Tips for the Overworked Planner

In a recent article about Elon Musk’s work habits, professor Gianpiero Petriglieri was quoted as saying, “He is really the poster boy of a contemporary culture that celebrates impulsive authenticity and obsessive overwork. He’s the symbol of a workplace culture in which we long for a very personal, even romantic relationship with work — even if that means it becomes all-consuming.”

This view is not limited to the business world — Kurt Cobain’s suicide note quoted Neil Young’s lyric, “it’s better to burn out than fade away.”

There is an option to the extremes of burning out or fading away. This post provides practical tips on how to manage the pressures of professional practice to avoid overworking. Next time I will address how a romantic relationship with work can underpin compulsive overwork.

Work pressures in planning

With Musk’s overwork in the headlines, planners face many day-to-day work pressures. Some public sector planning departments are understaffed. Conscientious staff may feel pressed to respond to many constituent requests. There is unpredictability in workload and many “do-overs” because political conflicts are resolved at their own pace.

Consultants face hard deadlines in responding to requests for proposals and delivering products. Work schedules and budgets are thrown off when clients change their mind, mid-project. Similarly, nonprofit planners respond to grant deadlines and demands for services that may exceed staff capacity.

Technology has increased efficiency, but staff support has declined or is nonexistent. Work emails arrive 24/7. New forms of workflow management provide more supervisor surveillance and subtle pressures to work more. Collaborating with Google Docs, for example, provides managers with information on when you are working. Observing other team members working at 10 p.m. adds pressure that you should too.

Hard work versus obsessive hard work

All professionals are expected to be independently motivated and prepared to go the extra mile. That’s why we don’t have punch clocks. Moreover, it is inevitable that management decisions are made without knowing the full implications for staff work. Also, young planners who want to prove themselves and support their team often say yes to every assignment, even if it is too much.

It’s a long road, though, so don’t burn out. You don’t want to look back after decades and realize that work crowded out attention to relationships, family, spiritual growth, well-being, or recreation. Part of being a professional is managing the work/life balance.

Here are some tips.

Find work that you like. Working hard on something that inspires you feels different than working hard on an agenda with which you disagree. Of course, there is no perfect job and we all must compromise.

Reduce distractions. Put your phone away for defined periods of time, replace social media breaks with walking around the block, and avoid the slacker culture (if there is one) at your job.

Prioritize tasks. Carve out time for major assignments that require extended thinking. Don’t flit from one thing to another.

Negotiate back. If the requested analysis will take 12 hours, negotiate when a supervisor asks for it in 8 hours. If it can’t be done tomorrow, say so clearly and directly. Propose an approach and schedule that is feasible and responds to your supervisor’s needs.

Seek clarity. Does a client want a lengthy report or will a PowerPoint deck suffice? In writing a staff report, determine which issues require the most careful consideration. Don’t impose your idea on how the task should be done, look for efficiency.

Structure projects for revisions. Make the inevitable process of revisions efficient, such as with spreadsheets that are easily used for “what if?” analysis.

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Consider whether obtaining someone else’s data rather than doing original data collection might suffice. Find templates and examples.

Don’t start until you are clear. Pause a moment if the idea, purpose, and method is not clear. Wading in and hoping that clarity will emerge is sometimes inevitable, but the more clarity at the outset the better.

Take your vacation.

Read previous installments of this blog series, "A Guide for the Idealist," here. This blog series is amplified in Richard Willson's book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career. The book includes perspectives, tools, advice, and personal anecdotes. It is available now at Routledge, Amazon, and most retailers.

Top image: Getty Images photo.


About the Author

Richard Willson, FAICP

Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy. His book, A Guide to the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career, amplifies the themes in this blog series. Willson is also the author of Parking Reform Made Easy (Island Press, 2013) and Parking Management for Smart Growth (2015). Willson holds a PhD in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles, a Master of Planning from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo.


September 12, 2018

By Richard Willson, FAICP