Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

How To Say No to Darth Vader in the Office

Darth vader office spaceThis is the third and concluding post in the series about how to escape the volcano of an overscheduled life, without becoming Darth Vader.

Once you’ve strengthened your people-first identity, and built a community of like-minded people, you will be ready to take on the chaos of the workplace. The initial steps of cutting back your hours are likely to go unnoticed.

At some point, however, you will be asked to go to a last minute meeting, take on another project, or to travel on short notice. And the additional work will take time away from the rest of your life. This is the time to use some Jedi Mind Tricks—also known as  political savvy—to keep your calendar from getting too full.

Saying no to the boss can be harder than asking the NSA not to obtain more phone records. But every time you say yes to the boss, you are saying no to something else. For example, a “Yes” to putting a few slides together by morning can mean a “no” to sleep.

Jedi Trick #1: Shift your orientation to focus on the yes to the people you care about, and not the “no” to the boss. In the example above, say yes to the sleep. In this case, the Jedi trick is on yourself, to help maintain your focus on what is most important to you.

Jedi Trick #2: Get your manager to agree to your top three priorities. Then, when the request comes in to attend a random last minute meeting, if it’s not in the top three, don’t go. “I’d like to help, but I have some deliverables due tomorrow and I can’t make it. How about next week?”

And if it is your manager making the request, the answer is “No problem. I’ll give so and so a call, and let them know their deliverable will be a day late.” You’ll be amazed at how many requests fizzle out when the manager has to take accountability for the consequences.

Sound scary? I understand. The first step is often the hardest. But trust me, putting people first is a virtuous cycle. When you start feeling better, and you become more effective at work, you’ll wonder what took you so long to get here.

The Second Step Towards a Life In Balance

Choose your date wisely

Choose your date wisely

The people you choose to be with are a strong predictor of what you value and how you live.

As I wrote in the last post, a shift in identity will start you down the path towards a balanced life.

However if everyone around you is bragging about how many events they missed because of work, eventually your hours will start to creep back up. To make the changes last, you’ll need a community of people to support you.

First and foremost, if you’re in a relationship, you’ll want to get on the same page with your partner. Does he/she support people-first values? Most of the time, they’ll be thrilled to have you around more. And if you are both on email till midnight together every night, you can start to make the change together. For example, checking email during dinner can be a pernicious habit. But, it is also is a clear behavior that is easy to modify if phone free time together is the priority.

However, if getting a new BMW every year is the most important thing to your partner, they may not support your change in priorities. Mismatched values like this are a red flag for the relationship. Some people work long hours as a way to avoid an unhappy relationship. Could this be you?

And whether or not you’re in a relationship, you’ll need people outside the family to support your change. One great place to begin is by finding a weekly activity to bring you out of the office. I’ve known many people who picked up a class or joined a team just as a way to get out of the office. There, they met their future spouse.

If you are at in Tuesday night volleyball league, everyone else there has decided not to work and to spend time on volleyball too. This is a great place to get to know people who don’t talk about work all the time.

Finally, be on the lookout for a community opportunity, meaning that if someone invites you to do something, say yes! A mindful approach to develop contacts outside of the workplace will increase your flexibility, and decrease any emotional dependency on the work pseudo-community.

What has your experience been with getting out of the office?

Previous Post: The First Step To Create a Life Of Balance

The 5 Biggest Mistakes Overworked People Make

woman in a hurry on emailMore than one in three people say that they are chronically overworked. And more than 30% of both men and women would take a pay cut to spend more time with their children. Here are some of the most common mistakes overworked people make when trying to achieve a balanced life.

 

Mistake Number 1: Not Having a Plan

Few of us get into an overworked lifestyle overnight. Usually it is something that builds up over time. We have to change the habits of overwork, and that all can’t happen overnight. Instead of trying to change everything at once, pick one area to make a change. Stopping work earlier at night to get more sleep is a good place to start.

Mistake Number 2: Not recognizing your true values and priorities

There was a time when I was working 90 hours a week. If you asked me, I would have told you that I was a family first person. In reality though, I couldn’t be family first when I was working so much. I was a work first person. Our values are demonstrated by what we do, not what we think. To work less, we need to recognize that we have made work our highest priority.

Mistake #3: Not taking stock of who you really are

All of us are many people. I have a career identity, and I am a father, son, friend, husband, soccer coach, football fan… When I was working 90 hours a week, my identity revolved around my job and career. Working fewer hours involved cultivating my other identities, which led to different decisions over time.

Mistake #4: Not enlisting help

An identity as a people-first person can help make changes in the short run. But without a community of people to support our changes, we will gradually fall back into our old habits. A good place to start is with a spouse or significant other. How can they support you to make a change? Friends, parents, and siblings are also great places for support.

Mistake #5: Not letting go

For many people, success to a certain point has come from hard work trying to keep all the balls in the air. But there are an infinite number of things that we can’t control. And in reality, we control far fewer things that we think we do. Realizing that busyness is not the same as effectiveness can be painful. “You mean that all this time I’m putting in has no impact?” That is exactly what I’m saying. I had more impact when I was working 60 hours than when I was working 90 hours. And I was more effective working less than 50 hours when I was working 60 hours.

Knowing these common mistakes and how to avoid them will surely change the way you look at your life balance. But it’s not enough.

