Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Why Passion For Life Is More Important For You Than Being An Engaged Employee

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Community Brings Smiles

Chapter 8: Build Your Community Part 1

One morning at my first job, I had a terrible moment of panic as I scanned my identity card to enter the building.  ‘What if I lost my job?  I would not be allowed to enter this building.  “I couldn’t talk to all of these interesting people, and I couldn’t work on all this great stuff.”  Aside from my wife, I couldn’t think of anyone in my life that wasn’t at the company.  Where would I go?  What would I do?

Fear of isolation is normal.  A friend of mine told me that being unemployed was like prison, because there was nothing to do all day.  And taking pride in your work is normal and healthy.  In fact, Judaism teaches that work is sacred.  As Rabbi Janet Marder preached on Rosh Hashanah

“In the Jewish worldview, work is sacred – it is building and creating a partnership with God in the work of creation.”[i] Rabbi Marder explained that two famous scholars in the second century “would purposely carry burdens on their shoulders into the Study House because they wanted to show their students that manual labor should be respected.  This view of work set Judaism apart from other [idol-worshipping] philosophies prevalent in the ancient world. The Greeks and Romans looked down on work; freedom from work was a mark of status and privilege. “Labor stupefies both body and mind and deprives man of his natural dignity,” said Aristotle. “…The title of citizen belongs only to those who need not work to live” [Politics, parts 6,8,10,11].”[ii]

So it was not my passion for the job per say that was the problem.  The issue was the absence of other things in my life.  Over the years, as my community got stronger, that fear subsided into the background.

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[i] Rabbi Marder was quoting “Chaim David HaLevy, former Sephardic Chief rabbi of Israel from [Aseh L’cha Rav, 2:64; quoted in Work, Workers and the Jewish Owner].

[ii] Rabbi Marder’s entire sermon available here

Image Credit: Smiles Abound At the TRF By Alaskan Dude Frank Kovalchek via Flickr CC Link

The Way I Stopped Big Ticket Impulse Purchases

Chapter 8: Build Your Community Part 2

The changes I made in my life would have been much harder without the support of my wife.  First, I made changes in my identity to start putting people first.  And there were implications – it was possible that I could get promoted more slowly because I wouldn’t jump up and volunteer for the extra project that would require that I work over the weekend.  And then one day, on a drive home from Yosemite National Park, I announced that I just wanted to resign and stay home with the kids.

We planned my exit from the corporate world for two months, looking at the finances primarily, to see if we could pull things off with only her salary to live on.  What was key, however, was not the raw numbers per se, but our shared values.  We decided that reducing the stress in our lives was the top priority.  And we were fortunate that we’d gotten a big stock windfall earlier in the year.  Rather than make a big purchase, we used the money to buy freedom.  If our values required a new beamer every two years and expensive shoes every month, I would still be working to maximize our income.

It was amazing how much less money we spent after I became a stay at home dad.  Off the top, we saved money on childcare, gardening, lunches, eating out, and dry cleaning.  But we saved even more money on big ticket items that we didn’t really need.  We’d be in Costco, and buy something expensive on a lark.  Looking back on it, I think these purchases were a palliative for stress.

And while not everyone has a family, as we shall see in as the chapter progresses, everyone has the ability to grow a community of people who share their values.

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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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Advice For Singles On Work-Life Balance

My Corporate Idolatry Time Profile

Chapter 8: Build Your Community Part 4

One question I have gotten from readers is this: Greg, I’m single.  The suggestions to spend more time with family don’t apply to me.   I’m on my own, and my work is what I have.  What can I do?

To begin my answer, I’ve included the Corporate Idolatry Time Profile to the left.  Working too many hours squeezes out the opportunity to do other things in life.  Building a community is particularly important if you are single because we all need people to support our change in priorities.  And the most reliable way to be happy is to spend time with friends.

