9 Ways to Know If Your Work Is Consuming You

The previous post in this series was spurred by a story about Elon Musk's overwork. It suggested ways to address challenging work demands.

This post addresses a more sensitive point: Does the planner bear any responsibility for their overwork? My thoughts here are spurred by the Elon Musk article, which called him "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."

Musk's agenda is so comprehensive that it is easy to understand his all-consuming style. Planners, too, have reasons to engage in all-consuming work. While goals of career advancement can spur overwork, planners know that their efforts affect critical local and global issues: affordable housing, climate change, poverty, livability, civility, and democracy. We too, feel that a lot is at stake in on our work.

Feeling deeply responsible for conditions in the world is a noble aspect of planners. The romantic aspect of saving the world has motivated generations of planners. But this can be a trap: There is a difference between being responsible to make our best effort and feeling individually responsible for outcomes.

When the world does not change as we wish, personal boundaries and good strategy may be needed more than more work hours.

Here are nine questions for reflecting on whether you are working hard or in an all-consuming way.

1. Do you have a romantic vision of your role as a planner?

Idealists, who are well-represented in the planning profession, tend to a romantic vision if it is not tempered by realism, or at least watching a few episodes of Parks and Recreation. Many of us have some version of wanting to "save the world," but we don't do that on our own or without challenges. Is the romantic vision supported by your experience?

2. Is all-consuming work the "cool" thing in your office?

You must be responsive to workplace demands, of course, but it is your own path. Avoiding burn-out is required for long-term contributions and professional growth.

3. Does fear drive obsessive overwork?

Student loan debt, employers' use of contract workers instead of staff, and the boom/bust cycles in the economy certainly generate anxiety. Hard work can improve your position in an uncertain world, but obsessive hard work may not. Fear of disappointing client and constituent demands adds to the pressure.

4. Is there a firewall between your self-esteem and the results of your planning work?

Does seeking professional accomplishments represent an unconscious way to compensate for a feeling of personal lack?

5. Is your understanding of the value of your work based on intentions or outcomes?

Ethicists distinguish between deontological (process) and teleological (outcome) ethics. While no one argues about getting results, planning takes place in a large politico-economic system that planners influence but do not control. Too much expectation for outcomes could lead to all-consuming work. Making your best effort and not succeeding does not mean that you must push the rock up the hill again, like Sisyphus.

6. Do you recognize the contributions that other like-minded planners are making in the area of your concern?

In planning, we never do it alone. Collaborators might be in your department, other departments in your organization, other government agencies, or nonprofits and the private sector. You may be playing a pivotal role in a larger drama. Don't assume you are the only one; collaboration may be the best approach.

7. Are you realistic about the time frame required to achieve change?

Sometimes the pioneers in a field do not get to see the change implemented. Of course, many issues are pressing, but seeing the long view can help put work effort in context.

8. Do you have a realistic assessment of the power and influence you have, and how that compares to other forces around you?

How much acclaim or blame should you accept personally when a planning proposal succeeds or fails?

9. Is your all-consuming work driven by willfulness?

Willfulness shows up in the view that the analysis must be done a certain way or that people must agree with you. Seeking to impose your will on others may push you to all-consuming work. Strong will gets things done, but skillful will is a better approach.

I am not writing this to suggest that you chill out and put your feet on the desk. On the contrary, avoiding all-consuming work will make you more effective.

Reflective self-knowledge can help you discern hard work from all-consuming work. When you master this distinction, your health will improve, you will be more effective, and those around you will benefit.

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 for 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 25, 2018

By Richard Willson, FAICP