One thing I recognize as I look back on my career, and as I get older, is that sanity is a very delicate balance. Just watch the news and you’ll see how frequently someone goes off the deep end. In retrospect, I can see where there were a couple of times in my career when I danced very close to insanity.
One time, in particular, I was working three jobs. I got a promotion from temp to perm status at my full-time job and decided that wasn’t enough. I went out in search of an additional part-time job and came up with two. I was working day and evening, seven days a week.
One night while driving home from one of those jobs, I had a momentary hallucination that almost caused me to stop my car in the middle of the road. Luckily, I got home safely, got some sleep, and realized I needed a day off every couple of weeks.
Another time, later in my career I managed to push myself to the edge working just one job. Determined to impress my boss, earn a corner office and increase my salary, I threw myself into every project that came across my desk. I was working so hard for our clients that we doubled our billing to them over an eight-month period.
One secret to my success was my willingness to get in the car and go see the client for face-to-face meetings. This personal touch also engaged more supporters and industry experts, although it kept me on the road more than I was home. One night, after another long day, I felt a familiar calm come over me as I entered my room. I realized at that moment that although it was a nice hotel, my perspective was warped by too many hours living my work.
Looking back, I never felt like I achieved any goals commensurate with the extreme efforts I put forth. Pushing myself to the edge of sanity was not worth the reward.
Balancing What’s Important
But up to this point in your career, achievement has come through dedication and hard work. Pushing yourself is how you got where you are and how you hope to continue to grow into an admirable leader. What could be more important?
In school, I was a music student right through high school graduation. It was my devotion, my infatuation, and my vocation. Never mind that my talent was only average, and my parents convinced me I would never make any money pursuing music as a career.
I got something more important than money, however, out of my musical pursuits. I had the opportunity to learn from some amazing individuals, and carry those lessons over into the rest of my life. One lesson I remember very clearly: play through the rests.
Several music teachers used this phrase to emphasize the importance of the silence between notes. A composition is made up of a series of notes and rests, each contributing equally to the end result. When you are not producing sound, you are still performing. The rests are an essential part of the song.
Since much of the work I do is of a creative nature, this concept occurs to me often. I can turn out written content for a variety of clients all day long, but eventually, I have to rest. When the words start coming more slowly and the ideas seem a bit jumbled, its time for a break.
I have learned through experience how to maximize my creative output. The time I spend not working is equally important to the efforts I make on the job. Building a balance between the two is a constant struggle.
What is Hard Work?
Our work ethic has taken a drastic turn in recent decades. We can blame it on technology making communication faster or bringing our work and personal lives closer together. Or we can blame it on some intangible shift is societal norms and values. (I hear you whispering, the Millennials.)
Regardless of the reason, the measure of hard work somehow morphed from the volume of output to the amount of time and energy expended. The goal seems to be to work harder, not smarter.
Being on-call was once reserved for medical professionals and others who dealt in life and death. Now it is a status symbol for any American worker to be available to customers and the boss at any time of day or night.
Working on the weekends used to earn you special compensation. Now it is the norm and what is expected from people who are serious about career success. This type of work ethic on steroids may be what got you to a management position, but it will not win you any leadership awards.
A fundamental part of leadership is setting an example for those you lead. They will not just look to you for advice and instructions on the tasks you assign to them. They will also see you as a role model for career success. Subconsciously, if not consciously, they believe if they conduct themselves the way you do, they can earn their way up the ladder, too.
If you are a workaholic mess, you are leading your team over the cliff of insanity. Remember, if you are not breathing, you are no help to others. Here are some tips to refine your own work ethic to maintain a firm grasp of your sanity.
Establish efficient work routines
Routine may seem boring, but it gets the job done. Think of Steve Jobs and his black turtleneck. I’m sure he was not a fashion icon, and perhaps his consistency was a personal branding ploy, but his routine had merit. By eliminating the need to make basic decisions each day, he freed up space in his brain to consider more complicated matters.
Take all the mundane tasks that are necessary parts of your day and automate them. Create a routine for parking your car at the office and grabbing your coffee, checking and sorting emails, and reviewing daily status reports. You will never forget to do any of these tasks or be distracted in the middle of them. When organized properly in a daily routine, your mundane tasks can be completed in a minimum amount of time.
Schedule breaks from work
When you lead a team, it is easy to believe that you have to work all the time. This belief over-emphasizes your importance and is simply not true. It also under-values your team’s ability to complete their assignments without your intervention.
Schedule a time each week when you will be away from work, and get away. It can be that hour when you go to the gym, have coffee with a friend, or walk in the park. Make it the same day and time every week, so your team can get used to you being away.
A break from work means you do not answer your phone or check email. This is not a time when you visit customers or check with suppliers about an overdue order. Do not even think about work during this break. It will get easier with practice.
Mention non-work-related activities
Make a point of referencing your activities outside of work in daily conversations at the office. Doing this will reinforce the idea, to you and your team, everyone has a life. Work may be important but it is not the only idea on your mind. You are a well-rounded person, not a working robot. You want your team to see this, too.
Take it a step further and ask your employees about their activities outside of work. Assume people spend their weekends pursuing their life, and express an interest in those activities. These conversations, although not productive in a work sense, instill a value for work-life balance. They can be a frequent touchstone keeping everyone connected to their own sanity.
Set reasonable goals
You may have attained your goal of reaching management before your 30th birthday, and you might even be the youngest partner in your firm. What you do now that you have arrived will be the true definition of your career. You want to live long enough to enjoy your legacy.
Be honest about what you can accomplish in a day. There is no need to be super-human. With practice, you will become better at your job, and you might even create some shortcuts. Taking the time to pay attention to details while cranking out your best work is a reward to your self-esteem that cannot be matched by a pat on the back from your boss.
I am not a psychologist or an expert in any form of science. I do observe human behavior, however, and have done some reading on the subject of stress and mental health. From my layperson’s perspective, I would boil it down this way: poor work habits cause stress which can lead to a breakdown of healthy mental processing.
Part of being a leader is taking care of yourself, so you are setting a good example for others and optimizing your own abilities to lead. The best leaders have a regular process for introspection. They judge their own performance, make adjustments, and keep growing.
During your next quarterly review, consider your mental health. If you are dancing too close to the edge, make changes to protect your sanity. The long-term results will be increased productivity and a healthier, happier life. Isn’t that the definition of success?