Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

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

Upward Management Do’s and Don’ts

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment Part 15

Earlier in the chapter, I shared how I was productive but perceived as “not committed” at my last job before I left the corporate world.  In a way they were right: The company was not the most important thing in my life.  But, I was committed to producing high quality, professional work.  Frankly, I would have stayed longer if I had been promoted.

I’m happy with how things have turned out, but sometimes I wonder if I should have been more like Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook, who used to hide her 5:30 departure to take care of the kids.  I wanted to make a statement, and went out of my way to let everyone know that after-hours was out of bounds.

Successful Upward Management requires firm boundaries and clear communication. For example, I did not answer emails in the evening. I didn’t ask permission not to answer, I just didn’t. My manager once told me how he learned not to expect a response from me to weekend emails until Monday morning, and he was surprised that he was ok with it.  Here is a little secret – I did check email once a day on the weekend, but I did not answer because it was never an urgent issue. I trained everyone not to expect an answer, and they stopped sending me email.

Poor upward management came when I got arrogant: I told my manager my strategy. It pissed him off, and rightly so.  I was showing off, and I think my arrogance held back my career in an unnecessary way. Had I to do it over again, I would have remembered that they are more senior, and should be treated with some deference and respect. I don’t mean ass kissing, but I tended to treat them like we were equals, which we weren’t.

I think my desire to champion workplace flexibility was a holdover from an earlier time in my career, when I thought that I was above politics. I could have quietly gone about keeping my life in balance.  I had what I wanted: a life that put people first, and I was no longer caught up in corporate idolatry.

Moreover, work was not the center of my identity. I had a growing community of friends outside of my company. Together, these helped me set boundaries, and limit my work to 50 hours a week.

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Does Your Job Increase Or Decrease Your Long-Term Happiness Potential?

Chapter 8: Secure Your Community Part 14 (Conclusion)

Community establishes hidden rules for behavior, and provides a set of rituals and customs to support these behavioral norms.  At work the rituals are things like regular all hands company meetings.  At home rituals may come from a formal community like a church, a family holiday tradition, or the informal get togethers with friends.

Many corporate cultures have an implicit company-first value system, which I have argued throughout the book promotes a modern form of idolatry. As I argued in Chapter 7, the first step to escape a life of Corporate Idolatry is to develop those parts of your identity that put people and not the company first.  However, the power of corporate culture can be so powerful that it takes a strong community outside of work to counter-balance it’s influence.

A relationship with a true community works in two directions; if you support the community it will support you in return.  A company relationship, on the other hand, is one way.  While a few companies like Southwest Airlines have a no layoff policy, this should not be taken as a lifelong commitment – there is nothing to prevent layoffs in the future. People who worked at IBM in the early 80s could not have envisioned the wide scale layoffs and loss of the generous pension plans in the early 90s.

I recommend a personal risk reduction strategy, to establish rituals that support a commitment to community outside the workplace.  The first of these rituals, which I will cover in the next chapter, is a Sabbath, a day without work.

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The Harvard Business Review Tip For The Overworked

Build Your Community: Part 12

The The Harvard Business Review tip of the day: People who are overloaded by work should “create rituals—highly specific behaviors, done at precise times, that become automatic and no longer require conscious will or discipline. For example, go[ing] to bed at the same time every night [ensures that] you consistently get enough sleep.”

As a baseball fan, I’m all over rituals. This year during the SF Giants World Series run, I listened to the first two playoff games (losses) on the radio, and then I watched next three (wins) on tv.  It was a bummer, because I was afraid to turn the radio on for the rest of the playoffs, lest The Giants start losing again.  Unfortunate, because Jon Miller and the other local radio announcers are so much better than the various clowns broadcasting on tv.  But what could I do?  I didn’t want The Giants to lose on my account.

My silly-but-true example illustrates something important about human behavior: much of what we do is driven by emotion, not reason.  And while my turning on the tv was not a ritual per say, rituals serve the same function: emotional comfort from the sameness of an activity.

Rituals are one of the ways that corporate culture is perpetuated. A primary example is the quarterly company meeting, when all employees gather to hear senior management go through a scorecard of performance, talk about what is coming up, and try to inspire employees for the future.  Employees at dysfunctional companies sometimes refer to these as “cool aid sessions” while companies like Google and now Yahoo use weekly all hands meetings as a way to build a culture of transparency and trust among employees.  (For more check out this interview with Laszlo Bock, Google’s SVP of People Operations on Thinkwithgoogle.com).

This tip from HBR is spot on, although I disagree with the overt suggestion to use rituals as a means to maintain a work-first mentality.

“Sebastian Tate,” who we met in Chapter 7 in this post, uses the ritual of the male-bonding camping trip to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

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Four Ideas To Help You Get Your Life Back Starting Today

Chapter 8: Build Your Community Part 11

Over the last few posts, I have explained why it is dangerous to put all of your happiness eggs in the work basket: Lack of diversification is inherently risky.  Would you put all of your money in a single stock?  Any financial advisor would say you are crazy to do so.  Diversification is the key to a sound financial strategy.  The same holds true of your connections to other people.  Market forces beyond your control  can turn the most wonderful of workplaces into the stuff of nightmares.

If your time profile indicates the risk of corporate idolatry, I suggest that some life diversification is in order.  There is no need to say  “no” to the company – it will likely cause additional stress and may induce feelings of guilt.  Find something to say yes to, an activity that you decide is a higher priority than the company.  Here are a few suggestions:

1. Make a list of the things you liked to do when you were younger.  Is there anything you’d like to start again?

2. Join a class that a friend is taking.  At minimum you’ll get more time with the friend, and you might find something new that you really like.

3. If someone invites you to something, say yes!  (See this post on community opportunities.)

4. Put the new activity on the calendar – you will be far more likely to follow through if it is on the calendar.  One person told me her solution to a crazy time in the office was to sign up for 4 dance classes a week.  It gave her a “reason to get out of there.”

Sorry if you were expecting more earth-shattering ideas. It’s not complicated, just scary and hard to begin.  But once you start to connect with other people outside of work,  you will feel positive peer pressure to keep on connecting.

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