The Problem With a Shift-Worker Mindset

Development work can become a 24/7 lifestyle.  There are always more events to attend.  More lunches to have with donors.   More trips to visit prospects.  It can seem never-ending.  And ultimately, if one is not careful, it can produce an unhealthy, out-of-balance lifestyle.

In response to these very real pressures, some people apply a “shift worker” mentality.  They punch a clock – perhaps an imaginary one – but they punch it none-the-less.  “These are the times I work,” they think to themselves, “and these are the times I’m off.”

Sounds reasonable enough.  Except it’s a mistake and it doesn’t work.

Our work is fundamentally creative, sometimes messy, always relational, and demands high-levels of cognition.  We must have sharp emotional intelligence skills and we must be responsive – to donors, our institutions, and those students/clients/patients we serve.

By definition, then, our work is not “shift work.”  We don’t show up at a factory to make widgets for 8.5 hours and then head home.  We can’t put boundaries on our work.  Instead, we need to, and should, work until outcomes are achieved – for our institutions, our donors, and those we serve.  This may occur at 3pm in a meeting or at 8pm over dinner.

So the question then becomes, “but what about a decent work-life balance?”   We all have important roles outside of work – Dad, Mom, Family Member, Church leader, etc.  And, oh yeah, we need rejuvenation time for self – in whatever form that comes for you.  So, how can we reach our far edge of promise professionally in this field and still have a balanced, healthy life?

The answer is not to attempt to compartmentalize our lives like the shift-worker.  Instead, it is to plan using a lens of priorities.  What are the priorities for the year?  the month?  the week? the day?  What are the really big things I should strive to get accomplished in my work, for my family, for my community, for me?

Far too often, I walk into development shops where the primary problem is that the culture is reactionary.  Days start and end by doing whatever pops up first.  Even to-do lists don’t provide strategic guidance.  Instead, they are crafted on sticky notes as last minute thoughts while getting out of the shower that morning.  And thus, days and weeks go by with the primary achievements being putting out fires, responding to phone calls, regardless of who is calling, and answering every email as soon as it hits the in-box.

When we live our professional lives in this way, we give up the very control we need to have for a healthy work-life balance.  We become 24/7 responders.   And that is a tiring, unhealthy place to be.  It leads to burn-out.

Instead, by spending more time thinking about the priority relationships we need to build, the priority events we need to attend, the priority trips we need to take, we start to shape our work-life balance in a way that makes us more effective professionally and more healthy personally.  Yes, this means some things will go undone.  But if the event, trip, or task does not offer a high-level of return for your investment, what really have you lost by not doing it?

Our institutions and those we serve rightly deserve more from us than a shift-work mentality.  And so do our families, our communities, our churches, and our health.  The answer is not to try to plan the times to work and the times not to work.  The answer is to become  more purposeful in setting and living by our priorities.


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