Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

The Secret To Kicking the Habit Of Overwork

Chapter 10: Embrace People First Part 6

Corporate idolatry brings a habit of overwork, and in many ways it can be looked at as an addiction. Part of the complexity is that working can feel really good.  For example, Flow is a state of immersion  and enjoyment doing a task, and the best parts of a job involve flow.  Healthy aspects of work turn into idolatry when the company becomes the most important thing in your life, and can become an addition when there are not sources of flow outside the workplace. And the body can become addicted to the constant adrenaline high of a hectic pace. (See this article for more on being an adrenaline junkie.)

So how to kick the habit?

I interviewed a man who worked for years at a hectic pace in corporate sales, and has struggled after he took a more relaxed job.  “I’m going crazy Greg.”  It’s called withdrawal, and it will pass. He went cold turkey for health reasons. He missed the early signals, and a health crisis hit in his late forties’. It is far better to take a slow and steady pace to recover your time.

It took me a year to go from 90 to 60 hours a week.  The more extreme your overwork, the faster you’ll start to see the benefits. It’s a tipping point kind of thing – retaking the hours at the extremes will help you feel better right away.  For example, if you review the 90 hour week time profile in Chapter 7, you’ll notice that I wasn’t getting enough sleep. So, the first place to recover time is around bedtime.

I suggest two practices to set boundaries:

  1. First, make your bedroom a sacred space.  No work, email, or electronics.  The bedroom is for sleep and sex. Less work in the bedroom is guaranteed to bring you more and better sex.
  2. Stop all email between 10 PM and 5 AM. If work wakes you up during these hours, jot a quick note on paper to clear your mind. Avoid Facebook or other electronics too (except Kindle for reading only.) I guarantee you most of what you are doing during this time is crap anyway. Every 2-4 weeks, expand the time of the “no email zone.”

It is important to have 1-2 hours without work of any kind before bedtime to allow you to unwind. This made a huge difference in my life, because it opened more time to spend with my wife after the kids went to bed.  And, it gave me more time to read and watch some tv shows I really liked.

Increasing the time every day for rest and renewal will make you feel better, AND more effective at work.

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The Business Case For Sleep

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment Part 14

There will be times when your manager asks you to drop everything and put something together for her. When that happens, don’t be afraid to delay another deliverable, with a quick note to the other stakeholder explaining why it will be late. I found that transparency is respectful to the other party, and over time builds mutual respect.  And if need be, I let the two managers duke it out over what is a higher priority.

Your manager may not like owning the responsibility of the trade off, especially if you have a history of working weekends, and staying late to deliver last-minute “urgent” requests.  BUT, limiting how many hours you work will make you much more effective, and a greater asset to your manager and the company.

Take the issue of sleep deprivation. A recent study by the CDC found that 30% of Americans get less than six hours of sleep per night.  On a personal level, sleep deprivation leads to higher rates of traffic accidents, and some serious health issues like high blood pressure and diabetes.  In short, being tired is bad for you.

James Maas, who taught Psych 101 to 2000 people  each semester when I was at Cornell, studies sleep deprivation.  His website  and summarizes it well:  “Recent medical research proves that sleep deprivation literally “makes you stupid, clumsy, stressed out, unhealthy and will shorten your life.”

I admit it – I spent plenty of time sleep deprived, and it didn’t feel that bad to me.  And the latest research explains why. Brain imaging studies comparing rested and sleep deprived people have shown that “ individuals who are sleep-deprived experience periods of near-normal brain function, but these periods are interspersed with severe drops in attention and visual processing. …The periods of apparently normal functioning could give a false sense of competency and security.

And aside from the research, lets step back and think about it.  Can you do your best work if you are tired or sick?  Can you effectively lead a team if you are stressed out?  Without recovery time, can you be creative and sharp?

When having the conversation with your manager, remember to make a business case, not a personal request.   Even the Wall Street Journal admits that “a good night’s rest is good for business.”  Tired people make mistakes.

What has been your experience with rest and work?

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