Fall has returned. In the breadbasket of the US midwest, it is the time after harvest, time to take a breath and celebrate, reflecting on the productivity of the prior season. . . a time for putting away and “putting up” (canning), an expression of my rural Grandmother’s. There is a similarity between fall and the modern concept of coasting. To me, there is seasonality to a project, a life, a career. Every season has a different focus and the coasting season is a time of slowing down.
A review of internet references highlights an interesting contradiction on coasting in the workplace. There is coasting as seen from the perspective of an individual, contrasted with the advice offered to managers about how to respond to the employee who is coasting. The first offers ways for someone to think about their career, workplace and job performance, even their lives. The other view of coasting is primarily negative, a problem to be addressed. In this blog, our focus will be on the former, and try to answer the question, is it okay to coast?
What does “coast” mean to you? Think about coasting as idling, being in the neutral gear. The engine is ready to take over when called for, and the driver is present. But we’re not really going anywhere. Another example is exercise, where coasting (resting) is a necessary part of strength training. In lifting weights we increasingly stress ourselves with more weight or more reps, then push and push some more until we can’t lift another once. Finally we rest, not just because we must, but because muscles need the time and access to nutrition for recovery.
I like the description by Lydia Smith (1) in her article “Why we should be coasting at work”. She suggests that coasting is “doing just the right amount of work to get by comfortably.” In this context, it is neither shirking one’s responsibilities, nor slacking.
Why should you coast? There is a common view that extremely busy people are very important and highly productive. But is that true? Is the so-called productivity accomplished by constant multitasking? We now have come to appreciate that effective multitasking has limited applications. . . yes when cleaning a counter and listening to an audiobook. No when simultaneously reviewing a board report, drafting an email and talking on the phone with your mother.
Often unseen is the toll of nonstop busyness on our health. We know that a constant flood of stress hormones is bad for us. The super busy person sacrifices relationships and sets a questionable example for the people around them. Nonstop busyness is unsustainable and often leads to burnout. Coasting can help us achieve some balance.
Coasting has two types.
- The first type of coasting happens when something isn’t working. This coasting can feel like inertia, or trying to run through molasses. There is conflict to avoid, or perhaps you are feeling underutilized. Maybe you have overstayed your time in a role, or in a relationship. Are you uninspired? Coasting often shows up at work because people are trying to deal with personal problems or issues at home that take up lots of energy. This type of coasting needs intervention to help you get on a more fulfilling path.
- The second type of coasting is when you make a conscious decision to lighten things up a bit. This coasting requires our awareness, perhaps a plan, to make sure that the lightening up does not become a habit that spirals into the first type.
When should we coast? When coasting is part of a conscious decision, not an accident or a habit, it is positive and healthy. Just as in exercise, coasting is necessary, not optional, after a period of hard work. The hard work could be the end of a project that your team has struggled mightily on. Maybe for you, it’s the completion of an educational degree or certificate; or for a nurse, finishing an orientation period and successfully “taking a full load of patients”. Perhaps you recently got married.
Coasting is also necessary at the organizational level. This is harder to implement because there are so many moving pieces. A few important things to consider are the stated and the realized culture, and the consistency of expectations across the company. Is it fine for one department to coast, but not OK for others? Does the leader verbalize an “OK to coast” philosophy in meetings, but demonstrate publicly that he is always available 24/7, miming the expectation that you be available all the time too?
What does “good” coasting look like? That depends on the situation.
- It should be intentional and tailored so that the people who are coasting really feel a downshifting of their gears. . . it is definitely a breather, and not a brief token of one.
- It is time limited. Coasting is not a way of being, it is a season or a vacation.
- Whatever words are used to talk about it, the message needs to communicate that coasting is healthy and desirable. Think of coasting as preventive maintenance, allowing the individual, team or organization to downshift and regroup in order to keep the level of productivity where you want it to be.
For the team who has worked late days and long periods of overtime, coasting could be time off with a moratorium on work email and texts after 5 pm. It might be the agreement that no new projects will be considered for the next quarter, favoring instead an emphasis on troubleshooting and maintenance. For the newlyweds, it’s a honeymoon. For the new nurse, it could be a celebration with a friend and pampering with a pedicure.
When should you worry about coasting?
Is coasting your only gear? In this case, a lack of engagement may be masquerading as coasting. What is driving this coasting. . . a motivational problem, a poor fit with the job or organization, burnout, a lack of stimulation? Whatever the cause, reach out for some assistance. It could be from an employee assistance program, a therapist or coach or mentor, a frank conversation with a manager or a heart-to-heart talk with a trusted friend.
Do you never coast? There is a good likelihood that you will not survive in this mode for long, and your health, relationships and/or job/career will suffer. The suggestions above will be helpful in this case too.
So, is it OK to coast?
The short answer is yes, with a few caveats.
Healthy coasting is a form of self-care, a way to set limits on the pressures and demands that can reduce one’s effectiveness and enjoyment of life. Be aware that not every environment is the right environment for intentional coasting. If you need personal time off after a period of giving it your all, understand how the idea will be received by others around you. If your organization is not particularly supportive, keep your plans to yourself. But in all cases, remember that you are the only one who can take care of yourself. “Put your own mask on first.”
Next Time: In the Tips follow up to this post, we will dig deeper and also discuss the topic of managing employees who coast. Stay tuned.
- Lydia Smith. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/why-we-should-be-coasting-at-work-060043512.html; accessed 10/14/19
- https://www.theguardian.com/money/shortcuts/2018/nov/13/why-coasting-at-work-is-the-best-thing-for-your-career-health-and-happiness; accessed 10/5/19
- https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/it-s-ok-go-ahead-and-coast.html; accessed 10/5/19