The first step is to leave the office.  “George,” a Silicon Valley Business development and strategy executive did just that, in an effort to give himself the opportunity to meet new people.  Here is how he describes the experience.

“You never know what that [new person or thing will be], but you’re not going to find it staying two more hours staring at your spreadsheet.  Part of it is chance encounters, and so you are not going to create new parts of your life unless you have the opportunities to encounter new places or new foods or new people or people from your past.  If you limit your chances of encountering those things, in a sense you only have yourself to blame.  By sending the hours from 6pm to 10pm working on your spreadsheet you are vastly limiting the hours where you can discover new things about yourself.”

What opportunities are there in your life for chance encounters that may lead to community?

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You might also like this post from the archives:  Treat a Community Opportunity Life a Career Opportunity


Beware The Illusion Of Community At Work

Chapter 8: Build Your Community Part 5

Remember Sue from Chapter 6, the successful VP who was secretly throwing up every morning, crying and not wanting to go to work?  Of course it didn’t start that way.

“When I was more junior, [it] felt  like we were going somewhere.  There was financial success, bonuses, and I moved up quickly. I appreciated being recognized.  It was an absolute pleasure.  The team stuck together four years and we liked each other.  Many nights we’d go to the gym, come back and stay till 10.  We were willing to do that it was fun.”

In many ways, what Sue is describing is a community – people you like to be with who provide support and conquer obstacles together.  When I asked her if it felt like community, Sue agreed.   “I loved the company.  Marketing got along with development and sales, and it felt like you were a part of something.  The day in day out conversations were positive.  Everyone was working towards the same goal.  It was fun.”

When the company started having trouble maintaining the high growth rate, things got ugly.  “There was this one person,  I thought it was friendship but she didn’t hesitate to stab me in the back without a second thought.”  And that was not an isolated case.  Sales, marketing, and development, departments that had worked so well together were now caught in a cycle of very personal and destructive political attacks.  And then the layoffs began.

I think it was this sense of community that drove Sue to stick  with it, to try to “be the one to bring it back.”  And that effort made her very sick.

A company isn’t a real community, it just provides a community-like experience.  You can never be kicked out of a real community, but a company can and should get rid of anyone if business conditions warrant it.

In the next post, Sue searches community outside of the workplace.

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How To Leave Work Early When Chronically Overworked

Build Your Community Part 6

In his book Happy, Ian K. Smith argues that happy people have more close relationships, the kind of friendships that take time to build and maintain. According to Smith, (who is quoting the research of Martin Seligman and others) “a strong social network is also associated with lower levels of stress and a longer life span.”[i]

For many in the corporate world, (including myself at one time) corporate idolatry makes close friendships outside of work hard to find.  This is the position Sue found herself in, when she worked herself until she was sick. (See this post in Chapter 6)

Smith advises that someone without a network of friends should “put themselves in a position to meet new people.”  Interestingly, this is exactly how Sue told me she started to get healthy again.

Sue told me her decision to make a change came on a business trip.   Free from the daily meetings that started at 7 AM and often went until 6, she realized that her life did not have time for anything else, and she needed “to go out and get a breath of fresh air.”  Sue developed a deliberate strategy to connect with other people.

She said, “I’m not a runner or biker and I needed something to do that I really enjoyed.  I like to learn, but I didn’t want to go back to school. I wanted to find something that would challenge me in a way that wasn’t drowning like work.  I started photography, I like food, and I love gardening.  I started getting involved in my community which is important to me, e.g. a committee to get a new park in town, which connected me to some other committees and projects.”

But it was Urban Farming  that really caught her passion.  “I change out of my skirt and Santana-Row shoes on Friday afternoon and go.  There is one woman who I hang out with.  We have become really close friends and I would never have met her in the tech industry.”
One advantage to leaving work early for a fun activity – the other people there also have made connecting with other people a higher priority than their company.  Those are just the people to hang out with.
You might also like: Discover How I Avoided Burnout

[i] Happy: Simple Steps To Get the Most Out Of Life by Ian K. Smith.  St Martin’s press.  (2010) p 190

Would You Ever Consider Leaving Work Early If You Are a Leader or Key Stakeholder?

