Proposal Work: A Question of Balance

The thing about proposal development, writing, management? No one ever grows up saying “Ya know,I don’t wanna be an astronaut, doctor, firefighter, or the president. I’m thinking….proposal professional. Yep, that’s what I wanna be when I grow up.” And even the folks who are involved in proposals for a living talk about it jokingly. One recent proposal kickoff I was involved in went through the usual round of meeting introductions of team members and their experience, etc. When it came around to my turn, I said “My name’s Greg Moreau, and I’m the proposal lead on this project. I’ve been doing proposals for 18 years now.” One quick-witted team member chimed in “I’m sorry to hear that.” Pretty funny stuff (we became fast proposal pals), but it underscores a larger, very real point: proposal work is stressful, hard, demanding work, and takes a lot out of you (and your family). So I’m taking a few minutes to make some suggestions to those out in Proposal Land (PL!) about the importance of balance in proposal work. The truth is intuitive, but often ignored:

decades of research supports the 40-hour workweek and shows that working longer can lead to serious negative effects on health, family life, and productivity…

1. Keep things in perspective. I’m always amazed that some folks don’t realize that a company is only as good as the business it makes or retains, and when it comes to government contracting, that means you better know how to win business. So, as revenue-generators (i.e., job-makers/retainers), there’s a lot of pressure to be all things to all people, 24/7. But remember, this is a job. It’s (probably) not curing cancer and it’s not running into burning buildings (although it can feel like that, metaphorically-speaking, depending on the bid!). It’s a proposal and there will be more coming (more than likely, at any rate), so this isn’t your last one, ever. Unless you’ve decided to leave it all behind, live in the woods, and teach or do photography for your remaining days! In which case, congrats! 🙂

2. At the end of the day…make sure you have an end of the day! In our always-on culture, always-connected, email, IM, texting culture, you need to make sure you have an end of the day! It’s easy to be in constant contact with people on the project who want to make sure that progress is being made, but it takes real effort to “switch off.” You need to do this for a couple of reasons: a) you’re no good to anyone (and actually present a real risk) if you’re exhausted from not enough down-time or quality rest. b) You’re not actually that much more productive by being constantly on; and may actually be less productive. According to Inc and Business Insider, you actually may be producing less by working more.

3. It ain’t good for ya. Working long hours is sometimes inevitable, as anyone works proposals (or anything else, for that matter) knows. But doing so consistently for long periods of time can lead to the well known laundry list of ailments that most white collar, sitting-in front-of-a-computer-all-day white collar workers already know about, but you can find out more herehereherehere, and here.

4. Diminished perscipacity! (I knew that GRE vocabulary word would come in handy one day!) According to one study, working longer actually makes you, er, less intelligent. That does make sense, if you think about it–you’re working longer hours, probably sleeping less, eating poorly, laughing very little, and by and large not taking the breaks you need to re-fuel your brain/productivity engine.

But beyond the obvious effects on health, working too much can actually impair cognitive function. In one 5-year study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, participants completed a variety of tests to evaluate intelligence, verbal recall, and vocabulary. Compared to those who worked 40 hours per week, those who worked 55 hours per week showed poorer vocabulary and reasoning.

5. Diminished productivity. It’s fairly well-known by now that we haven’t always had a “weekend,” but it’s now widely known that working more doesn’t necessarily mean producing more.

Before working standards were put in place, working a lot more than 40 hours a week was the norm (think sweatshops in the early 1900s). Interestingly, productivity pioneer Henry Ford saw the wisdom of decreasing the number of hours worked. So, back in 1926, he instituted a 40-hour work week–but not just to enable workers to have more time at home. He knew it was good for business, as well:

…many Americans worked six days a week before the five-day, 40-hour workweek was popularized by Henry Ford in the 1920s. He instituted the new working hours for his employees at Ford Motor Company, in part, to give them more time with family, but also to increase their productivity.

6. Why are you doing this, again–and for whom? Anyone who has worked overtime and been in a relationship or had a family knows the issue well: consistently long hours take a toll on family and relationships. And again, it makes intuitive sense: when you burn up all your energy (creative or otherwise) on something, it doesn’t leave a lot of gas in the tank for meeting bigger, needs–like love, family time, and friendships. And really (for most) isn’t that what working is about, anyway–the ability to enjoy downtime, life, entertainment, other pursuits and hobbies with the “other” people in your life?

7. Just breathe. Have you ever just worked so hard that you look up at the clock and realized that you’ve not done anything but work for 6 hours in a row? Of course you have. Why not take a few moments of your day to be mindful and “reset” yourself. Try a breathing meditation, where you focus solely on your breathing for 5 or 10 minutes. What this does is disengage your “thinking” brain, and slows down activity in the parts of your brain (and body) related to stress and associated ailments. But don’t take my word for it, Harvard researchers conducted a study that proved that meditation actually switches off genes related to stress and immune function. Makes sense: critical thinking and managing structures takes a lot of work, and often stress. But if that stress isn’t released, it “stays” with you–through cortisol and adrenalin coursing through your body, which is fine if you’re being attacked by a lion, not so great if in fear of missing a deadline. The study shows how the

…so-called mind-body techniques can switch on and off some genes linked to stress and immune function.

This isn’t just crunchy, feel-good hippie-dippy stuff, it’s backed up by the best / latest in neuroscience research: for more check out “Are we in the middle of a mindfulness revolution?” (The site also has great meditation tools, as well, as an interesting piece about why you should consider logging off more.)

8. Take a tip from those who know what’s important. This may seem a bit macabre, but on their deathbeds, most people regretted having worked so hard. Here are the top five regrets of those who are in the final winter of their lives:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

The bottom-line here is: don’t put off your bucket list to work more hours. That’s not what our brief time on this small blue dot of a planet is supposed to be about.

9. Easy to say, hard to do. I know: you’ve got bills, and the new, never-ending recession means that employers can make you work longer (and harder) for the same amount or less. I’ve been accused more than once of being a work-a-holic myself (got to get paid!), but I also know that when I take time to slow down, push away from the desk, exercise, meditate, work in the yard–I’m much more productive (and much more available to my family). The work will still be there, and I’ll still get it done, but I also need a break–especially during or after a monster bid. (If you need an external nudge, no question about it–there’s more than one app for that!)

So, remember, take a breath, give yourself a break, take time to enjoy life while you can–as it turns out, this is one of the best “bonuses” you can get.