I’ve been meaning to write this one for a while. Read on and you’ll probably figure out why it’s taken me until now to get around to it…
Here are some facts:
- In January, I started an awesome new job at Coney
- In the months of January to March 2018, I lost a total of six Oyster cards
- I suffer from what’s probably best described as moderate clinical anxiety
I have a little theory that links those facts together. But first, let me expand on each one.
Fact 1: The Job
I think I’ve mentioned my new job on here before. I generally don’t overlap my personal and professional online lives, so I won’t say very much about it, although if you want to know a bit more, take a look at this blog I wrote for Coney’s website shortly after starting.
The key things to know are:
- I’m having an excellent time
- Coney is a tiny company, which means the role of ‘Administrator’ covers a lot of different responsibilities
- Because of the new role, new company and new sector, I’ve been learning at a ridiculous rate. That learning process was particularly intense in my first two months; in fact, I’m only just overcoming the feeling that my head is full of bees. It’s not dissimilar to the feeling of being on a year abroad, where your brain feels like it’s sloshing over at the sides thanks to the sheer amount of new stuff.
Fact 2: The Oyster Cards
Just as a refresher, I lost six Oyster cards in January, February, and the first half of March. Six Oyster cards. In two-and-a-half months. Six.
If you haven’t known me for very long, that number might seem implausibly high. After all, it’s like, one a fortnight. How could anyone possibly be that incapable of looking after a small piece of plastic?
I promise on my life that it’s not due to carelessness. Anyone who’s been unfortunate enough to witness me misplacing one of my possessions knows I care far too much. To avoid further distress after losing my third card in January, I decided to implement a strict policy of always keeping it in the same section of my wallet. Despite this, the fourth, fifth and sixth all went their merry way without the blindest bit of respect for my system. I began to wonder I was somehow dissolving them, or was being haunted by a very specifically vengeful poltergeist.
Clearly, though, the problem was me. And the most frustrating thing about my series of Oyster escapades was that it harked back to a scatterbrained past self I thought I’d outgrown. To give you some examples: at school, I once forgot to wear a shirt under my jumper, in an episode of such burning humiliation I can’t bear to expand on it here. In sixth form, I managed to lose a single shoe during the school day. I was a lost cause.
But since then, I’ve been consistently and determinedly working on my organisational skills. I still have my foibles (my flatmate’s rallying cry of ‘Is it under your bed?’ each time I lose some essential item on my way out of the house is evidence of a certain ongoing absentmindedness). I just thought they were the exception rather than the rule these days.
And yet, and yet. By February, my Oyster-card butterfingers reached the point where I started avoiding my local station each time I needed my new Oyster linking up to my railcard* in case the kindly TFL angels recognised me as ‘that woman’. By the start of March, I’d pretty much given up hope.
*side note: Seriously, if you have a railcard, get it linked up to your Oyster – it’s such a moneysaver. And register your card. It makes this kind of situation a lot less stressful.
Fact 3: The Anxiety
I’ve written about depression on this blog, but not so much about anxiety, though it’s a condition in whose company I spend a lot of my day-to-day life. Luckily for me, it doesn’t particularly interfere with my ability to function as an adult human, although it informs a lot of things about me and the way I exist in the world. That might be a post for another time – but certain aspects are relevant now.
In many ways, my anxiety is actually a useful personality trait, even (or perhaps especially) in a work environment. It has a big upside for things like event planning: I’m great at thinking of worst-case scenarios, and therefore identifying what I need to pre-empt in order to avoid the many disasters I’ve already played out in my mind. My brand of anxiety also manifests as perfectionism, which means I tend to apply high standards to most things I do – whether I need to or not. For example, I’ll probably proof-read this blog post at least four or five times before it goes online, even though only the most monumental of pedants would bother picking me up on spelling mistakes.
There is, of course, a substantial downside to that level of perfectionism. It can be exhausting – it certainly was at university, in an atmosphere of already toxically high pressure. And when perfectionism is motivated by anxiety about failure (rather than desire for success), it tends to spill over indiscriminately into areas where it would be much more sensible to forgive your own mistakes.
Thanks to my good friend anxiety, when I do make even a minor cockup, I self-flagellate to the most incredible degree, try as I might to be calm and assured. I’m particularly bad at being kind to myself when I not only make a mistake, but repeat it. It’s even worse if I repeat the mistake repeatedly. Say, six times in three months.