Chapter 8: Secure Your Community Part 7

In the last post, I have tips on how to leave work early if chronically overworked.   I shared the post on the HRB site on LinkedIn, and the response has been explosive. The 58+ comments  run the spectrum which I summarize as

  • A good leader creates an environment where things can run smoothly even when they aren’t there
  • As long as you are reachable by phone, it’s ok.
  • Don’t leave too often or other people will start leaving early too.
  • “Leave whenever you got to as long as work is being done or is getting done per expectation & standards”
  • It is more about the mental connection to work than whether you are physically at the office or not
  • Some people didn’t feel they had the freedom to leave early even if they wanted to.

I think there are two issues to consider when deciding whether you can leave the office early:

1. Can you leave without the organization falling apart?

The answer to this needs to be yes.  If it is no, either the organization is not well led, or does not have the right people.  What could happen in your absence?  Will it impact the revenue number?  Will it hurt customers?  Will it send anyone to jail, or create a flag for auditors?  Unless the answer is yes, don’t even worry about it.

2. Can your ego survive if the organization doesn’t fall apart in your absence?

I hate to admit it, but one upon a time, for me the answer would have been no.  (And if I’d been laid off when that was true, I would have been devastated.)  If you’ve read Chapter 7, Secure Your Identity, you are already thinking about this issue.  Many people (including me) suffer from the Illusion of Control, a belief that we have a much bigger impact on the outcome than we actually do.  And when there is trouble in other parts of our life, work can serve as a refuge.  (See posts here and here for more.)

Which is more important to you, the work or the people you are with?

Let’s say you have left the office for an hour to have lunch with a friend or to coach soccer for a child.  The phone rings.  Let’s assume that the reason for the call is “legitimate” and that you will “add value” to the business by answering it.  Should you take the call or call back when you are finished with lunch/practice?  At least for me, once I got a work call or email there was no turning off the thoughts.  And then I was no longer present for the people around me.

Imagine you are with someone at lunch, their phone rings, they peak at the caller id and say “it’s my boss and it’s the end of the quarter, but you are more important to me.”  They turn off the phone and put it away.

How would you feel being that person?   What are the long term benefits for you of making other people feel that way?

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The Connection Between Community, Work, and Happiness

Chapter 8: Build Your Community Part 8

I define a community as a group of people with a common interest who look out for each other.  In his book “Bowling Alone,” Harvard Professor Robert Putnam rigorously documents the decline of community in America. Putnam points to decreasing membership in organizations like the PTA and Shriners, as well as a decrease in the frequency of informal get-togethers like Sunday picnics.

Why is this important? Current research suggests that one of the most important drivers of happiness is community.  (See here for a summary of recent happiness research).   Humans are inherently social creatures; we like to belong and like to interact with other people.  And with less community, there are less opportunities to connect, and therefore less opportunities to generate happiness.

The workplace can look and feel a lot like a community.  We spend most of our waking hours at work.  A good leader will try to pull employees together towards a common purpose, and create a sense of esprit de corps.  And just as a community takes care of it’s members, many companies provide extensive lifestyle benefits to employees, such as on site medical, dental, dry cleaning, and of course the grand daddy of them all, the on-site gym.

Southwest Airlines has made its culture and community a competitive advantage, creating funds to allow employees to help other employees deal with natural disasters, and “culture committees” to plan parties around lifestyle events. (See SWA website.)   Of course Southwest Airlines has something that most other companies don’t – a no layoff policy.

In the next post, I’ll explore whether layoffs disqualify the workplace as a true community.

