Contending with Chaos
7 minute read
Life in 2023 is loud. Omnipresent news feeds remind us that the world is on fire (figuratively and literally), social media competes for our attention, haranguing us to engage, and as technology allows for more and more data to be measured, everything becomes a metric. Have you closed your rings today? In this series of short musings, I'll describe how I keep myself grounded in a demanding and chaotic job, and the value I've found in those learnings beyond the workplace. With any luck, you'll come across something to try out for yourself too!
For the past four years, I've worked in web development at Octopus Energy. In that time, despite the consecutive crises of COVID-19, extraordinary wholesale prices, the cost of living crisis, and the over-arching climate emergency, Octopus has managed to rocket from a plucky startup to Britain's third-biggest energy supplier.
My team, which focuses on web development for marketing, is deeply intertwined with the approach the company has taken to achieve this: always delivering the minimum viable product at the earliest opportunity, to have the biggest impact as soon as possible. We've delivered initiatives like Winter Workout, a first-of-its-kind energy-saving campaign which wiped £5 million from customers' bills when they needed it most, using a combination of education, price signals and partnerships.
This kind of work comes with much less structure and planning than my peers might be used to – in the case of Winter Workout, we dropped everything to release the first phase of the digital product just 10 working days after we received the brief. The thing about disrupting an industry in crisis is that innovations become “a very good idea, very quickly”, and you have to scramble to act if you want it to really work well. The downside is that this work takes its toll on you, and can quickly lead to burnout if left unchecked.
So, how do I maintain some semblance of stability and peace in a job that tempts burnout more than most – and in a world that's intent on denying us rest at any opportunity, how have I used these same ideas to be restful at home and beyond? I'm so glad you asked.
It's taken me most of my tenure thus far to find my way towards a balance that's sustainable, and I'm certainly still doing so, but in these posts, I've assembled four principles for keeping your head on straight in a busy work environment. Each of these takes a step further back into the bigger picture of achieving balance and contending with chaos, inside the office and out.
Part 1: Reduce
Take on your inbox and win
Smaller mountains are easy to climb. The world around you is serving you endless information, so let's reduce it. An inbox with 50,000 unread emails (I've seen it) will overwhelm you each time you look at it. For a healthy relationship with the emails, messages, and notifications that matter, you need to do away with the ones that don't.
Tackle emails both in your personal and work lives by unsubscribing from newsletters you never really wanted anyway, but also turn off notifications that aren't actionable (e.g. keep a friend's direct message but ditch a LinkedIn profile view, or worse: today's popular reels). Do this enough, and you'll form the habit of asking yourself if a notification is useful each time you're disturbed by one.
Look at your email inbox. Unsubscribe from, or turn off notification for, anything in the first 20 emails that you don't need. This is a better investment of your time than just flicking through those emails.
If you have a runaway inbox, the above steps will stop the problem from getting worse, but you can go further to make a sizeable dent in your unread count using filters. Gmail implements this well, where you can search for “from:linkedin "noticed"” to see a whole backlog of emails that are guaranteed to have no value to you. Of course, some would make the argument that anything from:linkedin has no value by definition.
The key here is to restrict the flow of this low-value information, so you can turn your attention to what still gets through. It's one thing to burn down an email inbox, but think about these actions as deleting the emails (or notifications, or whatever) that you haven't received yet.
It's worth noting also that, depending on how you prefer to work, you may find it more appealing to allot an hour or two and tackle this kind of problem from top to bottom, or you might prefer an incremental approach where you train yourself to ask “is this valuable to me?” each time you open a new piece of information. There's no right answer here, you have to find through practice which method works best for you.
How to Stop Hating your Phone - This Too Shall Grow
Much of my self-awareness around screen time, focus, and digital wellbeing can be attributed to Clo's valuable words on this blog. I highly recommend her fortnightly newsletter.
Use technology to clear up the mess it made
More recently, I've been thinking about how to tackle what's left. My (personal) inbox looks healthy these days, but there's still a small backlog of interesting-looking newsletters I've been meaning to read. In the past, I've had amnesty moments, where I've deleted anything older than a certain age, resigned to the knowledge that I'll never catch up. This, too, comes with a feeling of defeat, however, and I'm sure we can do better. Enter AI.
Some of the contents of my reading list are posts I've genuinely been meaning to read for a short while – from authors whose work I enjoy, or on topics I'm truly curious about but haven't had the headspace to properly dedicate to it. Others, however, are links I've been sent or newsletters I've received which I feel a duty to read. Maybe I'm conscious not to miss out on a golden nugget of advice halfway down, or maybe I want to tell a friend that I did actually read the last 3 things they sent me. Here is where recent new players in the tech scene will save your day.
Paste an article from your backlog into ChatGPT, and ask it to summarise for you.
I've no doubt at least one pitchfork is twitching already, but I want to stress that this is a tool to use selectively, for the things you don't really want to read, or perhaps you're not yet sure if you do. A 1-minute summary might help you decide, and it's particularly powerful if you have a long list to get through.
Don't tell my teammates, but I use this technique at work too! Hey ChatGPT, summarise the main themes and action points from this copy-pasted 120 message-long Slack thread. It's alarmingly powerful.
Now, that brings us to what's left.
I'm still spending at least an hour a week reading newsletters, articles and whatnot, and it frustrates me that it's adding to my (already overwhelming) screen time, and keeps me physically idle for the duration. I'm experimenting with using text-to-speech to read some of these longer articles out loud, while my eyes are free to wander and I can even multi-task!
Use a text-to-speech tool to turn your inbox into a podcast.
I've been getting by with the Read Aloud browser extension and my device's built-in voice settings, but there are premium alternatives available which claim to sound more natural.
Only last week, I was listening to the latest on the jobs market in tech whilst folding my laundry. It might take a little getting used to, but it's worth it for the resulting dopamine of having ticked two things off your list at once.
Crucially though, it's cutting out the crap and speeding through the average which lets you become really deliberate about the good stuff. I've been putting some of my regained time into sitting down with a good book, and picking up news articles because I want to, not to sate an internal desire to keep up.
This is the first of four principles to come in Contending with Chaos. Sign up below to be the first to read them.