Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

When Work Came Before Family, & What I Did To Change

Stress by topgold via Flickr CC

At one time, my work and not my family was the most important thing in my life.  I am embarrassed and ashamed to admit it.

I had always told myself that family was my top priority, but when I look at my actions, decisions and time spent, it was all about the company. I thought about work in the shower.  I talked on my cell phone as I drove in to work, and as I drove home at night.  I worked after dinner, and I had trouble falling asleep because I was going over the day in my head.  The next day I would get up at 5 AM, to work on email, and to communicate with my colleagues in Europe.  I worked at least a little bit most weekend days.

I did, however, eat breakfast and dinner with my family every day.  And believe me, that wasn’t easy.  If I hadn’t set that firm boundary, I would have worked straight through dinner.  I can’t say that I was there mentally.  It doesn’t just switch off, but it was better than nothing, for both me and everyone else.

Today my life is radically different, and I trace it back to an insight I had on Yom Kippur in 2005.  (More on that in Chapter 1 of Busting Your Corporate Idol, that will be blogged starting Monday June 11.)  I didn’t suddenly get myself in that situation, and I couldn’t suddenly get myself out of it.

Gradually over time, I started working later and later, taking on additional responsibilities, which led to more work.  People began to expect a response from me any time of the day, which served both to increase the volume of email, and to increase the pressure on me to answer right away.

But after I decided to put my family first, I gradually started to regain control of my life.  Over the course of the year, I went from working 90 hours per week to 50 per week, without changing jobs.  But it took deliberate action on my part, and a change in the way I saw the world.  Here are  three steps to get started with changing your life.

Step 1: Stop working every night at 10:00.  Your health is important, & you need time to unwind before you go to sleep.

Step 2: Stop working every night at 9:00 to spend time with your spouse.  Sit together and cuddle on the couch.  You will be amazed at what happens.

Step 2b: If you are single, stop working at 5:30 2 times during the week and go on a date or a social activity that includes singles your own age.  (Dance class, book club, volleyball team, etc.)  Leave your work phone in the car, and use a personal cell phone if you need to have one with you.  To be clear, this is two times in addition to Friday and Saturday night.  After the date, do not check email or do any work – allow your self to enjoy the feeling of connecting with other people.  And who knows, without the thought of email hanging over your head, the date may last longer!

Step 3: One weekend a month, lock your computer and phone in your desk for the weekend.  Then, fill your weekend time with non-work activities.  Don’t focus on working less.  Focus instead on making fun or restful things a higher priority than work.  Yes, some housework may need to be done.  But as you work less during the week, you will reclaim your weekend time for leisure.

To reiterate, I didn’t become massively overworked overnight, and I didn’t get control of my life overnight either.  But with a few solid rules and deliberate effort, I began to see improvements almost right away.  So don’t despair if all you see is more work on the horizon.  It doesn’t have to be that way.


  1. Tonight I’m reading everything I’ve missed over the last few days, Greg. Gosh, when you talk about your old routine – being available for colleagues in timezones far & wide, etc. – can I ever relate. It really can sneak up on you and then you realize one day, you don’t have a life of your own. I’m doing a lot of self-identification. You’re doing a good work by sharing this, my friend!