global pandemic—my entire career. And still, with over a decade of experience hustling, responding to emails at all hours, and never leaving work at the office and my personal life at home, I have been challenged by the past seven months.
When I was six months pregnant, my role at a startup was eliminated. I was sent packing with a nice enough severance package and the security of sustained healthcare. I had planned on easing back into the workforce as a freelancer after my son was born, but had no intention of being a stay at home mom, let alone one who also needed to work.
As soon as I emerged from the newborn fog, I was forced back inside with my baby because of a pandemic. A New York Times report stated, “Of the 1.1 million people ages 20 and over who left the workforce (neither working nor looking for work) between August and September, over 800,000 were women, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center.”
I don’t blame them. Balancing work with meetings, a baby, and taking care of a house with absolutely no help, is a special sort of hell. Yet, I’ve somehow made it work. In full transparency and gratitude, this is in large part due to the fact that my husband also has a flexible work schedule to help share in childcare (though working moms always end up doing more) and a member of a union that provides us affordable health insurance.
Without those advantages, my work/life balance might look a bit different, but my approach would not. Many tactics I used as a hustling post-Recession millennial in my twenties and early thirties have become major assets in my ability to be a working-stay-at-home parent during a pandemic
Professional meetings have been proven pointless and unproductive. Yet often, we accept and join calls just for visibility—even when we don’t turn on our cameras—potentially to overcompensate for working remotely.
Throughout most of my career, I’ve successfully held full-time jobs while freelancing on the side, and pursuing my own creative endeavors. For many years, I worked at remote companies, which gave me flexibility in how I used my meeting time, often allowing me to get ahead on other projects or household chores. This doesn’t apply to every meeting, and I wouldn’t recommend it unless it’s what I call a “listening” call, as opposed to a “talking” call, where you need to be fully engaged. I also wouldn’t suggest attempting this multitasking feat until you’ve already established yourself as an impactful team member.
When I know my presence in a meeting will be minimal, I often simultaneously complete my most tedious work projects or mindless physical tasks. Yes, I’m still paying attention, and able to contribute to the conversation. Research has proven that doing something with your hands can actually improve your focus while listening. Unfortunately, I don’t have a moment to lose in my day anymore, so I’ve replaced doodling with unloading the dishwasher.
Just don’t let meetings overwhelm your day. Set boundaries by declining meetings you don’t need to be in, and assess your involvement during the ones you do need to attend.
Embrace an always-on mentality
A boss once told me I had inertia. An object in motion will stay in motion. One thing I’ve learned from years of hustling multiple jobs and creative pursuits is to never fully stop moving. If I feel exhausted in one area of my life, I pivot to something else.
I know what you’re thinking and yes, millennial burnout is very real. But, being always on doesn’t mean you’re always operating at maximum capacity. It certainly doesn’t imply you’re always on in every aspect of your life at once. It means you’re strategically leveraging drive and energy from one responsibility to another.
Keep an active, receptive mind. Stay nimble and switch gears when needed. Perform multiple tasks at once without really thinking about it. Lean into a random surge of productivity or creative inspiration at 9 p.m.
It’s possible to slow down without coming to a halt. In Los Angeles, we call that a “California Roll” when we never quite abide by stop signs. As with my West Coast driving habits, I don’t like to lose momentum in my work-life balance.
Know your recharge activities
It’s rare these days, but I do have downtime and I’m very intentional about how I use it. After reading countless articles on self-care, I’ve realized I don’t like baths. I don’t have the concentration to dive into a good book right now.
I’m a true extrovert, I recharge by engaging with people. I make time to meet mom friends in the park, FaceTime with people who live too far away, and chat with neighbors on an evening walk. I love to spend solo time running errands, and I find cleaning out my closet to be meditative. These activities might sound horrible to you, and that’s okay. Figure out what real you-time looks like, and make the most of what little free time you have in order to sustain yourself.
Be authentic, always
I never understood coworkers who presented widely different versions of themselves at work and off the clock. I’m always me for better or worse. Though my transparency has done me a disservice or two, I’ve mostly found it to be the bedrock of lasting professional relationships.
I’ve always been open about taking time for doctor’s appointments or needing to work remotely because I bought a house and need to be home for the electrician. I have cried at my desk when someone broke up with me via AIM while at work. I have never pretended that being an employee precludes me from also being a person.
Good work culture is an understanding of complicated and challenging personal situations. I’m honest with clients that my meeting schedule is in direct correlation with my son’s naps, and it might change. Sometimes I take Zoom calls from the nursery, so I can watch the baby. I recently took a new business call from Target, wearing a mask the whole time. And yes, I’ve made breakfast and washed dishes while discussing copy edits—with my video on. Girl’s gotta eat.
I don’t have enough time in my day to do everything that needs to get done. Things are messy. There is such an extreme overlap between home, work and everything in between that boundaries aren’t even a choice anymore. Is it ideal? No.
One day it will change, and life will probably be better. There will be more acknowledgment and acceptance of people having lives outside of work. I will go to the mall by myself again. I won’t need to take calls from the chair where I read to my son at night. But, one thing will never change: I’m always in motion.
Heather Sundell is a freelance writer.