If you build it they will come: The impact of making space in my professional life

When my personal development coach told me that the first steps towards having a happier working life and better work life balance were to a) figure out what I wanted to do most and b) clear out some space in my life for it to fit into, that seemed a bit back to front and almost too obvious.

Although I’ve always known that I want to apply clinical psychology to helping the most complex children and families, I felt a real lack of clarity about what I wanted to do. I think in retrospect this was because I’d originally envisaged nothing more creative than a career in CAMHS in the NHS. But even once I was outside the NHS I still felt this lack of vision for my ideal future, perhaps because I wanted to choose it from the options available to me, and I hadn’t explored what those might be very far beyond returning to the NHS or continuing what I was doing already (court expert witness work, with a side helping of trying to influence policy and practise by being involved with national committees, standards groups and supporting the next generation of CPs).

I had also internalised the idea that the right process was to build up my investment of time in what I wanted to do more, until that took off and allowed me to do less of the other stuff. I felt like clearing out space from my established work streams was of no value (or even a potential risk to my income) unless I had figured out what I wanted to do, or ideally created the alternative channels already. But slowly I realised that if all my time and energy was being consumed by my current workload, then there was no capacity to imagine anything better, to seek out any opportunities or plan any change, and I’d still be overloading myself and worrying about my work life balance in a year from now, or five, or ten.

So I decided to take a gamble and cut down my work commitments for a while and give myself thinking space to figure it out. Of course, being me, I took on the new part-time consulting role that was going to pay the bills whilst giving me time to think before I had managed to reduce my existing workload. So I had six months in which I had to overlap this new role with my all my ongoing court and committee work, before I was able to wind them down very much at all, and then a minor RTA to contend with (see previous blog). So I sure didn’t take the easy route to cutting down.

But the physical jolt was the final straw to help me to realise that I needed to change my work patterns and I have been able to spend more time with my family, and have now stepped down from almost all of my committee roles. This is an enormous change after 4 or 5 years on the BPS CYPF committee, nearly double that of being involved with CPLAAC, and more recently being part of the BPS/FJC standards group for psychology experts to the family court and the NICE guidance development group for attachment interventions, and a rep from the BPS to BAAF. I am now at the very tail end of the court work, with just three small pieces of work to complete (each an addendum to prior work or work that was delayed after I agreed to complete it) and a couple of single days in court.

Although my time is still very fraught for another couple of weeks and we will then segue into Christmas (meaning my winding down schedule will have taken me almost a year to achieve), I’ve managed to get onto some tasks I have been avoiding for a long time. I’ve started to work my way through the financial tangles that constantly stop things running smoothly – this is mainly the enormous pile of unpaid invoices where parties to court work have disputed their share, gone bust, or just not paid for years and years, but also includes the un-invoiced work that we have completed, expenses I have not claimed back from the company, and the administrative task of reconciling our records with the bank statements. My team have stepped up to help me and as I have made sense of it bit by bit it feels like that tangle is turning into a single logical thread I can follow and wind up as I go.

As I sort and put away the clutter that consumes my time and energy step by step, I am starting to feel less overwhelmed by running the business. As the volume of court work I undertake reduces, so does the emotional weight of the work. And as the burden I am carrying gets lighter, psychologically at least, some small gaps between the demands on my time and energy are already starting to appear. Into those gaps has come the beginnings of the vision I lacked of where I want to take my career in the future, and what kind of life I want.

I’m sure I’ll talk more about that next time. But for now I just wanted to share that it feels great to put down some of the load I have been carrying, to untangle the frustrating little issues that have been tying me up, and to create space for the stuff that I care about the most. With the help of a new business mentor I’ve been able to connect with the motivation that started me on this journey, and to finally work out where I want to go both personally and professionally. And that makes all the steps I have to take to get there much clearer.

I made the space, and sure enough, the goals of how I want to fill it have come to me.

All change!

Someone once said to me that, if you can manage the stress, change can be an opportunity. They argued that a time of confusion is a good time to put forward ideas that could be seen as potential solutions, as nothing is set in stone yet. Derren Brown (the skilled TV hypnotist, cold-reader, sleight of hand maestro and showman) said something similar when he talked about how confused and stressed people are at their most suggestible. I think he said it whilst persuading bookies at the races that he had won on losing tickets, which was not something I felt was ethical to replicate (even if I had his skill-set) but I do have some anecdotal experiences of this being true. I remember a few years ago going shopping in early December and queuing up to pay in a very busy clothes store. I had a loyalty card which gave a discount for the event at the store, but when I got to the till I couldn’t find it. The poor cashier was on hold to the accounts department to see if they could find my details when, whilst making small-talk, I asked if the discount was the same as the student discount. The cashier then decided it would be easier to put my purchase through as a student discount (which did not require a card number), so that she could deal with me more quickly. Thus I got the discount without the card, and she was able to move on to the next customer. I could see that my comment had unintentionally introduced the potential for an easy win into her mind. Of course as soon as I left the crowded store I was able to find the card, but it made me think about the attractiveness of offering an easy option when the demands are overwhelming. I find this a reassuring concept to think about when the public sector organisations seem to be constantly in a state of organisational change, demands that exceed resources to meet the need, and a pervasive level of uncertainty and confusion! This idea that sometimes a suggestion with serendipitous timing could influence change in a positive direction offered an interesting alternative perspective to my pessimism about how difficult it can be to get even solid, evidence-based, cost-saving ideas accepted into practise (see previous blogs).

