The story of a career workout in #testingtimes

Charlie Mounter, freelance editor, joined the #testingtimes challenge and here are her reflections on taking on our career bingo.

Just as it pays to step away from the screen, taking time to really think about what we are doing can save us from making mistakes. Listening to the economist Tim Harford’s podcast Cautionary Tales reminds me of many basic principles that bear on aspects of life under a pandemic: question authority and your own assumptions; beware of ‘hot states’ when hungry, anxious, tired or under pressure; design your systems to anticipate human error; arrange information to be used in the order it is needed. Nobody can see into the future, so we need to remember that forecasts are tools for discussion, rather than edicts we must accept. 

Everything has changed, yet we can’t leave our homes to explore it. As a freelance editor I cope well with lockdown, but the boundaries between work and leisure have become more blurred than usual. Though the internet is essential to both, when I’m online I find myself reading a lot of news, where there are no end of updates and few conclusions to be reached. Time can be squandered that way, so my husband and I decided to turn off our wi-fi for two hours every afternoon. This means we can pay full attention to challenging books we were putting off reading. Being focused takes our mind off things and brings us some structure and resolution. 

Looking again at my CV, I realised that some of my skills have new implications. For instance, although I regularly manage projects there are now degrees in project management with methodologies I know nothing about. To address this, I signed up to a free course in the Fundamentals of Project Management that I can follow in small increments at my own pace. I hope I will learn to be more systematic and gain insights into other ways of working. 

Constraints can give us the impetus to be more imaginative, as can starting somewhere new or adding randomness. Back in the domestic sphere, for a while now I have been sprouting mung beans, which need daily rinsing and draining and to grow in the dark. The large jar with muslin and an elastic band that I had been using for this was a bit unwieldy and needed to be kept in a dark cupboard, which meant I sometimes forgot about it and the sprouts spoiled. When I went to put away my travel coffee cup, I realised that its lid, drinking hole and closing tab make it an improvement on my old sprouter, and its opacity means it can be kept on the counter. The cup has been salvaged from redundancy but it can fulfil its former function when the lockdown lifts. 

The new challenges and applications I’m taking on are practical. They help me reintegrate different modes of thinking and better equip me for life after limbo. Many options have been shut off, which has nudged me to make new choices. Sometimes we don’t try till someone or something makes us.

You can connect with Charlie on LinkedIn. She will continue to guest blog for us in the next few weeks.

If you would like to share your experience taking part in the #testingtimes challenge, get in touch!

Your career workout for #testingtimes

Great! If you are reading this, it means you’ve completed the first postcard challenge.

We are all going through extremely testing times. Work is fluid, merging into home life. Some of us find ourselves looking for new ways to fill up the time we’ve recovered from no longer commuting, others face the challenge of even less time to spare, either because they play a role in their organization’s COVID response (more work!) or having to balance work with looking after children at home; or in some cases, both.

There is flurry of articles on how to deal with working from home and about looking after your mental and physical health while keeping the trains of work and home life running. Some of the ones we’ve enjoyed are at the end of this blog.

However, we have declared this space to be COVID-free space. Our mission is to bring you a little bit of joy and inspiration, while continuing to grow your career as a strategic adviser. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably signed up to our postcard #testingtimes campaign and so your challenge is to try to put one of these suggestions into action in the next two weeks. If you’ve not signed up: email us your physical address for the next few weeks. It’s not too late to join the game.

Here’s three ideas that might help you flex your strategic muscles.

  • 1. Play outside your sandbox – To jump from being a technical expert (in comms, legal, human resources, or other functions) you have to leap into a wider body of knowledge, to understand how other professions see business. This is the time to open up your mind to new fields with the strategic intent of improving how you perform in your own.
  • 2. Learn to look at things differently- The world was already volatile before COVID, now we need to be even more flexible. But to a hammer all problems look like nails. So how do you step away from the hammer? Try approaching a familiar situation from a new perspective. 
  • 3. Nurture your boundaries – Healthy boundaries – permeable, flexible ones, are the key to a healthy life and a healthy career. Limits are good. Know what yours are, only then can you decide which limits to push. 

But how?, you might ask. Keeping our promise to be fun, without further ado, we present the #testingtimes bingo: a quick reference guide to keep growing your career without leaving home.

Tip If you have more time than usual If you have less time than usual
Play outside your sandbox
  1. Sign up for a free online course in something unrelated to your field (Accounting and Design Thinking come to mind).
  2. Follow the news, stock price and commentary of a sector you are not involved with. Fashion? Aviation? The Arts? (Stephen  is a member of the Royal Academy in London: you can sign up to regular emails here.)
  3. A couple of years ago, Casilda did a creativity course at the Tate Modern. Here’s a new idea.
  1. Call up someone (a friend, a new colleague) who works on a different area and just take 10 minutes to ask what their regular day is like. 
  2. Follow a company outside your sector on social media or on the digital newspaper of your choice. 
  3. Talk to your children about what you do, pay attention to their questions. They are very revealing of what’s important.
Look at things differently
  1. Try doing “opposition research” on your organisation. If you were an NGO, what issues would you raise?
  2. Now do “opposition research” on yourself, how would you turn your weaknesses into strengths?
  3. Read an interview with Karl Rove and David Axelrod on opposition research. 
  1. Get a friend or your partner to give you feedback on a piece of work they’ve never seen before. Don’t explain, just listen. 
  2. Listen to an episode of Cautionary Tales by Tim Harford
  3. When/if you are out for your daily exercise: think about the first car you see and create an imaginary biography for it.
Nurture your boundaries
  1. Understand what healthy boundaries look like. We like Brene Brown’s advice
  2. Try setting a schedule put your phone on “flight mode” no interruptions for an hour or two a day. 
  1. Block a 30-minute pause time in your calendar a day. Just for you.
  2. Try saying no to at least one non-essential request. Read our tips on how to say no. 
  3. Unsubscribe from redundant mailing lists.
  4. Turn your phone off for an hour. Go on, I dare you.
Three of the many, many resources for working from home and mental health

The next instalment of our #testingtimes campaign will come in two weeks.