Is Your Job Episodic or Serial?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016 - 06:38
  • "I wake up at 3 AM so that I can get a few hours of studying in before work."
  • "I bike 14 miles on work days and 40 miles on my days off."
  • "I'm the only pharmacist with a medical board certification."
  • "Yeah I'm a few years from retirement, but I plan to work into my late 70s."

These are just the many statements that Warren will casually #humblebrag about when we chat about our careers. And while I'm no slouch myself (I routinely clock 50-60 hours of work each week), I simply cannot compete with his level of tenacity despite being 30 years younger. My uncle is a beast!

Despite all of his accomplishments and routines, the one thing that I found most surprising was his ability to completely and fully unplug from work once his shift was over. How could someone so driven and so conscientious just walk away each night without giving it another thought? It didn't make sense to me until I realized that how our jobs were structured were night and day different, similar to how different TV shows tell their stories.

Breaking Bad Versus The Simpsons

Most TV shows tend to fall into one of two structural categories: serial versus episodic. Before I lose you, let me give a quick example of each.

Breaking Bad is an example of serial because the storyline of each episode begins where the previous episode one left off. This has many advantages because the overarching story can have many twists and turns, subplots, and story arcs that span multiple episodes and multiple seasons. Watched in isolation, an individual episode might make absolutely no sense.

The Simpsons is an example of episodic because each episode can stand on its own. Yes, the characters themselves do evolve over the course of the seasons and, yes, each episode helps provide more texture to the characters. But this overarching connection between the episodes is very weak, which is what allows viewers to watch the shows in any order and a la carte without missing a beat.

Episodic or Serial Jobs and Roles

Tyings this back to careers and workdays, it all boils down to whether you can easily show up to each workday like it is a fresh start (episodic) or whether there is a strong carryover between days (serial). In customer facing roles within retail and fast food, there are many jobs that are completely episodic. Customers come and go but a customer that purchased boots on Tuesday has nothing to do with the customer that bought a new shirt on a Thursday.

On the opposite extreme are jobs that involve longstanding projects that span days, weeks, months, and/or years to complete and roll out. In web development, a feature that slips behind schedule on Monday can greatly impact the workday on Tuesday and beyond. In these types of roles and careers, workdays are highly coupled.

The differences in these structures explain why my Uncle Warren (pharmacist) could disconnect from work after each shift while I (running a digital agency) choose not to. My work carries through day to day and there is always the opportunity to put in extra time and effort to influence how the next day will go. The only way to truly have a fresh start is as a result of a long-standing project ending and a new one beginning.

What about you? Is your work episodic or serial? How does that influence how you show up each day and whether or not you can disconnect from work after hours?

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CTO of Contact Mapping. Author of Winning the Lottery Within. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.