Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

How To Reconnect With Values and Regain Control Of Your Life

Change Thoughts by MMcDonough via Flickr CC

Introduction to Part III – From Worship to Work

I am really excited to be starting Part III of Busting Your Corporate Idol.  It’s time to write about solutions.  As a quick review

Part I: Corporate Idolatry Busted is about definitions.  I discovered my own corporate idolatry on Yom Kippur when I realized that the company and not my family was the most important thing in my life.  There can be only one top priority, and for me the company became my top priority.  It became my idol.

Part II: The Corporate Ladder Revisited examines the three factors that contribute to a lifestyle of idolatry: people, circumstances, and the overall company culture.  I’ve shared the stories of people like Mary, Pat, and Harry to illustrate these dynamics in action.

Part III draws on one of my favorite books, Switch: How To Change When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath.  In one sense, change is always hard.  Newton’s First Law says “an object in motion will stay in motion, and an object at rest will stay at rest unless acted upon an unbalanced force.”  So any change is going to require some work.  But “hard” is relative.  As Malcolm Gladwell points out in The Tipping Point, sometimes very small changes can have very large impacts.

Planets move according to laws of the universe, but people have free will.  We can choose our own path.  If you’ve gotten this far in the book, you are looking to make a change.  And if you are still reading, I’d like to think that you’ve started to see the world in a new way.

I went from working 90 hours a week to 60 hours a week in less than a year, without changing jobs and with no discernable impact on my career.  But my life got soooo much better, and it has continued to get better every year since.

Yours will too.

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Remember the One Thing You Can Control At Work In Any Circumstance

Chapter 5: The Role of Circumstance Part 16, Conclusion

As a technical writer, Mary’s life changed dramatically for the better.  She started working normal hours, and was recognized and appreciated for her work.  Interestingly, it took her about three months to accept the new lifestyle.  “I kept asking myself when is it going to get crazy again.” Now she wishes she had made the move earlier.  “I just feel like I suffered for longer than I needed to [in my previous position].  This year has been a recovery year.  I haven’t felt guilty about the number of hours I work.  If I leave at 3 to work out and get the kids, I don’t feel guilty about it.  I was getting my work done, and was still moving the position forward.”

It sounds like more than just moving forward – Mary was recognized and complemented by the General Manager at the summer picnic, something that never would have happened in her previous position.  Moreover, Mary is still connected to the high profile project, which allows her to leverage her previous experience and contacts.

At the start of this chapter, I wrote about the illusion of control, and how it applies in the workplace.  There is so much that happens which is beyond our control, but as humans we are naturally susceptible to the illusion that we can control far more than we actually do.  And the consequence for these illusions, as Mary’s story illustrates, is unnecessary suffering.  To paraphrase Viktor Frankl, we cannot control what happens to us, we can only choose how we respond.

In the next chapter, we’ll cover the biggest thing we cannot control – the overall company culture.

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Mary Prioritizes Family Over Work But Work Over Sleep

Chapter 5: The Role Of Circumstance Part 15

In the last few posts, we have been following the story of Mary as she was overwhelmed with work coming back from maternity leave.  Even though Mary worked till midnight on email, she felt guilty about leaving the office at five, in part because many decisions were made after hours when she was no longer in the office.

Mary had the option of staying later every night.  Her husband was unemployed and could have assumed all childcare duties.  As it was, he shouldered most of them.  “If I would have stayed at work consistently most nights till 7, I would have been able to build those relationships with R&D that you need, so they have your back.  I saw it happening, but I just couldn’t [stay].”   Mary’s top priority was the family.  She left every day at 5 to make sure she could eat with the kids and put them to bed.  “I thought I could make it work.  The baby goes to sleep at eight, and I would work till midnight.  I kept getting further and further behind, and relationships kept suffering.  If I had any free time I was trying to catch up on some project.”

While it is likely that staying until seven every night may have eased the work-related guilt and facilitated the relationships with R&D, I doubt it would have changed Mary’s overall level of happiness or health. In fact, Mary would have had little time to see her family, which would have engendered guilt of another kind.  To her credit, Mary continued to put her family first, in that she went home to be with them.  At the same time, she was prioritizing the company over her health, which was not sustainable.

Things finally came to a head when Mary tearfully told her boss that enough was enough – “I said if that is really what you want me to do, I am not sure I’m the right person for that job.   At the time you don’t expect you were going to say those words, and when you walk out you say ‘shit, I’m basically getting myself fired.’  In another way you feel good that you finally stood up for yourself.”  To his credit, Mary’s boss found her another position in the organization, one that was protected from an upcoming round of layoffs.

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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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Disruptive Technology Plus Rapid Growth Equals Excess Devotion, For the Newbie

Chapter 5: The Role of Circumstance Part 11

In the last post, we met Mary, who enthusiastically embraced the corporate life after graduate school and was shocked when the first layoffs hit.  It is perfectly understandable that early in her career, Mary did not understand the business realities, especially coming from a different set of realities.

As a science graduate student, she worked independently on her project, with a large peer group of fellow grad students to commiserate with.  There was no overall institutional loyalty – a graduate student is part of a scientist’s lab, who in many cases could care less about what you think of them or the institution.  In fact, many a graduate advisor hates the institution for all the bureaucracy.  Personal identity does not become intertwined with the institution.

A corporation is a completely different environment.  It’s about making money for the company, and working with other people towards a common goal.  At work Mary was surrounded by signals that re-enforced her attachment to the company, and she was caught up in the gung-ho attitude of trying to change the world.

The customers were almost all of the top twenty pharmaceutical companies, which reinforced her perception that the company was helping to revolutionize drug discovery.  (See this post on the illusion of control.) And, these companies were a very lucrative source of revenue.  At one point, the stock price was going up 20 to 30 points a day, and everyone was talking about it.  You could literally hear people screaming out numbers and cheering from their cubes.   One of the founders, whose major contribution at the time was surfing porn sites, was once seen dancing down the hall chanting the company name.

The core of Mary’s devotion, though, came from the company President, who was energetic and visionary.

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