Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Just Realize Your Job Sucks? Here’s Why It Took So Long To Notice

Chapter 5: The Pivotal Role Of Circumstance Part 6

At the end of the last post, I suggested that excessive work hours could be a sign that someone is hiding from a bad relationship.  I would like to stress again, that being excited about your work and engaged with your company are good things.  Company engagement turns into Corporate Idolatry when work becomes the most important thing in your life at the expense of everything else.  Of course most of the time, the workplace is never all good or all bad.  As “Roger”, a VP in Silicon Valley put it

“It’s a very rare day when you look at your job and someone can say ‘this is awesome, everything is fantastic.’  No, there are lots of things in there that you’d like to change, but you have to take the whole package.The difficult part for Roger, and for many people is the change from good to bad can be very gradual.

At some point, I notice the scales have tipped.  It is not good enough and I have to move on.

But I wonder, how long does it take to notice that it is no longer good enough?  Many people who have left a negative circumstance say that the change was long overdue.  I’m sure there are many reasons for this, financial, emotional, social.  But I wonder if part of the issue is that it takes us a while to realize how bad things have gotten.  It turns out that we notice far less than we think we do.

From the book “The Invisible Gorilla” by Chabris and Simons I learned that we notice a lot less than we think we do.  Do you think you’d notice if the actor changed between two scenes of a short silent movie?  The new actor wore different clothes, different glasses and parted his hair on the opposite side. 70% of people think they would notice the change, but in reality no one did.[i]  Zip, zero.  If enough of the details are consistent, and we are not expecting a change, the discontinuity fails to register.  And when people were warned in advance, it was obvious and everyone saw it.[ii]

I think changes at work can happen in a similar way.  We don’t notice the changes as they are happening, and over time things can change pretty dramatically.  And when we are stressed and overworked, it is hard to notice anything.

In the next post, we’ll meet someone who wanted to be the one to bring the company back after both the market and the culture turned sour.

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[i] The Invisible Gorilla  And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.  (2010) Crown p55-57.  These are examples of the illusion of memory and change blindness.

If There Isn’t Love At Home, Is It Easier To Love Your Work?

Chapter 5: The Pivotal Role Of Circumstance Part 5

In the previous post, we met Alan who loved his work and enjoyed the long hours because he felt aligned with the company and was making a difference.  Then, Alan described his family life. “I would go home, have dinner, and then the CEO would call me to re-hash strategy.”  (This was in the pre-internet dark ages of the mid-90s.)  “The CEO later asked if my divorce was from job stress.  It wasn’t.  I was working hard, but that is not what caused marriage to crumble.”

I pressed a bit, because I was skeptical when he said “no.”  Here it was, the “work ruined my marriage” story.  But life is a bit more complicated; it was other things

And after interviewing several people who also worked long hours and then got divorced, I actually think the opposite was true.  In my opinion, he was working long hours because he was in an unhappy marriage.

Let me be clear – I am not saying that everyone who is putting long hours in at work is doing so because they are in a troubled relationship.  I used to work very long hours, and while it put a strain on my family, I don’t think it ever jeopardized the marriage.  But what I am saying is that it is worth some reflection as to why one would choose to work over spending time with your family.  Sometimes in times of stress, work can be a haven, especially when things are going well.

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Is a Good Project As Tempting As Sex?

Chapter 5 : The Pivotal Role Of Circumstance Part 4

If a father dresses his son in the finest clothing, places a purse of gold around his neck and then tells him to stay all day on the the steps of a brothel, is it possible in that context for the son not to enter and sample the wares? -Inspired by The Talmud. [i]

Take a smart person who wants to make a difference, and put him on the most exciting project at a small company.  Is it possible for him not to work all the time?  Here is how “Alan” describes his experience at a biotech startup.

“I loved my work.  There were stages in my job both at the plant company and at the genomics company where I loved my work.  I would get in early, I would stay late.  I thought I was making a contribution and it all felt right to me.  What made it good?  It had to do with the corporate leadership, when I was really clear in my scientific heart that we had strengths to address what we were going after.  What I knew from my training as a scientist, the company had resources and it really felt like we were aligned with the goals of the company.”

