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.

May Day Musings: From Fertility Rites To Workers Rights

Winding the Pole by Micdsphotos via Flickr Creative Commons License

May Day always confused me.  Holiday around the world to celebrate workers rights, non-event in the US.  Actually, May 1st is multiple holidays.  There are a collection of holidays of Pagan origin in Europe that celebrate spring, and include the Maypole dance, back from an earlier age before pole dancing became adult for traveling executives.  Then again, fertility rituals were a large part of pagan culture.   For example, in one Celtic myth the king would have sex with the goddess Brigid in her “hag form” in order to ensure prosperity of the kingdom.  Talk about taking one for the team!  (Ok, “she would resume her maiden form after his initial embrace” but even so.)  The king was “doing what it takes” for the good of the country in accordance with the prevailing value system.  It kind of reminds me of the manager or executive who does what it takes for the good of the company, where the bounds of acceptable behavior are again dictated by the prevailing company culture.


Musing #1: International Workers Day

A corporation is like an idol in that both have value systems that can change with circumstance, and both act as institutions to perpetuate their own interests.  The details of corporate culture vary greatly, but all share the same need to make money, and there isn’t really any reason why a corporation won’t push its employees to do more work for less money.  The other aspect of May Day is international workers day, which commemorates the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, which occurred after an unknown person threw a dynamite bomb at police as they dispersed a public assembly during a strike and demonstration for the eight-hour workday.  (Clearly some of the Occupy protestors on this May first were also not content with peaceful protest, and also attacked the police.  Luckily, there was no police massacre this time.)

As a kid, my father explained to me it was a day for workers rights.  “What about the managers?” I asked.  They don’t count – they work for the company.  I have a false memory of dad explaining to me about the “company man,” as the guy who will do whatever the company asks of him.  (I think it’s a false memory, because my dad doesn’t talk that way.  He probably explained it in a different way, and my brain has re-imaged it in terms of the “company man.”

But the basic question remains – what about the managers and executives?  Even in its weakened state, there is a labor movement that pushes for better working conditions for employees.  For example, earlier this year I wrote about the after-hours email ban at Volkswagen that was negotiated by the German Trade Union.  But the after-hours ban does not apply to Volkswagen executives, who probably need an improvement in working conditions more than the factory workers.

Who speaks for management?

This issue of the eight -hour workday – it’s still something we are fighting about 125 years later.  What does that even mean in the information age when many people are expected to be on call 24/7, and after-hours email has become an ingrained habit for many people?  Earlier in the year, I wrote about the after hours email ban implemented by Volkswagen as a concession to the German Trade union to improve working conditions.  But the after-hours ban does not apply to the executives.  It’s funny – Henry Ford, one of the greatest industrialists of all time implemented a 40 hour week for his factory workers because studies found that working longer hours led to a decline in productivity.  And three months later, he implemented the same system for office workers.  (For more, see this great article by Geoffrey James published in Inc.)

Are managers and executives stuck just taking what the company has to offer?  Certainly the pay is higher, but so is the stress and so are the hours.  The very idea of managers banding together and demanding a shorter working day is absurd.  Managers are too closely aligned to the company, and it is there primary responsibility to drive execution of the company strategy, and maintain the essence of the written and unwritten rules of company culture.

Nevertheless, managers and executives can choose their level of devotion to the company.  It is one thing to be professional, and to do the best job you can do.  It is quite another to make the company the top priority, ahead of family and personal health.  As I have written previously, overly identifying with the company and a company-first value system are signs of Corporate Idolatry.

Musing #2: The Celtic Festival of Beltane

The Festival of Beltane took place on May 1 in Pre-Christian Ireland and Scotland, the halfway point between the equinox and solstice, and was an elaborate celebration of fertility, renewal, and bonfires.  I love the internet.  It gives access to these great college essays, where someone clearly has researched the topic and gives a nice, well written summary of information I could only get by reading a lot of original source material.  The essay I reference above is linking the Celtic fertility goddess Brigid with St. Brigid  of Kildare.  The nameless author at UNC (for goodness sakes, put your name on your essay!) that monks in the middle ages converted the stories of this fertility goddess into those of a nun in early Chrisitian Ireland.  And one of the key transformations was in the area of sexuality.

Sex was not something the Celts shied away from in their literature or in their art. It was only with the advent of Christianity in the fourth or fifth century, the replacement of the Druids with Christian holy men and women, that sex became something to be avoided for sanctity’s sake.

Beltane Fire Festival by Calum MacÙisdean via WikiMedia CC License

And in a similar way, I suspect the wild fertility rituals in Northern and Central Europe became replaced with the Maypole dance.  The Beltane Fire Festival is an example of the fertility ritual being returned in the form of modern dance and great pageantry.  It looks very cool and very sexy.

Closer to home, my wife helped my daughter picked flowers from our garden for a May Day basket that her third grade class will deliver to neighbors.  Now that is a great people-first tradition!


Unplug From Work This Saturday and Share Your Experience

Unplug From Work and Give Your Mind a Rest

66% of people read email seven days a week and expect to receive a response the same day.*

Ouch. I admit it, I’m one of them too, but I’m better than I used to be.

When I left the corporate world, I was so addicted to checking email that I was on my Hotmail account every hour. Usually, there was nothing new except junk mail for Cialis or a Rolex watch. But I kept checking regularly for two weeks.  At that point I  channeled my addiction into Mafia Wars from Zynga.  Unplugging isn’t easy, and for me I was the only person I knew who was going cold turkey from an intense job.

