Q&A With Senior Editor for Los Angeles Review of Books, Journalist & Filmmaker Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn

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Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is currently working on the feature film Lovers in Their Right Mind, the documentary film …But Can She Play? Blowin’ the Roof off Women Horn Players and Jazz (about contemporary women horn players in jazz that arose from work she did as a USC graduate student inspired by an unsung female jazz trumpeter in the 1940s), and is a senior editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. She’s the co-author of Swirling: How to Date, Mate, and Relate Mixing Race, Culture, and Creed, is a former columnist for the Associated Press, and has been a journalist for over 30 years covering entertainment.

I met her this past summer when we were both on a panel about avoiding burnout in a mobile-connected world. I wanted to hear more about her thoughts on work-life balance, especially since she is a writer working on so many different projects. We met at Cafe Brazil in Culver City to chat over fresh passionfruit juice and herbal tea.

  • How did you identify your passions and follow your dreams?

Essentially, when I was in college, I was studying fashion merchandising in hopes of becoming the president of Nordstrom. That’s the trajectory I was on. That’s what I thought I wanted to do. About my second year in school, I realized that I hated my accounting and marketing classes, and I took a fashion writing class with the fashion editor of the LA Herald Examiner, back when we had 2 papers in this city. She was black, she was smart, she was funny, she dressed well… she was who I wanted to be.

I had always written, but I never thought of it is a field. She encouraged my writing and felt my work was viable. And she helped me get an internship at Women’s Wear Daily. That internship changed my life because they let their interns write.

I loved the work. I loved that I could tell people things and introduce them to things they didn’t know. I felt smart [laughs]. And it piqued my curiosity: I always want to know about things that are happening.

So that’s where my writing career began… When I got out of school, one of the first jobs I got was at a syndicated radio show that covered urban enternmaint news. That’s when I  started covering junkets and going to the Oscars…  I was in my 20s, and feeling very special, because there were few, if any, young black people, and no women. It was great. I got to tell people about the films and TV shows and books that were coming out. And I had won a couple of awards about reports that I had done about black voting and adoptions. I felt like I was accomplishing something and contributing to this world.

  • What does the term “work-life balance” mean to you?

I think it’s a funny term for me, because my work is my life. My brother often teases me and says, “Do you ever shut it down? Everything you look at is a story.” We’ll be having a conversation and I’ll be like, “That would make a really good story.”

I have a writing life. But I enjoy what I do. I love sitting down, fiddling with words, trying to find the best words and trying to find the right angle for a story. It’s who I am.

For me, balance is making sure I take myself out of the minutiae of the business part of that writing life, to make time for walking in the morning and getting a good night’s sleep, taking time off even if I’m not going anywhere, and being cognizant to spend time with my friends and family.

My writing life includes time for self-care: To do those things that I need to do to make the work better… I set those things in place, and I’m a very serious list person. I try to adhere to my lists and make time.

At this fall's AIDS Walk: Los Angeles with Team APLA Health where Janice serves as a board member.
At this fall’s AIDS Walk: Los Angeles with Team APLA Health where Janice serves as a board member.

Janice and I met just before election, and she discussed wanting to make time to volunteer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which inspired me to ask her about how people being perpetually overworked affects communities and the country as a whole:

Do you feel that we’ve become as a nation overworked and overstressed, to a point that we don’t participate in our country, communities and politics like we should? Does that have a negative effect? 

I don’t know if I can answer that. I think we prioritize what’s important to us. And for some, government and activisim is only important once every few years.

I grew up in an environment of service. The church I attended growing up was all about service. I serve on several boards, because I feel that is a part of what I do. Because it’s a priority for me. It’s not a priority for everybody else. And maybe if we made it a priority and a part of our lives, things could be different.

It’s about what we prioritize…. Find what works for you. Everybody doesn’t have to do the same thing. But there is something we all can do.

What do you wish you do differently in how you manage your day and time?

Facebook is my greatest time suck, and Netflix is as well. But I do put a timer on now. I set my alarm. I give myself whatever I feel I reasonably can and stick to the time I should stop.

I think I am good at balancing because I work for myself. I learned that distractions are detrimental to my bottom line.

What do you feel you don’t have enough time for, or wish you could tackle better?

Cleaning. I mean my house isn’t dirty, but my office needs to be reorganized. I don’t even work in my office that much anymore because it’s like, “I’ll come back to this later.”

And the other thing I wish I had more time for, which is both a product of their schedule and mine, is to spend more time with my nieces and nephews.

I remember, my neice told me, “You know, we didn’t go to the beach this year.”

Awww…

That’s exactly what I thought! Because I was working on a rewrite. So I wish I had a schedule that was a bit more flexible to make it more conducive to hang out with them more.

After an hour-long yoga practice at Santa Monica Pier this summer.
After an hour-long yoga practice at Santa Monica Pier this summer.

Do you have advice for someone starting a new endeavor and grappling with issues of following their passions, doing meaningful work and making a difference, while managing their time to so they can find their “balance”?