Being aligned with the goals of the company and making a difference are two of the most common answers that people gave me when describing a positive work environment.  I can relate, and Alan’s story brings back memories of the best times from my career.

Then, Alan talked about his family life.

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[i]  The Talmud is a collection of stories and commentary to supplement the Torah, the Jewish books of law (aka the Five Books of Moses in the Old Testament.)  This story is based on a passage in Tractate Berachos.


Learn To Evaluate the Impact Of Your After-Hours Work

Chapter 5: The Pivotal Role Of Circumstance Part 3 

In the last posts, I described the illusion of control as the propensity to think that one has a greater impact on the outcome of events than one actually does.

Wikipedia lists three reasons why people experience the illusion of control:

  1. As a coping mechanism to deal with chaotic situations where there is little actual control.[i] I once asked someone working crazy hours if she was having an impact.  Her answer “I couldn’t imagine working this hard if it wasn’t having an impact.”
  2. Our brain is wired to find cause and effect.  For random games like slots or dice, research has shown that people think their actions are influencing the outcome.[ii]  So at work, where the situations are more complex, it is even easier for us to think that our actions are having a bigger impact than they really are.
  3. People who see themselves in control are more likely to detect control when it isn’t really there.  Ironically, this means that people with more self-control are more susceptible to the illusion of control.

This last point applies to Patrick, who we met in the last post.  Pat was considered by his peers to be one of the most solid and capable leaders in the company.  When one of the products his team developed had technical issues post launch, Pat took charge.

“I remember working late every night.  I remember feeling a sense of my ability to help put this fire out, how key of a role my team had.  I took it upon myself to not sleep, to work too much, and I basically ended up in the hospital.”

Pat had a panic attack in the cafeteria, and was rushed to the hospital with what he thought was a heart attack.  The technical issue was resolved several months later.

Do you think those extra hours had a discernable impact on how quickly the problem was solved?

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[i] Wikipedia Fenton-O’Creevy, Mark; Nigel Nicholson, Emma Soane, Paul Willman (2003), “Trading on illusions: Unrealistic perceptions of control and trading performance”, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (British Psychological Society) Via Wikipedia

[ii] Thompson, Suzanne C. (2004), “Illusions of control”, in Pohl, Rüdiger F., Cognitive Illusions: A Handbook on Fallacies and Biases in Thinking, Judgement and Memory, Hove, UK: Psychology Press, pp. 122 Via Wikipedia


When Is “Changing the Market Landscape” Just An Illusion?

Chapter 5: The Pivotal Role Of Circumstance Part 2

I started the chapter with a story about craps, and ended by saying that craps and the workplace have a lot in common in that in both cases we are in less control than it seems.

Funny thing about craps, the game is random, but it can seem like you have control, especially after a few of those free drinks.  And in fact, studies by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer have shown that people act as if how they throw the dice has an impact on the outcome, making soft throws for low numbers and hard throws for high numbers.  This is an example of what Langer calls the illusion of control – “the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events that they demonstrably have no control over.

According to Langer, the illusion of control arises in recurring situations when routine behaviors in the mind become correlated with a particular outcome.  A person who’s routine includes one or more of the following is particulary susceptible to the Illusion of Control: [1]

  • Choice
  • Competition
  • Familiarity with the activity
  • Involvement in decisions

Now, lets look at what “Patrick” the vice president of development has to say about managing to the big picture.  (I should add that I think Patrick is a Wolf.  From talking to him and others he works with, he is definitely not a Fox.  See this post for an explanation.)

“It’s a best practice to say that [the work will have a large impact.]  But if people can’t see reality beyond the words, it can be counter productive.  To say we are changing the landscape of the market is a stretch when our competitor has 80% market share.  The reality is that we are going to try to get market share.  It’s less exciting, but it reflects reality better.”

Do any words stand out as you read this?  He never says illusion, but he sure says reality a lot!

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