Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Learn How To Say “No” To Meetings

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment Part 13

As you shift your priorities to people and start to work fewer hours, there will come a point when someone starts pushing you to do more.  There is always more work to do, and if you don’t set firm boundaries around our work, no one else will.  As Jody Thompson, champion of ROWE pointed out in the youtube video in the last post, what is the point of getting your work done early if it only means that you will be given more work?

Even if the corporate culture is nowhere near adopting ROWE, you may be able to negotiate something with your manager to get more flexibility.

The key to ROWE are the first two words – Results Only.  The first step is to identify the three things that will have the most impact.  To figure this out, I would write out a list of everything I was working on and the put them in rank order. I went to my manager with the list, explaining why I though certain things would have a larger impact.  Usually he agreed, but occasionally we changed the order.  And when he asked me to do something that took a lot of time but wasn’t in the top three, I would say “ok I can do it, but it will mean that X deliverable will be pushed out a few days.  Is that ok, or would you prefer me to wait on the latest thing that you need?”

Next, I declined meetings for anything that wasn’t in the top three, especially last minute or “one off” requests.  They add up to a lot of time during the week, and those extra hours take away from time at home. Sometimes it was hard, because other parts of the company thought I should be helping them, especially sales.  But I held firm if taking the meeting meant working at night. (And sometimes I adjusted, to make sales support a top three.)

A priority list gave me the power to say “I’d love to help, but my manager has told me that A, B and C are higher priorities.”  I tried to by sympathetic, and whenever possible offered alternatives, like a web site to find information, a promise for time in the future, or someone else who could help.

I always made sure I delivered high quality, on time work for the top priorities.  After all, it was a contract, to trade time freedom for higher quality work.

Often a manager is on board with the theory, but has a hard time sticking with it in practice.  Next post, more on this upward management challenge.

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You might also like: The Rule Of Self-Preservation

Don’t Let Perception Overshadow Your Productivity

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment Part 12

My last company had a thing about slackers.  In a performance review, I was told that my career could be slowed because I was perceived as a 9 to 5er.  Five minutes earlier, my manager told me that I got more done than anyone he had ever met.

This was a cultural issue – there was a regular review process that evaluated people in two dimensions – the quality of work and suitability for promotion.  In practice, the second dimension was a proxy for who showed up the most. Yes, I left at 5:30, but why did that matter when I was getting so much done?

In hindsight, I made too big a deal out of my life outside of work.  For example, I always told my manager whatever kid activity I had done the previous weekend, and let him know that I would be leaving work early once a week to coach soccer at 3:30.  He told me that I had trained him not to expect an answer to his Saturday emails until Monday morning; he admitted that he was surprised that he was ok with that.  Yet in spite of my productivity, the company had me in the “not committed” column.

My only regret is what I said, not what I did. My highest priority was time outside of work, and I had as much as I needed.  But, I should have talked less about the kids and more about what interested my manager – how hard I was working to make the numbers.

As we saw in the last post about ROWE, revenue at Suntell went up 185% in the two years after employees were given the freedom to decide when to come to the office.  And while my company was very unROWE, the flexibility that I took for myself helped make me the most productive person there.

In the next post, I’ll tell you how to do it.

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The Year I Transitioned From Working 90 To 60 Hours Per Week

Chapter 1: My Corporate Idolatry Part 7

During the year I transitioned from working 90 to 60 hours per week, I started learning more about the teachings of Judaism.  My wife and I elected not to send our kids to Sunday school for religious education.  I hated Sunday school as a kid.  It was boring, irrelevant, and seemed like an onerous, guilt-driven obligation.  Instead, we enrolled in a family based education program, which had sessions of family learning time, followed by separate adult and age-appropriate kid learning.  And snack – adult snack was a nice spread every week that included wine, humus, and chocolate cookies.  It helped us get to know the other families.

My fascination with idolatry grew.  As I learned more about it, I found more connections to my corporate life, and surprising solutions in ancient texts.  For example, according to the twelfth century Rabbi Maimonides’ ‘Laws of Idolatry,’ it is forbidden to wear the clothes of idolators.  Maimonides reasoned that wearing the clothes of idolators was a way of giving tacit approval to the idolator’s value system, and made it more likely that the wearer would start to follow this value system.  On a lark, I stopped wearing company t-shirts on weekends, and found it helped me keep my mind off of work. (For a previous post on the subject, click here.)

I wrote a short essay on Corporate Idolatry, and handed it out in a one-hour discussion section the following year on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.  The turnout was high for one of these groups, about twenty people, and the debate was fierce.  My thesis was simple: when we do what is “best for the company,” instead of “what is best” we are adopting the company’s value system and are practicing a form of idolatry.  One man in his late 50s, wearing a classic navy blue jacket, objected in a soft-spoken, kindly way.  “I’ve been in the corporate world a long time.  Sometimes things go astray, but as long as you do what is best for the customer, you will be fine.” I wasn’t sure what to say when a woman piped up from across the room.

“But what about the workers?  My husband was told that if he didn’t push his group to work every weekend in order to make the timeline, he would be out of a job.  The customers will be fine, but the employees are being driven to exhaustion.  We aren’t twenty-something kids anymore.  His company is hardly a start up, but that is the type of time and commitment they expect from everyone.  Treating people that way goes against his values, but he needs the job and feels like he is between a rock and a hard place.”

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