So the narrative upon losing my third, fourth, fifth, sixth Oyster was along these lines:
‘Oh crap. Where’s my Oyster card? Why isn’t it in the dedicated Oyster section of my wallet?’
‘It’s gone, that’s why.’
‘But it can’t be, it was gone last week. How can this have happened again already?’
‘You probably put it in your pocket, you utter banana. You know it falls out of there’
‘Why would I do something incredibly stupid like that again??’
‘Because you’re incapable and you don’t deserve nice things, that’s why.’
‘Oh f*ck, I’m a failure of a human. I think I might be the worst person’
‘Yep. You almost certainly are the worst person. I mean, if you can’t do this, imagine how bad you are at everything else. You’ll probably get fired. Oh, and your friends hate you. And you’ll die alone with cats. Trapped in an apartment you can’t leave. Because you lost your keys.’
Clearly, this is not all true, and not at all helpful. Even so, it’s a very easy pattern to fall into, and it turns what should be a tiny and mildly amusing irritation into an insecurity of epic proportions. As a result, I’ve been thinking a great deal about my newly rediscovered scattiness, and I’ve come up with the following theory.
This is it – the moment you’ve been waiting for. Spoiler alert: It’s really just an overstretched metaphor, and I expect it’s already been articulated more eloquently by many people. But it makes me feel a bit better about things.
Basically, I think we humans have a limited amount of organisational capacity at our disposal. There’s a ceiling on how many plates you can stack at any one time, before one of them topples to the ground. Sure, you can improve your organisational skills and push the ceiling up a bit, but it’s always there, lurking, ready to ruin your important meeting or make you double-book yourself of a Saturday.
My plate-ceiling started very low. I was unbelievably disorganised at school. I could stack at most two or three plates on a typical day: remembering to get dressed (usually – see above), catching the bus to school (except when I overslept), and doing my homework (sometimes on the bus). When it came to things like getting to classes, my ceiling kicked in and I was embarrassingly reliant on more competent friends.
At some point around the end of high school, I started working on my admin skills, and the ceiling began to creep up. Then, after several years of continuing this steady climb at uni, I moved into the working world and discovered that somehow I’d morphed into a person who could create a functional to-do list and get to every appointment on time. My ceiling is a lot higher than it used to be.
But there are moments in life when the number of plates on your plate (as it were) suddenly multiplies, approaching the ceiling in an abrupt and alarming manner. One of those moments is starting a new job.
In this scenario, not only are you stacking the plates you’re actually paid to stack (things like ‘writing twitter posts’, ‘planning events’ and ‘emailing’) but you’re also stacking extra side-plates like ‘learning your colleagues’ names’ and ‘not getting lost on the way in.’ Not to mention ‘learning about all the actual job-description-item plates you’re now responsible for stacking.’
Until you’re done with those extra side-plates, some kind of internal battle has to happen in order to avoid hitting your ceiling. In this battle, the plates that tend to be sacrificed are the personal ones, like ‘going out in the evenings’ and ‘not losing your possessions’. This January and February, I was focusing so hard on stacking all the work plates that one or two of the personal plates slipped off the pile. And the plate that got most comprehensively smashed was ‘keeping track of my Oyster card’.
While my anxiety is still determinedly telling me that these slip-ups are because my organisational ceiling has dropped back down to ground level, the timing suggests that the issue is really the overall number of plates. Something had to go, and it happened to be my Oyster card(s). That’s infuriating, not to mention expensive, but in a way I’ve come to think it’s quite a good thing. After all, despite all those new shiny plates I’m juggling, I’ve largely managed to keep on top of things like doctor’s appointments, meeting commitments to my friends, and (usually) getting a sensible amount of exercise and rest.
So really, I reckon my repeated Oyster card losses are actually a sign I’ve subconsciously managed to get through a busy spell by deprioritising something which – anxiety-induced panic aside – really doesn’t matter very much.
P.S. The good news
After four months in the ‘new’ role I’m beginning to feel like I actually know how to do most of the things in my job description. And in a staggering twist of fate, I haven’t lost an Oyster card since the end of March. Coincidence? I think not.