Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

A Step You Can Take Today To Relieve Chronic Overwork

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 8

If you are hoping for dramatic change in your life overnight, it isn’t going to happen unless there is a crisis.  The David model from the last few posts is a perfect example of this.  But if you’d like to change before you have a stroke or run screaming from the building hope is the best answer.  As I’ve written before, I went from working 90 hours a week to 60 hours a week in less than a year without changing jobs, and without anyone at work noticing.  Here are three steps to help you do the same.

  1. Remind yourself that you are the type of person who puts people first, and the company second.   As you make decisions, try not to think about the consequences of your actions – think only about what a person who puts people first would do.  (See this post on the Time Audit too.)
  2. Secure a goods night’s sleep every night by stopping work 1-2 hours before bed time.  When I made this change, my internal dialog went something like this.  My health is more important than work, so I will not check email after 9 PM to give me time to wind down before bed.  Keep this rule no matter what.  People at work will adjust, assuming they even notice.  And focus on the positive, the benefits of sleep.  You will feel the difference right away.
  3. Make people the priority in the moment.  For example, if it is story time, or you are having a drink after work with a friend, don’t answer your phone or listen to the message until much later. Imagine being on a date with someone, who says “It’s my boss calling, but you are more important to me, so I’ll listen to the message in the morning.”

Think about your life, and look for an easy win, the smaller the better.    All you need to do is show the elephant that change is possible, and it will start to move on its own.  Start with one change only!

What is one rule that you could put in place that would prioritize people over the company?  Post it here, to get the support of our community.

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Back From Maternity Leave, Mary Is Undermined By Subordinates

Chapter 5: The Pivotal Role Of Circumstance Part 13

In the previous part of the chapter, we looked at Mary’s experience as a newbie out of grad school.  Like many people in their first corporate experience, she got totally caught up in the company mission, and as  result spent many hours working at the expense of her personal life.

Fast forward ten years. Mary was several companies down the road, and did not love, or even like, her company.  Yet she found herself once again overly devoted.

Mary has grown in seniority, and is managing an experienced team.  However, she had not yet made director, which is troubling and painful to her.  As was usually the case, Mary was working on the most high profile and high pressure project in the company.  This was no start up, but rather one of the largest in the life sciences research industry.  Once again, the product was billed as (and in fact was) a game changer in the world of cancer detection.

Challenges presented themselves right away as she came back after four months at home with the baby.  The senior managers she was managing had been reporting directly to the director in her absence, and they resented and resisted being pushed back down a level in the hierarchy.  What was particularly challenging was a culture of after-hours discussions and meetings, where decisions were often made when she wasn’t present, by either her reports or her manager who did not share her level of expertise.  “Decisions could be made where you wouldn’t know [the impact] for a few months.  You could really dig yourself in [such that customers would be livid].”

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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.

Clothes, Identity, and Idolatry

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Who am I?

This week is my younger daughter’s ninth birthday.  She is amazing.

Several years ago, she bought me the best gift I have ever received: a shirt with her picture on it with the caption “World’s Best Dad 2005.”  The picture itself is all ratty and peeled today, but I still wear it at night and to the gym because of what it means to me.  Today I am wearing it under my other shirt right now.

2005 was an interesting year for me. It was the height of my corporate idol worship, and the year I  decided to change my life.   My identity at that time was all wrapped up in my company.  My daughter gave me a present that refocused my identity from “marketer of products that are revolutionizing genetics” to “world’s best dad.”  No wonder I was so happy.

Clothes played a part as I detached my identity from the company over the next few years. The twelfth century Rabbi Maimonides’ taught in the ‘Laws of Idolatry,’ that 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.

Why did this work?  In my opinion, it is one thing to wear a company shirt in the office or at a trade show – it’s like a uniform.  And I had some really cool work shirts.  But what is the purpose of wearing a company shirt after hours?  I was a marketer, and I made cool shirts for my customers to remind them of my product.  The more they thought of my product, the more likely they were to buy it.  So when I wore a work shirt on the weekend,  how could it not make me think about work?  As it was, I thought about work all the time, and the last thing I needed was a reminder to check my email when I was at the park with my kids.

It took me about a year to separate my identity from the company and reorient myself towards the family.  It wasn’t as hard as I though it would be, because it was a series of small steps, each of which brought me closer to my family and friends.  And casting off the cloths of the idolator was an important step in the process.

Four Questions To Ask Yourself. Inspired By MLK Day

Slaves needed to do whatever their master asked them to do, and they did not have the right to refuse work.  They also worked for free.

Dr. King pointed out in his 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech that the legal abolition of slavery was not the same thing as freedom:  One hundred years after the Emancipatio Proclamation, “the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

In the corporate world, we are not slaves, but how much freedom do we have?  Here are four questions to ask yourself.

1. Do you ever work for free?  During this economic downturn, I know several people who worked for no pay at a for-profit startup company, to “keep their skills up to date.” To be clear, they were not founders or owners, they did not get stock, or even minimum wage. They were not doing a favor for a friend.  I think they were crazy, and in the end they were frustrated and felt taken advantage of.  No duh, they were taken advantage of.  Working for free is akin to slavery.  

2. Do you have the freedom to say no to after-hours work?  If your boss calls you at 9:00 at night, do you have the freedom not to answer?  If you get an email at 10:00, do you have the freedom not to respond?  If you are asked to work the weekend, can say no?  Will you say no?  If the master asked a slave to do something, he or she had to obey.  A free person controls his or her own personal time.

3. Do you get paid for incremental work?  Of course not, unless you are a contractor or hourly employee.  A salaried employee is expected to work as much as it takes to get the job done.  Plus, the more senior positions carry a greater expectation that you will be on call all the time.  The more hours you put into these after-hours calls or other incremental work, the lower your effective hourly salary. Sometimes an incremental project brings a bonus if successfully executed, but sometimes it means overload, lower quality work, and negative career consequences.

In addition, “what it takes to get the job done” is rather arbitrary, and at the end of the day it depends to a large degree on the manager – even at the most senior levels.  One VP in marketing told me that the CEO would call him on weekends to complain about the color scheme in an ad campaign under development.  This was not a mission critical issue, but the VP did not feel he could refuse a call from the CEO.  Every after-hours phone call, no matter how trivial, is free to the company.

4. Do you really have to do it?  I’ve interviewed almost three dozen executives about these issues, and sometimes I get an interesting reaction that goes something like this.  “Don’t blame the company.  It’s not their fault.  I am choosing to do it.  I’m bringing it on myself.”  I know, I would think.  But why are you choosing to do it?  

On this MLK day, we are reminded that once in this country, African Americans could not choose when or how they worked.  We can.  Choose wisely.