(Mini) Shift Work

These days, growing numbers of us have projects, not jobs. If we work in traditional settings, we may be responsible for different activities, and many of us work for ourselves, and so are constantly juggling multiple clients. How do you do your work for all of them?

Over at the Wall Street Journal, Sue Shellenbarger’s Work and Family column today discusses this question. The headline, “Recession Tactic: The Mini-Shift” makes this out to be an economic issue. The thesis: in a recession, people unable to find full-time work have to juggle freelance projects or multiple part-time jobs. So they are working “mini-shifts” of 1-3 hours at a time, and toggling between them all.

She makes this out to sound rather harrowing, talking of brain freezes and, as organization guru Julie Morgenstern puts it, “mental gear-stripping.” (I intend to do a Julie Morgenstern fan post one of these days — I’ve been test-driving her Balanced Life Planner over the past few weeks).

But there are a few things to keep in mind. First, everyone works in 1-3 hour shifts–even people in “normal” jobs. That’s why coffee breaks exist. Going back and forth to meetings, or lunch, or to a different location all serve to break up the work day. Indeed, given that many people take email breaks every 15 minutes, I’d argue that devoting a full 1-3 hours to any given project actually shows shocking focus in our distracted world.

Second, Shellenbarger talks of people working until 10:30pm like it’s a bad thing. But I’d argue that splitting your workday into two chunks — 9am to 5pm, say, and then 8-10:30pm — is actually a great way to combine work and family. If your job requires more than 40 hours a week, and that is certainly the case for some of us, then working split shifts allows you to spend time with your kids and still get in your hours after they go to bed. The alternative is working later (a la people who work 9am-8pm), not seeing your kids at all, but then having the evening free to watch TV. You should only choose this option if television is more important to you than your family. That may be true for some people, but if so, you should acknowledge it.

The only caution I’d give with split shifts is that some parents of very young children–moms more often than dads–attempt such a work style in order to avoid using any childcare. The idea is that you get up before your kids and work, say, 5-7am, then hang out with them until nap time (let’s say 1-3pm), and then work from 8pm until midnight after they’ve gone to bed.

This does, in fact, give you an 8 hour workday. But it’s exhausting, as you don’t get to sleep. While giving up TV to balance work and family is a great idea, giving up sleep is not. And this sacrifice is prefaced on an odd idea, namely that non-parental childcare is bad. This would certainly be a surprise to our ancestors, who left their children in the care of their grandmothers, eldest daughters, neighbors, etc., while they worked in the fields or trekked to water sources.  In theory, it’s a way to save money, but as I was writing 168 Hours, I interviewed parents who added a shift of childcare in order to have longer stretches of focused work time. Inevitably, they made the money back fast.

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