The National Day of Unplugging offers a chance to unplug from email as part of a nationwide community of people.  To participate, unplug sundown Friday March 23 to sundown Saturday March 24.  The event runs sundown to sundown because it is inspired by the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sundown.  When it comes to unplugging from work, sundown Friday is a perfect time to start.

The Sabbath is a day of rest. And rest means no work. In the ancient world, most people lived an agrarian existence, and work was physical labor in the fields or tending domestic animals. But for many people today, work is mental labor. And mental labor can and does follow us anywhere.  It may only take ten minutes to check and respond to email, but the mental impact can last an hour or longer.

The National Day of Unplugging is the perfect chance to give the mind a rest. I find it much easier to try something new when I know a lot of other people are doing the same thing.

I see two related ways to unplug. The first is to unplug from everything to allow a time to contemplate life, reflect, and connect with people without the distractions of technology. While I support the general goals, I think unplugging completely may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I use technology to connect with people. My parents live 3,000 miles away, and I regularly email or communicate on Facebook with my friends.

In my opinion, the more important issue is the separation between work and everything else.  Hence, my invitation: Join me as I unplug from work Friday night to Saturday night. For me, that means no checking Google Analytics for blog traffic, no checking email and no answering comments until Sunday. That won’t be easy, because checking every day is a habit. But I will set my out of office message, so people used to hearing back from me will know that I am unavailable until Sunday.

Whether you unplug or not, please send me a sentence or two about your experience. I’ll compile them and write a post early next week. And don’t worry about me – if I go into withdrawal, I still have Castleville. In fact, come visit my kingdom and I’ll visit yours.

Clothes, Identity, and Idolatry

email head

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.

Five Sides to the Volkswagon After-Hours Email Ban


Volkswagon recently announced that it is shutting down the BlackBerry server for email traffic 30 minutes after the workday ends.  This policy is only in effect in Germany, and does not include Sr. Management.  Is this the start of a new trend to get better work life balance, an example of heavy handed union interference, or a DOA proposal on par with the twin NetFlix fiasco’s of 2011?  Here are Five Sides to the issue.


1. It’s a real problem.  The email shut down is a baby step attempt to solve a real problem – the “24/7 on”, work-first culture.  It is neither healthy nor sustainable to be on call all the time, yet for more people every year, that is exactly what is happening.  Most of the after hours email is non-essential, but perceived as important.  From comment #49 on the BBC article “I know so many people who no longer have a weekend to relax and recharge.”  (Most of the following quotes come from the same forum.)

2. It’s a question of power.  The BlackBerry shut down was negotiated by the German Trade Union as a working-condition improvement for it’s members.  Volkswagon is not extending this shutdown to workers outside of the Trade Union, and would not have extended this one had not been forced to.  Many comments after these articles say that it should be up to each worker to decide what is best for them.  But for many people, making the decision to turn off is not allowed.  “Don’t have a choice – have to answer e-mail 24/7 or fired.”  It took the negotiating power of the union to stand up for the employees who did not have the option to say no.  Shutting down the email server levels the playing field for all employees.

3. Lost flexibility and perhaps less competitive.  The flip side is seen in the following posts.  “This is such a backward step – this should be about personal choice. With two young children I prefer sorting email at 10pm rather than being expected to be at my desk until 5 or 6pm and missing their bedtime. As a few people have said – you can turn these things off.”  I see the struggle whether to put the kids before work, or the work before the kids.  Either way, the self comes third.  In my opinion, people, both the kids and the self, need to come before the company.  It’s a values thing.

Another person said “Lucky workers. I wish I could just turn it off, however, my customers would not be too happy and i may lose them.”  Or, you may not lose them.

4. Management still plugged in.  Senior managers are not included in the ban, but these are the people who need it the most.  Management is expected to align itself with the company, and of course are not included in a Union benefit.  But the managers are people too, and often work longer hours with less down time. There is an expectation that the higher you go in a company, the more you need to be available at any time.  But that time comes from family, community, sleep, exercise, hobbies…

This is an opportunity for managers to look at their own values, and to begin to chart a healthier and more balanced life for themselves.  The BlackBerry Blackout invites the question, if for them, why not for us too?  The answer will come in the form of a business case – the company needs you to bla bla bla.  Come up with a business case for the outcome that is better for you.  An email blackout leads to greater productivity, less wasted effort, and  more effective management.

5. Doesn’t solve the real problem, but better than nothing.  In the short run, this ban is a good thing.  Although heavy handed, it will prevent people from checking email, and just as importantly, prevent people from sending email at night.  Unquestionably, this will decrease stress, which is great.

However, email at home is a symptom of a larger issue – a value system that puts the company first.  The ban doesn’t cover non-blackberry email, and doesn’t cover most VW employees.  And if the prevailing culture is company first, people will comply with the letter of the rule, but find ways to work around it.  Managers will phone or text.  People will stay at work later, or log in to their computers.

Values ultimately define the boundaries of behavior.  I hope this window of lower stress allows people to step back and re-engage with values that put people ahead of the company.  I hope that individual senior managers see the email blackout as a good thing for them too.  Less email for some can lead to less email for all.  And that would be a good thing.