1. Figure out who you want to be when you grow up.

I think one of the greatest thing I did in the past couple of years was to go to a goal-orienting work shop that the Journalism and Women Symposium put on. And I think beyond setting goals, it’s about getting a picture of what I want my life to look like. That includes my personal goals as much as my professional goals. I want to be the kind of person who is engaged with her community and friends and family. I want to be the kind of person who works passionately on her craft. It’s up to each person… Look at who you want to be in 5 years. Who do you want to be by the end of this year? What would you like your bio for the year to say about you, the things you have accomplished? The lives you have touched?

One of the exercises in setting goals is writing a bio. If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, what do I want my bio to have said, and what from that have I accomplished?

The short answer is: Figure out who you want to be, and start working towards that and what is required for that.

2. Embrace the Shifts

The one thing that I will add is to understand that work-life balance shifts. My work-life balance is very different today than it was last year, or 5 years ago. And if we recognize that that shift may happen when we get married, when we have children, or even if it’s just year-to-year when we get a new job, we should embrace the change, and be flexible with ourselves and with it, and work within the shift.

 


Connect with Janice on Twitter and Instagram.

Edited for length and clarity. 

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3 Reasons to Put Away All Electronic Devices While Working

Productivity Writing Tip White Desk

Lately, I’ve noticed that there is a great distinction between the illusion of work and actually doing work. The illusion of work is when you’re sitting in front of your computer, tablet or smartphone. You might check social media, respond to emails, check the news, do relevant “research” online related to your work… But you’re often not actually doing meaningful work.

This is especially the case for me, as a writer. My main goal is to write a story I really want to share. And it’s very clear at the end of the day when I’ve advanced towards my goal of completing my writing project or not. There is no gray area.

Over the summer, I realized that for some reason, these days work is now equivalent to diligently staring at a screen. And that feels really wrong to me. To be sure, we need our devices as tools: I need my lap top to type. I love connecting and sharing on social media. And we have to communicate via email. But they are simply tools. Why has being in front of a lap top now become the symbol for someone hard at work?

After my 3-week trip to Europe, I returned determine to change this pattern. Now, I spend 1-2 hours per day in front of my lap top to do the tasks that need to be done on it. This allows me to check social media and respond to emails in “batches” rather than looking at my inbox all day. Indeed, I’m always surprised when I get an instant response from someone I email. I assume people are busy working and there will be a several hour delay (if not a day or 2) before I get response.

Unsubscribe Email Anxiety Jocelyn Glei We need to establish new standards and boundaries when it comes to email.

This is especially true because “scientists have established a clear link between spending time on email and stress: The more frequently we check our email, the more frazzled we feel,” according to Jocelyn Glei, author of Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done, who shares her productivity tips in The Guardian.

Since the beginning of October, I’ve been trying to create the habit of consistently putting my lap top away for most of the day (and not checking my phone as a substitute). I’ve been doing my writing with a pen, on a notepad. That removes the “illusion of work,” and helps me to actually do my work. It removes the distraction, multitasking, and unimportant things with which we often fill our work days. And it has increased my efficiency and productivity.

I think most professions would seriously benefit from a similar strategy, and for those that absolutely do require a computer, I would recommend switching off the Internet and creating whole chunks of the workday that are focused on actual work.

And this isn’t just my opinion.

Research out of Stanford described in the widely read The New York Times article from earlier this year clearly shows that:

“By doing more you’re getting less done.”

Multitaskers–especially the kind of multitasking involved with doing many things on your devices at the same time and toggling back and forth between them–make double the errors.

That’s because they are paying less attention to what they are actually doing. I’ve found that by simply putting away my devices and working with a pen and paper, meeting with people to brainstorm, or even going for a walk in nature if I need a break (rather than surf the Internet, which feels productive somehow but actually ends up being a waste of time usually), I get a lot more done.

The New York Times article goes further, showing that doing one thing at a time, or monotasking, “can also make work itself more enjoyable. Almost any experience is improved by paying full attention to it.”

Being focused and doing one thing at a time also has long-term effects on our productivity:

The more we allow ourselves to be distracted from a particular activity, the more we feel the need to be distracted. Paying attention pays dividends.

A new book delves deeper into why our brains can’t multitask, and how multitasking makes The Distracted Mind Adam Gazzaley Larry Rosenus inefficient. The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World, by neuroscientist Dr. Adam Gazzaley and research psychologist Larry Rosen shows “how the digital age zaps productivity.

“We think the mind can juggle two or three activities successfully at once, but in truth, we simply can not.”

Dr. Gazzaley told NPR Health that:

“When a focused stream of thought is interrupted, it needs to be reset. You can’t just press a button and switch back to it. You have to re-engage those thought processes, and re-create all the elements of what you were engaged in. That takes time, and frequently one interruption leads to another.”

Based on his research, Gazzaley clears his desk, turns off his phone and focuses on one screen when he is working on a project.

I’ve taken it a stem further: no screens at all for a large chunk of the day. I’m in the midst of writing first drafts by hand. I can type it up and edit it on my lap top (with the Internet turned off) at a later stage. There’s nothing like a clear, focused mind for writing well.

Click here to read more of Dr. Gazzaley’s tips for turning off distractions and focusing on a high-level writing project, business plan, or any other work you need to focus on. (It’s in the sidebar by the article).

As Jocelyn Glei writes in The Guardian:

“Productivity is no longer about keeping up, or keeping busy, or having it all. It’s about being deliberate and being focused… It’s about getting really clear on what matters to you and letting the rest go.”