Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

The Secret Flaw In Work Life Balance

work like effectiveness by Mike Kline via Flickr ccI’ve never liked the phrase work/life balance. I’m just not comfortable saying it. I like the sentiment, but the phrase is somehow wrong. I now understand why, but it will take me a while to get there.

Cali Williams Yost makes a significant improvement when she writes about work+life fit. In her book Tweak It, Yost explains the origin of the idea. She was meeting with a senior executive, explaining the benefits to the company of offering employees better work/life balance. But as soon as she said “work/life balance”, his eyes glazed over. Yost asked him to explain why.

“Every time you [Cali] say work-life balance all I hear is work less, and we have so much to do. I need everyone to do more. Plus, I don’t have any kind of work/life balance myself. How can I support something I don’t have?”[i]

Yost explained that is wasn’t about working less, but about having the flexibility to choose when and where you work. Yost invented the phrase “work+life fit” on the spot. The executive got it immediately, recounting how he plays tennis twice a week, and tries to fit his son’s soccer games into his overall schedule. Work+life fit is about giving individuals the flexibility to make work fit into their unique circumstances.[ii] For Yost, this was a key breakthrough that has enabled her to open dialog with business leaders about increasing workplace flexibility.

I loved work+life fit when I first heard about it. It made sense to me, because flexibility is a significant improvement over inflexible work hours.  People are happier and less stressed if they have flexibility.

But, there remained a niggling doubt in my gut, which is captured by the image I chose for the post. Our heroine has work+life fit of a sort, but it is not a happy picture. Flexibility is a plus, but if one it merely moving around the ninety hours, there still is not enough time to have a balanced life.

The problem I am trying to solve is chronic overwork, and increased flexibility doesn’t help if the overall hours remain the same.

Continued … the Real Goal Is Life Balance


[i] Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day by Cali Williams Yost. p xiv More

[ii] Ibid p xiv-xv

 

Money, Lifestyle, and Priorities

Chapter 10: The People First Life Part 3

The idea of making less money scares people. Which is why in the last post I recommend finding out how many months you could pay your expenses if you lost your income. But the fear isn’t completely rational – there is a fear of deprivation.

Here is a story from “Brian,” a silicon valley executive who gets 150 emails a day, and accumulates over 1000 unread emails every month. He has grown accustomed to working in somewhat chaotic environments.  Here is how he describes his finances.

“I don’t like living my life with any financial uncertainty.  I have a very clear financial situation that I have become accustomed to.  I have a certain lifestyle I lead.  It’s not like I spend money lavishly, but I like to go on nice vacations, and I like being able to buy the things I want.  For example, if I’m in Sports Authority and I see something I want, I’m going to buy it. I was there for something else, and there was a driver on sale. I didn’t need a new driver, but it was like half price and last years model.”

Since the interview, Brian changed jobs twice, both because of layoffs. In other words, he stayed with the chaotic jobs for fear of putting his finances at risk, and ended up without a job anyway. There is no such thing as financial certainty in this world, so why not try to have a life you’ll enjoy?

My advice is to focus on the life you’d like to lead, rather than on having less money.  Do you want a job with fewer emails? Fewer emails means less push to work at home, which in turn opens time for family and friends. Think of it as a substitution. By analogy, I like the diet advice that says replace the bagel with fresh almonds and walnuts. Both taste good, and both can fill you up. Diet’s that just say “stop eating bagels” just make me feel bad.

In my experience, as I focused on the people in my life, I found that I no longer get cravings for that odd golf club purchase. It is a transition, and didn’t happen by itself. But as I focused on people, they focused more on me, a virtuous cycle that feels great.

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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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Why You Should Care About The Revenue Forecast

Chapter 9: Paint Your Environment: Part 4

As I argued in the last post, if you want the company to do the right thing, make sure you have a set of numbers to back it up. To fully understand why I think this is critical, lets step back for a moment and look at where a revenue forecast come from.  The Cambridge dictionary online defines a revenue forecast as “a calculation of the amount of money that a company will receive from sales during a particular period.”

In a very real sense, a revenue forecast is a prediction of the future, and a forecast can have a very real impact on the day-to-day activities of employees.  It is tempting to think that these numbers are scientifically derived and reliable, but often they come from sticking a finger in the air, and then justified after-the-fact in Excel.

I heard a cautionary tale from “George” the former VP of marketing at a mid-sized biotechnology company about how a bogus forecast helped propagate a disaster.  Research created an elaborate robotic system to streamline the user experience for one of the flagship product lines.  After a few experiments, they pronounced it ready to ship to customers, and did not need to go through a formal development process.

I cringed when I heard the story.  Product development is always needed to make a new technology robust enough to work consistently in customer hands.

But “ready for customers” is exactly what the CEO wanted to hear.  He was a Scorpion, a “visionary” who felt that the technology should sell itself.  The President and CFO were hungry for revenue growth, and via a process that sounds a lot like groupthink, the executive team convinced themselves that “we should be able to make $10M on this product this year.”  Marketing then back calculated the number of units, service contracts, and consumables that would need to be sold to make the forecast.  (As a point of reference, this represented 25% of the company’s projected revenue growth for the year.)  Then when the product ran into development issues, the same executives went on a headhunt to find out where the number came from.

The rest of the company scrambled to fill the $10M revenue hole.  Timelines for other products were accelerated, and employees throughout the organization put in long weeks to “make it happen.”

Bad management?  Sounds like it.  But there was not a rush of people heading for the door.  Inside the asylum, everyone looks sane.  (See this post on stress and loss of perspective for more.)

How far will your company go to make the numbers?  Where do the numbers come from?  If you can’t control the forecast, what can you control?

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A Simple Rule To Reduce Chronic Overwork

Chapter 8: Build Your Community Part 3

Remember David from Chapter 7, whose stroke led him to recognize his corporate idolatry, and switch to a people-first identity?  (You can read about him here.)  Family and community was an essential part of his change. David’s wife was thrilled that he was more focused on the family and his health.  And I was amazed to hear that David and his wife decided to sell their large house in an affluent, gated community for a smaller, but very nice home in a more rural area.  It meant changing school districts with kids in high school, but everyone was on board, looking for a less stressful life together.

David seemed surprisingly relieved to move.  He said it was very stressful to maintain what he called “the façade” – making sure “you acted a certain way.” The kids needed expensive clothes; Sears was not allowed.  (I didn’t ask about Chez Target, my family favorite but I strongly suspect it was also out of bounds.)  But David’s move wasn’t about the materialism per se; it was the people in the community that made him uncomfortable.  He told me that one parent he met wouldn’t let her kids go to a certain person’s house because of a coat someone was wearing.

David’s de-materialism was probably the most extreme example I encountered.  Of course David is also the only person I interviewed who had a stroke before the age of fifty, which gave him a particular urgency to change his life. David also made changes that were less extreme, more typical for people looking to build community.  For example, David started going to the gym a few times a week with his buddies, which reinforced his decision to make people a higher priority than his company.

Who we choose to associate with is a key to change.  By analogy, an alcoholic cannot spend his free time  in bars, even if only drinking soda.  Eventually, the environment will lead to a relapse.

Similarly, if you want to move to a lifestyle that is less work centric, you need to find people who aren’t working all the time.   And the next post will suggest ways to do just that.

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