Crunchtober

One thing I find so difficult to accept is crunch time.

Not that I can’t cope or even succeed in crunch, per se. But, rather, I’m beginning to find it very peculiar that folks respond to difficult times through the faith in their ephemerality… as if

this specific difficult phase is going to pass

is somehow heartening.

Sometimes, when my job is at its worst, I hear this a lot. There’s always a paper you need to read before it gets stale, a revision immanently coming due, a grant call that closes in an hour and finance hasn’t reviewed the budget, an external examiner who hasn’t been contacted. I’ve heard that, as you get older or more experienced, you just sort of begin to deal with it. Difficult times emerge, stress you out, and then you, the frog in the pot, either get boiled or jump out.

There is a reason why “Just Do It” is a joke.

But, I definitely believe there is a better way than sink or swim (or boil). Thinking of difficult times as fundamentally transitory, temporary, and somehow exceptional belies a work culture that is focused on firefighting, as I heard it called in my time in industry. This deal with it reads a lot like tough it out, get used to crunch. But, crunch culture, the system of practices and norms that encourages overwork in special “tough” times, is definitely toxic. There is no way I will condone this.

Crunch culture is not only bad, it actively reduces the quality of work and health (both mental and physical) of all the folks involved. If your organization is not actively taking steps to implement formal decisionmaking processes that:

  • spread out work both temporally and socially
  • duplicate or route around single points of failure in your social/information networks
  • delegate decision-making to be as close to the problem as possible
  • respect the autonomy and agency of individuals in planning their workload

you will immediately see the increase in stress, decline in long-term thinking, and drop in morale that accompany crunch culture.

This happens because crunch takes out all phases in the PDCA cycle except “Do.” It collapses the space for criticism and reflection, discourages or actively ignores planning, and incentivises short-term ad hoc solutions that treat symptoms of problems, not causes. More broadly, the normalization of overwork makes it tough to plan or envision your future, and this can easily force out folks who have the option or the connections to leave.

Crunch is severely worsened by the lack of formal decision-making processes. It’s impossible to identify which decisions have been “made” and which have not.

There’s never a recorded “plan” phase, nor a check/adjust phase. You’re always “do”ing, and never able to check. Even if you were able to check, there are no plans or recorded actions to check against, so you’re constantly adrift. This makes evidence-based decisionmaking impossible, because you can’t ascertain what decisions were made when, by whom, and how they relate to where you are now. Informal decisionmaking processes make it easy to fall into this trap: everything is happening at once and there’s no clear reason why.

Crunchtober has been pretty awe-inspiring

October (and, indeed, this whole time since I’ve been back in the UK since mid September) has been crunch for me. Giving myself some time to reflect, I realize that what works for me to survive crunch culture is inspired by UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold:

Life only demands from you the strength you possess. Only one feat is possible: not to have run away.

In this vein, surviving a crunch culture requires you to:

  1. Do your best in the time you have.
  2. Recognize that the time you have is finite.

The failure to plan is what causes crunch (in my experience), so respecting the plans you can make during crunch becomes the only way to manage. Actually ending crunch culture requires a stronger commit to the ethics that underly planning as a decision-making process:

  1. Be respectful to your future self and others’ past selves.

If someone made a decision, respect it. It’s easier to respect decisions which are provided with their own justification, but sometimes trust has to be the only justification. If it’s wrong, document it, and then fix it in a different phase of the decision-making cycle. Set up separate, distinct time for self- or group evaluation. After evaluation, revise and re-build. Make these distinct and clear phases, where decisions, discussions, and justifications are recorded & verified. There must be a time to write and a time to edit; accept which one you’re in.