Creating structure in unstructured working environments

Creating structure in unstructured working environments

Freelance journalist, Caroline Clements from Places We Swim talks about the importance of creating structure and setting intensions, even if you change them.


Contour animation Contour
Contour animation Contour

At the start of ever year my partner Dillon and I write a list of intentions. They are a loose set of ideas that we each carry with us, often reflecting on them at various milestones (birthday, EOFY, Sunday night). Sometimes they are specific goals for the year, but mostly they are broad and unachievable. They almost always include 1) work less; 2) exercise more, and; 3) learn something new. It’s only halfway through the year but I feel a bit smug. Somehow these things have been more achievable than ever in a global crisis. I’ve certainly worked less, had the opportunity to exercise more, and learnt that changing your expectations is totally okay (among other things). I also learnt how to make excellent dumplings, crème caramel and build a fire.   

Living through this pandemic has instantly constricted life’s possibilities. There are many things that we cannot do right now, and that fact provides equal servings of anxiety and relief. Anxiety because of the restrictions on the way we socialise, interact and travel. Relief because suddenly, our choices have been limited, our direction changed and the expectation to achieve, almost gone. It’s refreshing. 

As a travel writer, working in unstructured settings, from anywhere, is par for the course. You’re meant to be used to being flexible. When we wrote our first book, Places We Swim, we spent the a year travelling around the country, writing and researching swimming in places we’d never been. We installed a secondary battery in our car so we could plug our laptops and phones in anywhere. Sometimes we’d be out in the middle the desert with no phone reception for days. We’d pull up to Telstra Air boxes in towns to get a connection, or sit in Bunnings cafes for hours ordering coffee and slices of banana bread in exchange for use of their free wifi. You never got as much done as you hoped, but somehow that was okay. 

Back home in Sydney, being a freelancer in a small one-bedroom apartment in Bondi meant creating a schedule with my partner where one of us would be at a cafe while the other was at home. There would be days spent in public libraries, or in a co-working space. Every day was different, you got to choose – it was freedom. Some days you might wake up and decided to read in bed until 8.30am, with the knowledge that you can still shower, dress, have breakfast and get to work by 9am, because your desk is in the next room. Your living-room. That sounded like a true luxury to so many, until it was their only reality this year. 

Suddenly our ideas of work, our rituals and routines in life, completely changed. The worst thing about having to go to an office everyday wasn’t the commute, the time spent in meetings, the endless work-related social engagements. It was the fact that we couldn’t choose to work at home if we wanted. Then the worst thing about working from home was the fact we couldn’t choose to go to work. Not having a choice was the issue. For us the idea of working from anywhere, all of a sudden didn’t exist. We had to change our expectations entirely.  

I’ve always been a big list maker. There is something so satisfying about crossing things off a list. My diary (I still have a physical one) is littered with notes, scribbles and highlighter markings. Sometimes I even write lists retrospectively so that I have a record of things I’ve done, things I’ve achieved (sometimes this is literally just call Mum, make spag bol, swim at lunch). So even though I’ve ticked things off my annual intentions list and it’s only July, I’ve certainly had to alter my expectations a little. There will be no birthday parties, no book launches and no baby showers. 

We may not know when our next holiday is, when we’re next going to see certain family members, or when we can comfortably go to the supermarket and pick up an avocado to squeeze without feeling guilty. When we can cough in public, if we’ll ever go to a sweaty music venue again or drink from the wrong glass. We’ve had to shift our thinking around practices enormously, and it turns our we’re incredibly resilient.   

The best part is a shift in our mindset and our measures of success. Our achievements are not measured by how much wealth we accumulate or how many projects we complete. Happiness has become our main ambition. We try to practice patience and kindness toward one another. We have surrendered to uncertainty, but we can still eat good meals and read books that make us think. We can watch shows that make us laugh. 

Let’s hope we can hold on to the small pleasures and lessons of this moment. 

A few things I’ve learnt:

  • Set intentions, but be okay not to meet all of them
  • Write an actual list of your intentions, carry it with you so you can reflect on it
  • Be open-minded, change your expectations, especially in a pandemic
  • Create a framework of structure, but don’t be too ridged about it
  • Go for a swim in the middle of the day, if you can, catch up on work later

Caroline Clements is the co-author of Places We Swim with her partner Dillon Seitchik-Reardon. In October they will release their second book, Places We Swim Sydney, which is currently available for pre-order at / follow them on instagram @placesweswim.

Contour animation Contour
Contour animation Contour