“I’m in my ‘work era’ – realising that has helped me prioritise without guilt”

Labelling our ‘eras’ can help us prioritise and justify our needs, agrees an expert psychologist. 

TikTok is obsessed with ‘eras’. It’s a turn of phrase used to label your current interests or priorities, no matter how serious. You might be in your ‘villain era’, rejecting social expectations of niceness, or your ‘healing era’, removing toxicity and working on being a better version of yourself. Or maybe you’re in your ‘flop era’, where everything you do is a little bit unsuccessful.

This piece of cyber slang adds to the long-running list of colloquial terms coined by people on the internet (see also: FOMO and Oxford University Press’s word of the year for 2022, ‘goblin mode’) that drip down into real life. So much so that I caught myself referring to my ‘work era’ when texting a friend the other day.

I said it to justify the fact that I would more than likely be turning down a lot of upcoming social events. Avoiding social gatherings isn’t my usual MO, especially going into the festive season, as I’m a people pleaser and I feel awful saying ‘no’.

Like so many people nowadays, I feel the need to have all of my plates spinning equally fast: a good career, loads of amazing friends, a perfect relationship, a solid fitness routine and my life admin well organised. Swerving a commitment makes my heart lower to my belly with guilt. 

So the ‘work era’ comment was said flippantly. The language lacks seriousness, which might explain why I found it an easier way to communicate my absence than if I’d sent a formal message declaring my new boundaries. But since uttering those words to my friend, something has shifted. 

When we try to juggle too much, verbalising your goals can help prioritise

Defining my work era has made it easier to justify Saturdays spent hunched at my desk as I enter a new world of freelance life. I’ve left birthday parties early so as to not sacrifice sleep when I have scheduled a 6am wake-up call the next day to write before the world is awake. I’ve said ‘no’ to events that would mean walking away from my laptop when I’m not yet satisfied with my output that day, all without the sinking feeling of shame that I’m letting people down.

Naming our eras is a useful tool, agrees Dr Maria Kordowicz, associate professor in organisational behaviour at the University of Nottingham. “Labelling like this is a form of classification. It’s a tool used by humans for centuries in order to have a unifying language for understanding the world around us. By classifying our priorities verbally or in writing, we are better able to work towards meeting them by creating a transparent system and remaining accountable,” she says.

Eras also denote an ending. Acknowledging that this is a phase in my life helps the extra hours feel less like a slog and more like an exciting challenge that will eventually finish, to be replaced with something new. It offers friends an unspoken solution: ‘This isn’t always going to be me, but please bear with me for now.’ Knowing I have the power to shift my identity and my priorities is powerful.

“Defining your era can encourage you to think about how you use your time to focus on a particular priority and to plan when to move on to the next,” says Dr Kordowicz. “Dedicating particular periods of time to our goals and priorities may be effective in helping us gain a sense of a range and feasibility.” It’s the same reason that we’re told to regularly change our exercise goals – running the same 5k every week eventually feels stunting.

The working era will undoubtedly come to an end

Of course, taking these eras too seriously comes with problems. “Labels can prevent us from seeing nuanced reality, preclude us from looking at the world differently or trying new things [if we think] that we are limited by a particular era. We may also become stuck on areas of our lives and define them in line with what we are seeing on social media, rather than feeling empowered in how we experience and organise our own reality,” says Dr Kordowicz.

Stylist’s social media director, Chloe Laws, previously wrote about the pitfalls of our growing obsession with categorisation: “Every time I scroll, there’s a new label… ​​The lines of consumption and digital marketing have become so blurred, so accepted, that even our core identities have been branded,” she says. “We are now a ‘type of girl’, not a complex entity.”

Maintaining that original sense of flippancy has probably helped me not to take it too seriously. It’s not something I’d say to anyone who isn’t close to me and I don’t project that identity onto social media. I say it to friends with a flick of my hair and a pout, a silly reminder to me – and to them – that I need to get back to my laptop. 

It’s worth noting that none of my friends were outraged that I couldn’t make their Christmas drinks and they’ve told me they are proud of my career moves — the worry is always internal. But identifying my goals has brought less shame and also less burnout. We all know that burning the candle at both ends isn’t sustainable, and yet we do it over and over again. 

I keep seeing a meme go around at the moment that says something along the lines of ‘adulthood is telling yourself that things get less chaotic after this week forever and ever’. My working era has put a stop to that chaos – but only for a bit, until the next phase of my life. I can’t wait to see what that will be. 

Images: Getty

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