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

Do Americans Really Scoff At Six Weeks Vacation?

Beaver. He is happy and likes to work. And you? by Marcos Zerene via Flickr CC

Beaver. He is happy and likes to work. And you? by Marcos Zerene via Flickr CC

What would you do with six weeks vacation?

I remember starting to get antsy on the second week of my honeymoon. It was the first two week  vacation of my professional career. I was a post doc, who thought science was a higher calling. And as wonderful as my honeymoon was, I was ready to go back.

When I was in the heart of my corporate idolatry, six weeks of vacation would have been out of the question. It may still be for me. There is something in the American spirit that says we should be working all the time. And while we often see this as a virtue, it isn’t healthy.

I read an interesting comment from Internationalist Shawn Mitchell to a recent post of mine on Google Plus. “Having lived in Europe a little while now, I must admit to admiring the Europeans’ approach to ‘Life Balance.’Many Americans will scoff at the idea of having more than 2 weeks of vacation a year, but our friends over here consider 6 weeks to be a good starting point.”

Merriam Webster defines scoff as “to treat or address with derision.” Do Americans really scoff at the European practice of six weeks vacation? Yup. I remember doing so myself. We used to plan around Europe shutting down in the office.

“Q3 is a tough quarter because Europeans are on vacation.”

“Better get feedback from so and so about the launch plan because he will be gone for most of the summer.”

Each of these was delivered with a little role of the eyes and/or sense of exasperation. Didn’t they care about making the numbers? What I now understand is yes, they care about making the numbers, just not as much as they care about living a good life.

In America, vacation is ok if metered out in reasonable doses. Even our two or three weeks vacation doesn’t always get taken. At certain companies, employees regularly run up against the maximum vacation accrual limit. Company policy says “use it or lose it,” and they apologetically say they will have to take Friday off or they lose the day. Why is there a sense of shame about taking a benefit that we have earned?

So what would you do if suddenly your company offered everyone six weeks vacation per year. And, your take home pay and other benefits remained the same? Would you take the six week? What would you do with the time? Does the thought scare you?

Just for fun, make a list of everything you would do if you had six weeks vacation this year. A month in Hawaii? Work 4 days a week for 30 weeks? Fixing up your home? And not just this year, every year. Is it an invitation to buy that vacation house on the lake, or is it a prison sentence, to boredom and time away from the company you love?

Now, make a list of every fearful thought that goes through your head about taking six weeks off. Are you afraid the company would fall apart, or that someone else may politically get the upper hand? Are you afraid the vacation will be held against you? Are you afraid that you won’t know what to do with your time? Will the time off bring you face to face with an empty house or an unhappy marriage? Are you afraid of judgment from peers at work, and from your inner critic?

What do these lists say about your identity, and what is really important to you? If you feel there would be a gaping hole inside of you if forced out of the office for so long, it’s time to find something outside the office to fill that gap.

Of course I wouldn’t know what to do with six weeks off. And I advocate greater life balance. Only in America.

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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Why Did Sabina Feel Like a Failure At Work?

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment Part 7

In the last post, Sabina said she “felt like a failure because the forecast was so off.”  I understand where she is coming from.  I have twice managed a product that was selling below the forecast.  The first time I felt terrible, but the second time I was annoyed but unemotional.  The difference?  By the second time I had busted my corporate idol, meaning that my personal identity was not longer tied up with the company.  I was clear in my mind that the most important things to me were my health and the people in my life.  And, I had a strong community that I knew would be there for me whatever happened at work.  Together, this gave me freedom to make different choices when “stuff happens” at work.

Let’s revisit Sabina’s situation, and look more deeply to see what she might have done differently.  She felt badly because the revenue was coming in at only 25% of the  forecast.  Looking at it objectively, the forecast had no chance – the team had cut out 2/3 of the features prior to launch, and the forecast was not changed because she was afraid the project would be canceled.

In circumstances like this, I recommend a two scenario forecast, like the one at the right.

Business Case For Good Template

Forecast With And Without Key Features

Let me explain how this would have helped in Sabina’s situation.  The red is the base case, and the blue includes the additional features. If Sabina had presented a dual forecast, the framework would have been set for the lower initial growth, and the need for continued investment to meet the desired revenue numbers in year 3 and beyond. Sabina’s fear that the project would be canceled held her back.

How would the company have reacted?  Maybe the project would have been canceled as she feared, or maybe the company would have accepted the lower forecast and the need for future investment.  In either case, the situation would have been less stressful than the slow withering on the vine that comes from the stigma of an underperforming product.

In addition, according to Sabina, the people who got ahead at her company were the “brown nosers,” which certainly wasn’t her.  Could she have been risking her career by speaking out?  Maybe, but unless she was willing to brown nose her career advancement was probably limited at that company anyway. Today Sabina has advanced in her career considerably, at another company.

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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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