4 Ways to Keep Work from Killing You

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When a conversation turns to work, Tom will regale you with stories of how many hours he puts in. He’s certainly following that advice to be the first one in the office and the last one to leave. And he doesn’t really leave. He takes work home. He keeps his cellphone with him all the time. He answers emails in the middle of the night. Sound familiar?

Tom’s not his real name, and you probably know him, or someone very much like him. Tom works hard all the time. He thinks it’s a good thing. He even brags about it.

When I think of Tom, I remember a story from John Ruskin about a man in a shipwreck who fastened 200 pounds of gold around his waist and jumped into the water. As you might expect, he went straight to the bottom. Ruskin asks the following question.

“Now, as he was sinking – had he the gold? Or had the gold him?”

Tom’s 70-80-hour work weeks are like that gold, and they’re killing him. He doesn’t get enough sleep. Because sleep deprivation slinks up on us slowly, he doesn’t even know how tired he is. True confession. There was a long period of my life where that was me. I didn’t realize until I had a long stretch of time off how natural it seemed for me to be tired all the time. There’s no remedy for that except to get enough sleep.

Tom’s suffering from all that stuff that results from too little sleep and too much stress. If he keeps it up, he’ll be more likely to experience a wide range of debilitating conditions. It will probably shorten his life. It will make his life much less satisfying.

Tom is working a lot and always on call. A schedule like that poisons relationships. It steals time from those relationships. It makes it almost impossible to count on having an uninterrupted conversation with a loved one or a child. And there’s even more bad news.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that all that work and always being on call isn’t helping Tom’s productivity any. In fact, he’s probably less productive than he would be if he worked both less and smarter. Here’s how Morten Hansen describes the relationship between hours worked and productivity in his book, Great at Work.

“If you work between 30 and 50 hours per week, adding more hours on the job lifts your performance. But once you’re working between 50 and 65 hours per week, the benefit of adding additional hours drops off. And if you’re working 65 hours or more, overall performance declines as you pile on the hours.”

So, what should Tom do to make things better? What should you do if you’re like Tom?

Wrap Your Head Around the Issue

Most of the people I’ve talked with about this are aware that lots of negative stress and too little sleep can take a toll on them. They’re not as aware of how much the interruptions and the excessive hours can affect not just personal life but work productivity.

Since most folks who work all the time and too much imagine that those excess hours are making them more productive, this is an important first step. When you understand the reality, you’ll be willing to make a change.

Drive Some Stakes in The Ground

If you’ve always been available to your boss and your team members all the time, you won’t change this overnight. But you probably have more control than you think.

Establish some basic ground rules. One good one is to let team members know that you won’t be expecting them to respond to emails at all hours. Ask them and your boss to help you get more done with less time. Then decide when you want to have your time off.

Schedule Your Time Off

Most people who work hard, especially those of us who love what we do, tend to schedule our work and let our time off find its own space. You can make an amazing improvement in your quality of life by scheduling your time off.

If you need backup for this, read a Harvard Business Review article titled, “Making Time Off Predictable—and Required” by Leslie A. Perlow and Jessica L. Porter. Here’s a quick summary from HBR editors:

“The authors’ research in several offices of the Boston Consulting Group, however, suggests that consultants and other professionals can meet the highest standards of service and still have planned, uninterrupted time off—whether in good economic times or bad.”

Decide when you’re going to quit for the day. Put your vacation on the calendar now. If there’s special time you want to spend with your spouse or your kids, schedule it. Then hold it as sacred as you would anything else you schedule.

Develop A Shutdown Ritual

Many people who find themselves working extra hours during the day or taking calls and answering emails during their vacation do it because they haven’t drawn a clear line about when they want to be off. Having a shutdown ritual and checklist can help you do that.

Identify the few things that you need to do at the end of every day, so you won’t feel compelled to check email and work during the evening. Create a shutdown ritual where you go through the checklist and then close up for the day.

Do the same thing at the end of the week for the coming weekend. Yep, do it for vacation, too.

Bottom Line

Tom probably didn’t start out working the way he works now. It became a habit, and it happened gradually. Changing to a healthier and more productive work style won’t happen all at once either. Start small. Make a little progress every day. Celebrate your wins.

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