Jess Shalz is a Technical Writer at Loft Labs as well as a disabled, queer, neurodivergent community activist. We sat down with Jess to discover how they use Polywork to facilitate a healthy work-life balance and discover like-minded creators, diving deep on:

  • Why downtime and rest are critical for doing great work
  • The value in clear communication with collaborators
  • How to find balance and fulfillment in polyworking

What Are You Polyworking On?

I’m a technical writer for Loft, which is a Kubernetes platform management tool.

I also juggle various side gigs:

  • I contribute to open source.
  • I (sporadically) update my blog.
  • I’m available for virtual speaking engagements.
  • I’m always on the lookout for side projects with like-minded people.
  • And I participate in volunteer social activism work to connect with my communities.

Outside of polyworking, some of my purely personal special interests are quantum computing, endometriosis, immunology, and crochet.

How Do You Polywork?

I’m always looking for like-minded people to connect with and embark on projects with.

I tend to find them within my communities when I attend virtual meetups and conferences, or just hang out with cool people — online, of course, because of the pandemic.

Being able to see someone’s entire online presence — social media, activities, life trajectories, values — through platforms like Polywork is a huge time saver.

I’m interested in working with genuinely like-minded people, so getting a holistic look at who they are helps me see if we could create something great together.

A Platform for Honest Interactions

My time and the flexibility of my time are important to me. Because of that, collaboration is exciting to me as long as it comfortably fits into my schedule.  

My agenda and downtime are also important to me because I’m disabled, so off days are sacred for rest and recuperation. Polywork is a perfect platform for me because, with all the cards on the table, I can be upfront with potential collaborators about my priorities.

Great collaboration is only possible if both parties' needs are met.

Intentionality & Personal Growth

In the past, I centered my self-worth around ideas of “usefulness” and “ability.” I burnt myself out by using constant extracurriculars as a buffer against the fear of future uncertainty.

In therapy, I learned the importance of innate self-worth and validating and honoring my needs.

I now intentionally seek out activities in and of themselves that fulfill me, rather than seeking fulfillment from other people through those activities. In that way, I’m intentional with my time because it fulfills me. Polywork in particular has been a great tool to facilitate these intentions.

How Do You Establish Welcoming Spaces?

I adjust my approach to finding people to work with by considering the particular sphere in which we would collaborate.

  • Engineering — I look at people’s portfolios and the work they’ve done in the past so I can understand their backgrounds.
  • Activism — I tend to look at someone’s social media, blogs, and previous community work to see if we have similar passions.
  • Writing — I read for writing style, but I also try to understand their working style. For instance, are they deadline-oriented? As a disabled person, I need to know these things in advance so I can properly adapt and meet due dates.

When I’m working, I can get into three- or four-hour flow states. I can lose track of time. I often think, “This is fun. I could do this then this and this, too.”

The ability to enjoy my job this much is definitely something I’ve cultivated. I’m able to feel calm on the job because of the work I’ve done on myself while maintaining a fulfilling environment.

How Do You Navigate High-Velocity Workplaces?

I started my career in engineering, but I found that the nature of a high-velocity workplace was wrong for me. I honestly thought, “I’m too disabled for this,” and switched to technical writing.

In my experience, the people in this field are generally much kinder. It’s definitely the right fit for me. This transition has allowed me to feel safe at my job.

Another step that made me feel safe at my job was having clear conversations with my potential employers and coworkers about my needs to ensure we were on the same page.

  • I asked potential employers if they were able and willing to support a neurodivergent, autistic person with ADHD.
  • Additionally, as a queer person, I make it clear that I’m not open to working with clients who actively harm queer people.

I accepted the job offer once my employer and I were aligned on these topics. As a result, I’ve been able to have constructive conversations if we have disagreements, which contributes to my psychological safety overall as well as a healthy employer-employee dynamic.

How Do You Find Balance Amid Hustle Culture?

In my experience, American capitalism functions by burning out its workforce. That burnout from overworking — repackaged as hustle culture — is then exploitative and ableist.

Really, I think of hustle culture as this psychological coping mechanism that people balancing multiple jobs can use for the sake of survival. Yet, in reality, the requisite rigor and perpetual fixation on growth culture within our economy just do not promote human health.

Over-work as the status quo is especially unrealistic for disabled people because we frequently can’t live up to those expectations. Our careers are consequently disadvantaged.

In comparison, privileged people don’t have to work all the time to get ahead. Here, working when you know you don’t have to can feel very fulfilling to some people.

The key here is the autonomy of choice that’s available to a few and not most.

People who work to survive don’t have that same form of mental freedom. So I’m against hustle culture because of this coercion that’s imposed on the majority of working people.

How Do You Adapt Polyworking to Your Needs?

As I’m disabled, I keep a flexible schedule to make room to listen to what my body needs. This means I might take days off during the week or work on weekends.

An example of this planned flexibility is the integration of “stall time” into my daily schedule. Stall time is necessary because I have ADHD.

In my case, stall time takes place when I cannot do anything right before a meeting. I know this about myself so, to accommodate:

  • I’ll usually do the planning for my meetings in the morning.
  • I’m then prepared for when they happen in the afternoon — stall time included.

How Do You Protect Your Personal Boundaries?

I went to therapy to connect with myself — emotionally and physically. I learned to listen to my body, particularly when it tells me, “This is my limit. This is my boundary.”

For example, when approaching a limit, my legs get heavier and my breathing gets harder because I have fibromyalgia, a breathing disorder. So, when I have brain fog, I know to think of it not as reaching a limit, but as setting a new, much-needed expectation for the day.

Communication with my body has also wildly increased my productivity because I now function with honest expectations. Getting to know myself has lessened my experience of burnout.  

To me, an adaptive workplace can integrate all of these aspects of my work and activist life while embodying a balanced structure that accommodates my disability and neurodivergence.

Yet, even in an adaptive workplace, I do not think we should strive to work all the time. I think we should strive to live a balanced life of work, rest, and recovery. That means:

  • Doing what fulfills us on a daily and weekly basis
  • Making sure that we are communicating with our bodies
  • Taking care of ourselves by sleeping enough and eating enough

Those are my goals. When I think about my future, I'm not envisioning grinding all the time. I'm envisioning working, surviving, and enjoying life in the moment.

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