I’ve also been talking about the need for change in how I work in my personal development coaching sessions. I’ve previously blogged about feeling a bit burnt out by the emotionally harrowing content of some of my work, the need for me to get better at prioritising and how I am trying to get a better work-life balance. One of my motivations to start the coaching was my sense that I have so many plates spinning I have almost lost track of why I am spinning them and what my goal is. I wanted to re-evaluate what my goals were, and to find the joy in my work again. As I have begun to clear space in my life to reflect on this, I have recognised that my beliefs about what my career would look like have not really kept pace with changes in the public sector and in my own interests and ways of working.

At some level, my template for a good career in psychology was based on my Mum. She worked in child psychology and CAMHS, and was Head of Child Psychology for a county at the point she retired a couple of years ago. I had always assumed that was pretty much how my professional life would pan out. I had qualified in 2000, worked my way up the bands to make Consultant Grade and be part of the CAMHS management team in 2008, and expected to end up as Head of a Child Psychology service somewhere. In metaphorical terms, that was the train journey I bought a ticket for. But something changed when I had kids and went through a lot of stress related to the organisational changes when the CAMHS contract was won by a competing trust and we were TUPEd over. In the end I left the NHS and did something different. In the metaphor, I got off the train. My early plans for my company were very much based on wanting to replicate what I was doing within the NHS, but without the systemic problems I experienced in the NHS trust that I left. So in the metaphor I caught the bus, but I was still headed for the same destination. At various points I meandered, detoured to explore things I had heard about, joined groups to see the local sights, even hiked across country with my own compass, but underneath it all my destination was still the same.

Of course once you are going off the beaten track, sightseeing, hiking and choosing your own route, the journey becomes a bit more scary but much more interesting. In turn, the destination becomes less fixed and also less important, because it can continue to change and there may be steps beyond each destination to another. You can also grow in confidence and tackle bigger challenges and find new things inspiring, so you end up setting goals you had not considered at the beginning of the journey. Once I was off the train, I didn’t need to follow the tracks, or try to make my way by other means to where they led. I didn’t need to replicate CAMHS or to try to set up a LAC service outside the NHS, and I didn’t need to be Head of a Child Psychology service. Indeed I was offered an NHS post with this title last year, which was my expected destination, but I declined the offer. I learnt things about the post that made me concerned that I’d be jumping back into a train on a route where everything was running late and all the passengers were unhappy, whilst I was no longer afraid of being off the rail network and doing my own thing – in fact I had remembered how much I could enjoy the journey if my focus was in the here and now and not about trying to get to the destination ASAP. I started to think of myself as being a much more adventurous person and put my skills to use in much more flexible ways.

Sadly, the kind of NHS I envisaged spending the next 25 years in isn’t there any more, and the jobs at 8C and above bear a lot of the brunt of the change by having to take on the new political and financial pressures, whilst the lower banded staff continue to do much the same work (albeit with increased pressures of throughput and whilst hot-desking). There are good services remaining, and some people will still think that is the best career option for them, and I’m glad about that as I love the NHS and want to see it survive and hopefully thrive in the future with more investment. But for me it isn’t the only option any more. There are other opportunities for adventures outside of the NHS that hang on to my core ethics and values, and put my clinical psychology skills and experiences to good use, but without some of the constraints of the NHS. I can write my own job description, choose my own working pattern and be paid for what I do, rather than on a fixed set of salary points for a set number of hours. Perhaps surprisingly to me, I’ve learnt I’ve got competencies and ideas that are useful and marketable in lots of places. Despite the austerity in the NHS, I continue to have more opportunities and offers of work than I can accept, and some of these are quite well paid. In short, I have learnt that I can actually think much more creatively about what options for my professional life will make me happy if I let go of the template of how I expected my career to be.

With that insight, I’ve got a growing desire to start afresh and do the things that have most impact and bring me most joy. That means I need to look hard at all the options in front of me, and all the plates I have been spinning, and figure out which of those I want to focus on, and which I want to pass on to other people or drop. There may also be entirely new projects that I can develop because they are interesting to me, but I can recognise a future market or source of funding for.

There is big change ahead. But my business is small and agile, I’ve got an entrepreneurial attitude, and I’m lucky enough to have some interesting offers on the horizon. I’m in a position where I can embrace the change, so I am seeing it as an opportunity.