Be Careful How You Allocate Your "Engagement Units"—They May Not Grow Back

I look back fondly on all of the jobs I had when we had two young kids and I was in grad school for five years, full-time:

  • Reading electric meters from house to house for NIPCSO, in sections of town where the friendly home-renters chained their dogs to the meter so I couldn't read them.
  • Working on the "Hot Line" at Dalton Foundry, 10 mins on and 20 mins off, all day, pulling red hot engine blocks out of the molds, dressed head to toe in (what they assured me was not) asbestos.
  • Mowing my regular 24 lawns every week with a mower whose engine I had to keep rebuilding. That two-stroke mower was probably responsible for 14% of our environmental problems, worldwide.
  • Unloading and sorting currency bags off armored trucks as they pulled in at the end of the day at Purolator Armored, where "balancing" at the end of the night was a given as long as the tally's were within $100,000 in Chicago toll road money.
  • Operating a trimming machine for the JC Penney catalogs at an RRD's plant, thinking maybe I'd just stick my arm in there so that I could spend less time pushing a button and more time in the infirmary.

The money was terrible. The hours were long. Some of the people were "interesting". And some of my bosses were the "quit and stay" type, but there was virtually no mental component to the work. When the shift ended, I'd clock out and never give a single thought to work until I showed up the next day in my steel-toed boots. They were physically consuming but didn't present any mental load.

(Please ignore this article if you work at a holding company agency. Your job could be described as mowing money from corporate yards rather than the soul-sucking stuff I'm going to talk about.)

Your job at a smallish independent shop is different. There's very little physical load (which is why you have a Peloton) but a heavy mental load, usually. That's because:

  • You're listening really carefully for human behavioral clues.
  • You have to almost physically put yourself in a consumer's place, crafting ridiculously complex personas and then translating those into action plans.
  • It's a never ending fight against your client's worst instincts.
  • There's yet one more frikin' RFP to write, demonstrating why your firm deserves this job. "How many times, to how many people, do we have to prove ourselves to this CMO who fell into a job and couldn't compose a cross-channel CDJ if her life depended on it?"
  • Tomorrow you've got to coach Shane—one more time—how to grow an account and not be an order taker, and Lynda needs to quit taking things personally when working with this valuable contractor...who also happens to be related to your neighbor, who is on the Admissions staff at Harvard where your kid wants to go.

Somehow we've landed on this warped idea that if we watch these work/life boundaries carefully, and maybe take an occasional sabbatical, we can do this indefinitely. Nope.

This isn't about nobility or value, either. I wasn't changing anybody's life through work back then—except maybe during a conversation in the break room—but I was feeding young kids and paying the rent and buying groceries. That's what a job is and we don't have a right to much else.

It's not a God given right to enjoy your work. Most people the world over don't really have that option, and you're selfish to demand it. If life has dumped an enjoyable job in your lap, from a combination of hard work and preparation and a dump truck load of good fortune, put your hands together and clap, and while moving the needle for organizations whose mission you agree with is an amazing gift, it is not a right. I love that you love your job but I'm not going to picket outside your home if you don't.

No, this is about what it pulls from you, and how you replace the mental energy that a deep engagement requires. Actually, the whole point is that we need to quit thinking about draining a little and filling it back up. We need to think about this differently. They are still making lots of money, but no one is making any more time.

Think of each significant engagement you have as using up a non-renewable part of you. The great politicians have a few terms in them, but those who keep running are often grifters sucking at the teat of status. Most people can have a certain number of really close friends and they tap out above that. Some people are drawn to having a kid or a few kids but can't imagine raising twenty of the little annoying things. It takes an exceptional person to teach kindergarteners for twenty years...not because of the kids but because of the parents.

So in your line of work, where you are listening intently, always, and pushing a boulder up a hill, always, it takes something from you. The client let that boulder bounce and rumble all the way down into the valley because it was easy to do that, and now they need you to fix their undisciplined, sloppy, short-term decision making. That stuff is hard. If they knew how to solve this, they sure as heck wouldn't be calling you.

You accept these challenges because it's what you're made for. Every dysfunction a client drops at your doorstep is an ancient one. You've seen it before. But each client brings a unique combination of dysfunction and you have to think, and then communicate, and then help them drive change internally. They have to dump prospects into the top of the funnel or they lose their job. They have to fix that native app, and within six months, or their competition is going to finish eating their lunch. They whine and argue, but they still need you, and that need can be an exhausting challenge.

So try this, instead. Pretend that you have a finite number of those types of engagements (if you're just implementing and taking orders, ignore all this and carry on. You can do that, and do it well, indefinitely.) These are Engagement Units, or EUs.

Now, divide your day into three (typically unequal) parts. Some of the time you're doing mindless admin to get through work, some of the time you're doing the same thing for clients, and then some of the time you are deeply engaged in trying to solve something for a client, with or without them on the phone.

Now imagine that you only have 20,000 EUs across 40 years of work, or 500 EUs per year, which would come out to 2 per work day. If you knew that you only had an EU for every half-day, you'd be a lot more careful about assigning those to clients.

Oh, and bad client behavior adds a 50% usage penalty. What took 1.0 EU to deliver now takes 1.5 EUs to deliver. You get the point.

I do think that sometimes these EU things can grow back, but it's always better to protect them in the first place.

It's really good to waste huge chunks of time, like figuring out what he meant when he said that a Greun Transfer is an advertising term, gently guiding a cow back to the neighbor's lot (which is what I did between paragraphs above, five minutes ago), or waiting for Godot, but these should be your choices and not your clients'.

Almost all of you are helping to facilitate commerce or communication or both, in some fashion. That's not particularly hard in itself, but turning a client's self-diagnosis on its head and then solving the real issue takes something out of you every time you do it.

The very best practitioners in this space have developed amazing listening skills, but it's not a passive activity but rather a very active one that involves pouring a little bit of yourself out.

Thus why it's so important that your business decisions yield a firm that is not distracting to you, and then you can earn those big bucks with your unique expertise.

Don't care too much about the wrong things, and use your abilities as if they are not a renewable resource, and you'll not only get better with experience, as well as never needing to dig through the trunk for some EUs.

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