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Merry Christmas Giorgi: Your Name Is On The List

Chapter 8: Build Your Community Part 9

The last post ended with the no layoff policy at Southwest Airlines. For the vast majority of companies however, layoffs are a reality.  I’ve been through multiple layoffs in my career, although only once was I let go. (As I’ve written previously, I was thrilled when it happened.)  Being of the survivors was much harder.  I felt like one of the walking dead, wandering the halls morning those who were no longer there.

The personal connections at work often feel like friendships, and sometimes they are.  But sometimes they aren’t.

“Giorgio Danza” learned that lesson the hard way.  Giorgio moved to San Francisco after college because the city was friendly to his lifestyle.  Giorgi has a hearty laugh that matches the intensity of his personality.  Think Polo, panache and perfect.  His hair is dark brown, short, and perfect.  And his sunglasses  are amazing, and never the same.

Giorgi worked for the same company eighteen years after college, ten as a laboratory technician, and then eight in product management.  I asked him if the company felt like his community.

“Oh God yes, absolutely.  I prided myself on having great relationships with people, from shipping to manufacturing.   I think people saw me as very knowledgeable, experienced, knew how company worked, how to get things done.  I stepped in [to the company] as a kid, literally as a child, and didn’t learn stuff about politics that maybe I would have learned better if I had life experience outside of the company. ”

I asked Giorgi about the layoff.  “It was devastating.  I did not see it coming.”

Giorgi’s story continues in the next post.

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Giorgio Struggles To Cope With Being Laid Off

Chapter 9: Build Your Community Part 10

I spoke to a former colleague of Giorgi’s who thought it was a “crock” that Giorgi was laid off.  “Sometimes your name just ends up on a list.”

Giorgi was devastated when he was laid off, and spent a few weeks catatonic on the couch.  “I did not see it coming.”  Many people called him telling him how wrong it was that he was let go.  But a few people he was really close with never called. “That really messed me up, not to hear from these people who I respected and I thought respected me.”  Years later he found out that his former boss told the team not to call Giorgi, because he was “so upset.”  It is hard to know why the boss did that.  Maybe he made a genuine mistake.  Maybe he was being self-serving.

Giorgio was well liked, and many people did call in spite of what his boss said.  One former report called every day, saying on the answering machine “I’m going to keep calling until you pick up the phone.”  Giorgi said it helped, but many of his friends from outside of work didn’t know what to say.  “The last think you want to hear is that you don’t have to go back to that place any more.”

Ten years later, Giorgio talks like someone who has come to grips with a great loss in his past.

I can relate, because if I had been laid off a year earlier I would have been in his shoes – utterly crushed.  I think one of the greatest benefits of “busting my corporate idol” was the mental freedom I found.

In my subsequent jobs, I never forgot that I could be let go at any time.

I realized that I would never invest all of my money in one asset, and should not invest too many of my personal connections in one place either.  It’s just too risky. So, I focused my “connection energy” on building a community outside of the workplace.

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Four Ideas To Help You Get Your Life Back Starting Today

Chapter 8: Build Your Community Part 11

Over the last few posts, I have explained why it is dangerous to put all of your happiness eggs in the work basket: Lack of diversification is inherently risky.  Would you put all of your money in a single stock?  Any financial advisor would say you are crazy to do so.  Diversification is the key to a sound financial strategy.  The same holds true of your connections to other people.  Market forces beyond your control  can turn the most wonderful of workplaces into the stuff of nightmares.

If your time profile indicates the risk of corporate idolatry, I suggest that some life diversification is in order.  There is no need to say  “no” to the company – it will likely cause additional stress and may induce feelings of guilt.  Find something to say yes to, an activity that you decide is a higher priority than the company.  Here are a few suggestions:

1. Make a list of the things you liked to do when you were younger.  Is there anything you’d like to start again?

2. Join a class that a friend is taking.  At minimum you’ll get more time with the friend, and you might find something new that you really like.

