Shift work: The eternal struggle


I had a lovely week off last week to spend Easter with my parents. It was super productive. I added several thousand words to my work in progress and the creative juices were definitely flowing. Unfortunately holidays never last forever so this weekend it’s back to the day job.

It’s good to be back at work and getting back into familiar routines. I’m one of those rare people who actually enjoy what they do and think of the people I work with as extended family. However, the nature of my work is very disruptive. Especially to creativity. Yes, folks, I do shift work.

Shift working can be great. Most of more working life has been spent on shifts and the rest of it has been on flexi-time. The advantages of working a shift pattern are that you get days off when other people are in work. That means food shopping is a whole lot less traumatic, cinemas are less busy, Christmas Shopping is almost a pleasure and I can get stuff done around the house when I’m on my own better than when I have the husband under my feet. In my job as well, there’s a financial incentive for shift working too, which is very welcome.

However, there are downsides too. Managing a social life and activities when everyone else is geared to working Monday to Friday with their evenings and weekends always available can be a challenge. I can never sign up for regular evening classes or groups that require attendance because I’ll miss at least one-third of the sessions. But the worst thing about shift work is that it’s very hard to establish habits. Eating regular meals, taking medication, brushing teeth, going to the gym or regular cleaning can be interesting. Yes, even establishing a regular writing routine can be impossible on shifts.

One of the single most disruptive shifts I work is the night shift. I’m in work overnight, home early in the morning and asleep most of the day. I usually surface for between two and three hours in the afternoon and then I have a bit of time in the evening before going to work, but that’s it. It’s probably about six hours of being awake and not in work but it’s all split into little chunks. And I still have to fit in things like meals, personal hygiene and sometimes chores. There is simply no time in that sort of schedule to do anything much, especially writing.  Imagine trying to figure out when to take a medicine three times a day with food when you’re on a night shift and you only eat two meals, or maybe even one meal and the rest of your food is snacking or grazing, because no one wants to eat a meal at midnight or 3am. It’s certainly interesting. When I’m on nights my life is lived in snatched little moments – like this spare hour, sitting in the sun in my garden writing a blog post. If anything, moments like this are all the more pleasurable because of the challenge surrounding them.

Now, working Monday to Friday, regular hours, is no picnic either, especially if you have to include the extra juggling ball of kids to keep airborne. You can probably guess that having my kind of work schedule has resulted in a few coping strategies. I thought I’d take the chance to share them today because I figure, if they’re helpful to me they might be helpful to you, regardless of whether you’re working shifts, Monday to Friday, or whether you’re a stay at home Mum (or Dad) with a tribe of kids to herd.

  1. No pressure: My most basic rule for myself is that no-one has a gun to my head. There are some tasks that are HAVE-TOs, some that are SHOULD-DOs and some that are NICE-TOs. Do the HAVE-TOs (like showering and feeding yourself and your family) but everything else is an acceptable loss in a busy schedule. I SHOULD-DO some writing every day but when I’m on a night shift I accept that’s not very likely. If you pile too much pressure on it all becomes overwhelming and then you don’t want to do any of it.
  2. Write it down: Organise yourself, write down your tasks and prioritise them. I guess most people will have their own methods. I use a Bullet Journal and find that it’s invaluable for keeping me on track and for holding myself accountable for tasks that I have a tendency to put-off. Yes, sometimes that includes writing. I find that it’s so valuable for those days that just seem to slip away, when you really busy but feel like you’ve achieved nothing, and also for those days when you’re taking a chill-out day. I find it really motivational to look at a list of ticked off tasks (no matter how small) and it’s also a reminder to write something like ‘Me day’ or ‘Chill-out day’ on those unproductive days. The Bullet Journal system also works for me because it allows me a little bit of creativity too.
  3. Keep it in mind: OK, so today is a day you can’t write, but if you’re anything like me you’ll have some time, even a few minutes on a break or something similar, to think. On night shifts I very often find myself thinking about my work in progress, my characters, my plot, where I left the story and what’s coming next. That’s planning time and can mean the next time I sit down to write I can get stuck in more quickly.
  4. Can’t write? Read instead: I personally need at least an hour to commit to writing but preferably longer. I also prefer to write alone. That means that my best writing opportunities are relatively few. But I find it a lot easier to pick up a book or a magazine and read a few pages in little chunks. I try to keep a book or magazine to hand no matter where I am or what I’m doing so that if I get the chance I can at least read. Sometimes at work I even get a few minutes while I’m waiting for something to happen so I’ll hit a couple of my favourite blogs.
  5. Can’t write? Research instead: OK, this is basically the same as above, but if you haven’t got a book or a magazine but you do have a smartphone and some data, you can hit google to get some of your research done. Only have a few minutes to spare? Go looking for sites that look useful and just save the links for detailed reading later on. This works for being in work too if you get those few minutes waiting for stuff to happen like I mentioned before.
  6. Pick a day: One of things I almost always end up doing is saving up all my chores for my days off. Working long shifts is like that because even if I’m on a day shift I only have a few hours at home before going to bed. It can be tempting to spread chores across all my days off, especially since that first day I can sometimes be a bit knackered. I’m not always successful, but I always try to get all my chores done in one day and I always try to do them on my first day off. That way I can have at least one full day to recharge before my next shift and I can use that day to be creative. These are often my best writing days. But back to point 1, no pressure. Sometimes I can spend eight hours writing, sometimes six, sometimes it’s still only a couple of hours. It doesn’t matter, which leads to my final point.
  7. Do what you can when you can: Life is hard. Life is a challenge. It should be, although sometimes it could be a bit easier. The eternal struggle of working shifts, and indeed working at all, is getting the right balance. whatever you choose to do in your life, commit and commit fully, but do so gently. Life is hard. Life is a challenge. But it should also be happy and fun. If you can only write a couple of hours in the whole week, who cares. Writing is easier if you can practice everyday but for some of us that’s just not achievable. Your novel will take longer if you can’t write often but the point is to write it.

I hope this has been helpful. Perhaps you have some ideas and ways of coping with life that I haven’t mentioned. I’d love to read them. You can leave a comment below or I’m also on twitter @KJM_Writes.


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