Not only do you have to know what NOT to do, but you also have to make some positive changes to really cut back your work hours. After all, if having a balanced life were that easy, everyone would have more time for the people they really care about.

How To Avoid Burnout in 2014

businessman bending spoon by mind force

If you are fortunate enough to work in a healthy and collaborative environment, there still may be an imperative to work more hours.

In fact, when things are going well, and everyone is having a great time, there is a powerful wave of positive reinforcement for putting in more hours. The trill of accomplishment and the halo of success are the sugar buzz of the corporate world. While it lasts, nothing feels better. But what are you giving up outside of work to keep it going? Balance requires that we learn to say no, even if it feels good to say yes to more work.

If you work in a more typical environment, or one that shades towards the toxic and chaotic, you are at the mercy of changing deadlines and priorities that can be hard to resist. As much as we’d like to get away from the day-to-day firefighting, the inferno seems to be constantly raging around us. The key once again is learning to say no, in this case combined with a recognition that it is ok to let the fires burn.

In the 1970 movie Beneath Planet of the Apes, mutant humans have mental powers, and at one point project the illusion of fire to prevent the ape army from invading their territory. But one ape, the nefarious Dr. Zaius sees through the illusion, overcomes his fear, and rides right through the flames, at which point they disappear.

In a similar way, the intensity of the fires at work are an illusion, in that they project a fear that catastrophe awaits if we do not attend them. And how do we overcome an illusion? It takes a clear head, and the willingness to take a leap of faith. Give it a try – let a small one burn. Don’t check email one evening, and see what happens. If you keep trying to fight every fire, you’ll be the one who burns. And that is the truth.

How Corporate Idolatry Negates a Rich Life

I can’t tell you how many people told me to drop corporate idolatry from my book title.

“People don’t want to hear about religion at work.” Or “Idolatry is a mortal sin, and I’m offended that you associate my hard work with idolatry.”

The most common objection is this: “Idola-what? I can’t pronounce it.” As a ten-year marketer, you’d think that I’d jump to modify the message in response to this feedback. Except isn’t that what Coke did when they developed New Coke in the 80s?

Coke’s rival Pepsi had a famous advertising campaign, the Pepsi challenge. It was a blind taste test, and people overwhelmingly picked Pepsi over Coke. The Coke executives panicked, and developed New Coke, a sweet soda like Pepsi. It was a disaster. Everyone hated new coke. It turns out that in a one swallow test, Pepsi wins. But if you ask people to drink an entire glass, Coke wins.  Oops. You need to be careful on how you interpret the data, and not to put too much weight on only one data point.

In the case of corporate idolatry, when I explain to people that corporate idolatry is a metaphor for overwork, heads start to nod. When I explain in detail, as I will below, people either smile or scowl. It is not unusual for arguments to break out, or for a discussion to go on for thirty minutes. Along the way, we’ve covered issues like missing family events for work, or the fear of a backlash if you say “no” to the bosses’ last minute request. An idea that sparks a deep discussion about priorities and values, by people who normally don’t think about these issues, is something to hold on to.

An idea that sparks a deep discussion about priorities and values, by people who normally don’t think about these issues, is something to hold on to.

Have you ever heard a phrase like “you need to do what is best for the company?” Let me guess, it wasn’t in the context of giving a promotion, planning an office party, or giving everyone a week of extra vacation. We use the phrase “best for the company” to justify an action that is unpopular, like canceling a project, or a decision that is perhaps unethical, like shipping a product that you know will not meet customers needs.

Doing what is “best for the company” is not the same as doing “what is best.” Every time we say yes to a company request that results in long hours is a no to someone else in our life. I know for what I speak, for there was a time when I was working 90 hours a week, and I thought that I was a family first person. It was a sobering moment when I realized that you cannot be family first AND work 90 hours a week. For example, when my cell phone rang during dinner, I told my family I had an important call and left the table.

Doing what is “best for the company” is not the same as doing “what is best.”

Which brings me to the real reason why people don’t like the phrase corporate idolatry—it hits too close to home. It is far easier to complain about how hard we are working. It allows us to play the victim:

  • I didn’t have any choice.
  • The job market is really competitive, and I don’t know if I would even get an interview if I were to apply today.
  • I am having a big impact, and there is no one else who can do what I do.

This last point illustrates the most insidious thing about corporate idolatry is that it warps the way we see the world. We agree with the company’s definition of what is important, and we buy into illusions that are no more real than the belief that sacrificing a goat to a statue could make it rain.

The real reason why people don’t like the phrase corporate idolatry—it hits too close to home.

To accept corporate idolatry means that we are no longer the victim, but an agent making choices. I am choosing to answer the email that comes in at 10 PM. I am choosing to take the phone call during dinner. I am choosing to eat lunch at my desk instead of leaving the office and meeting a friend for lunch. I am choosing to be at the regional sales meeting in Europe instead of at home for my kid’s birthday.

Yes, recognizing corporate idolatry can be painful initially. But it also provides the path to a more balanced life. It opens the space to start putting people first. We choose not to answer the phone, or to accept the lunch invitation from a friend, even when a large deliverable is due the next day.

Just don’t tell your boss that the company is no longer the most important thing in your life. Instead, use your political skills to defer, delegate, or de-scope deliverable requests. No point getting burned at the stake just to make a point.

This post originally appeared on the blog Switch & Shift