3. If someone invites you to something, say yes!  (See this post on community opportunities.)

4. Put the new activity on the calendar – you will be far more likely to follow through if it is on the calendar.  One person told me her solution to a crazy time in the office was to sign up for 4 dance classes a week.  It gave her a “reason to get out of there.”

Sorry if you were expecting more earth-shattering ideas. It’s not complicated, just scary and hard to begin.  But once you start to connect with other people outside of work,  you will feel positive peer pressure to keep on connecting.

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The Harvard Business Review Tip For The Overworked

Build Your Community: Part 12

The The Harvard Business Review tip of the day: People who are overloaded by work should “create rituals—highly specific behaviors, done at precise times, that become automatic and no longer require conscious will or discipline. For example, go[ing] to bed at the same time every night [ensures that] you consistently get enough sleep.”

As a baseball fan, I’m all over rituals. This year during the SF Giants World Series run, I listened to the first two playoff games (losses) on the radio, and then I watched next three (wins) on tv.  It was a bummer, because I was afraid to turn the radio on for the rest of the playoffs, lest The Giants start losing again.  Unfortunate, because Jon Miller and the other local radio announcers are so much better than the various clowns broadcasting on tv.  But what could I do?  I didn’t want The Giants to lose on my account.

My silly-but-true example illustrates something important about human behavior: much of what we do is driven by emotion, not reason.  And while my turning on the tv was not a ritual per say, rituals serve the same function: emotional comfort from the sameness of an activity.

Rituals are one of the ways that corporate culture is perpetuated. A primary example is the quarterly company meeting, when all employees gather to hear senior management go through a scorecard of performance, talk about what is coming up, and try to inspire employees for the future.  Employees at dysfunctional companies sometimes refer to these as “cool aid sessions” while companies like Google and now Yahoo use weekly all hands meetings as a way to build a culture of transparency and trust among employees.  (For more check out this interview with Laszlo Bock, Google’s SVP of People Operations on

This tip from HBR is spot on, although I disagree with the overt suggestion to use rituals as a means to maintain a work-first mentality.

“Sebastian Tate,” who we met in Chapter 7 in this post, uses the ritual of the male-bonding camping trip to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

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The Cure For Stress Hidden In Your Back Yard

Chapter 8: Secure Your Community Part 13

We met Sebastian Tate, the balanced achiever, in Chapter 7. Sebastian takes his career seriously, and always wants to work at an interesting company.  “I would struggle working for a company doing cosmetic surgery just to get rid of wrinkles.” For Sebastian, work is decidedly not his community, and over the years he has surrounded himself with people who share his values about the relative importance of work and the rest of life. And every August for the last 20 years, they all get together for a men only camping weekend.

It started with friends he grew up with, and has “evolved to be group of people across different companies.”  Sebastian explained that sometimes “guys want to get together [only with] other guys.”  Sure, they hike and drink beer, but what I found particularly interesting were the intense discussions about life.  And I think it was the natural setting that facilitated the intensity of the community feeling.

There is something about nature that promotes tranquility.  People have a biological affinity to become more relaxed and healthy in a natural setting than they do in an urban setting.  Sound like an exaggeration? In 1984 Ulrich showed that patients with a window facing a park have a faster recovery from surgery than patients facing a wall.[i] Since then, numerous studies have shown  that access to green space reduces stress, improves cognitive function, and strengthens the immune system.[ii]  And green areas with water seem to have a bit of an extra benefit.[iii]

Of course anyone who has been on vacation to Maui knows that an ocean view costs more than a mountain view, which is more expensive than a “garden view.”  In this case, market-defined value matches what the science suggests are the most valuable traits for wellbeing.

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[i] View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Ulrich RS. Science. 1984 Apr 27;224:420-1

[ii] Green environments essential for human health April 19, 2011 retreived December 23, 2012

[iii] In the green of health: Just 5 minutes of ‘green exercise’ optimal for good mental health by Michael Bernstein.  May 21, 2011.  Retrieved December 23, 2012

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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