Friday, November 16, 2012

The Balancing Act

I've been thinking a lot about what is called "work/life balance" lately. Notice which word gets top billing?


I can still remember the day I realized my father didn't get summers off. That unlike the school year, the business year didn't have a break. It seemed unfair, and I wondered how he and every other adult could possibly deal with that - it was like going to school year-round!

Except that in my Dad's case, he also left not long after I did for school but arrived home several hours later. And for much of my childhood, he worked at least a half-day on Saturdays. My father co-founded a company which later went public, and its success had something to do with the extra hours that he and his co-workers put in.

But I also remember that Dad played squash regularly, stepping out of the office for a few hours each week. And he took regular, long vacations. Every few years we'd pack up the whole family and leave the country for a month or more, heading to exotic locations and adventure. And if we weren't doing that, it was off to sit on a beach for a week over the winter holidays.

Back in those days, there wasn't an internet or mobile phones. Even if there were, it's unlikely they'd have been available where we were going. We were truly disconnected.

The Start-Up

I recently talked with the CEO of a start-up who proudly told me he and his team regularly worked until 8:00 or even 10:00 PM. He said his team was really dedicated, and passionate about what they were working on.

He asked me what I thought of that. I told him I thought it was borderline exploitative, and it sounded like his team was under-resourced. I pointed out that most contemporary research demonstrates that worker productivity tails off dramatically after 6 hours.

In the case of tech jobs, it's a big deal. Bad, sloppy, or buggy work impacts far more people than just the person doing the initial work. Overwork makes more waste than haste.

In my experience, long hours just burn people out. Especially if they're working on something they care about and are good at what they do. You'll end up watching them all walk out the door sooner than you'd like.

Throwing more hours at something isn't much better than just throwing more money at it. But you can always get more money. And you can't get any more time.

The Sprinters

One of the founders of 37Signals, a successful company, recently noted in an interview that in the summer, his staff only works 4 days a week. When asked if people could work more days if they wanted, he said yes, but the company actively discouraged it.

He said it was important for his employees to enjoy life, and to be in a place where they wanted to come to the office and do a great job while they were there. His company had found the limited hours made the employees both more productive and happier.

He is one of the authors of "Rework", a book which both reflected and affected my own thoughts about work. Since I first read it, I buy a copy for every office I work in, and gave a copy to each person on my current team.

Ultimately, it is a book that suggests you work smarter, not harder, as the saying goes. Focus on the parts of your job where you add the most value, and simply ignore the rest.

This type of thinking, contrary to typical business logic, is usually written about with the print equivalent of an arched eyebrow and slightly mocking tone. "Isn't this wacky and unusual?"

That type of hype, or at least aspiration, has also driven the success of Tim Ferriss, whose "4 Hour Work Week" takes things to an extreme. Ferriss is unusual, and his main industry and success seem to be marketing himself and his books, but I give him credit for being a bold and unusual role model in a society that still thinks the people who get up at 5:00 am and don't get home until after 9:00 pm are not only "smart" but something to emulate.

The Colleague

One of the people I work with recently resigned, after working hard for years. This person was a major asset for the company I'm working for, and their loss is disruptive in the short term and will result in additional long-term challenge for our organization. They're leaving because they're tired of working. Burnt.

Another former colleague has this life pattern: he takes a great job, works like a maniac for a couple years, does amazing things, and then snaps and quits. He cites burnout and lack of a life and relationship. He takes a few months off. Then he starts the exact same cycle over again.

I think of how much companies invested in these people, these human resources. The hiring was difficult enough. But after even a few years, even a merely good employee is incredibly valuable to an organization because they're trained, they have domain knowledge, they know how to get things done. The stakes only rise as the years pass.

A Gloved Hand Typing On An iPhone, Forever

If you're reading this, you probably work in a "modern" office. Which means you have a smartphone and at least one computer. Both are likely issued and/or paid for by your employer, with the agreement (explicit or tacit) that you will be available electronically almost all the time.

Like me, you probably start reading and responding to email over your morning coffee. Maybe that's 5 am. Maybe it's 7 am. You might work through lunch, reading email or meeting with someone. You might have a business dinner. You probably look at email before you go to sleep, whenever that is.

And you probably have a commute at some point in your day, even if it's not rush hour, or even if it's on some sort of employer-sponsored bus.

If you figure that all that stuff is actually "work", your work day has probably stretched out to 10-12 hours easily. In my own case, it's not uncommon to send my first email at 5:30 am and my last at 11:30 pm. Don't even get me started on business travel.

My company is global. It never sleeps. I can clear my inbox and within 4 hours, I will have 50 new emails. Doesn't matter if it's 11 pm or 11 am, or what time zone I'm in.

Yeah, we can look at Facebook or order something from Amazon "on the clock", but really, when else are we going to do that?

In some sense, we're always working. The lines between our personal and professional lives grow ever blurrier, and telecommuting (driven by our petroleum-challenged future) is blurring the lines between our personal and professional spaces as well. I expect this trend to continue, and for those lines to nearly vanish for the next generation.

That is a significant change, and one that has occurred during my relatively short working career.

The Joke

One of my mentors once told me a work joke I repeat quite frequently.
A young lumberjack watches an older lumberjack who seems to stand around a lot and doesn't appear to work very hard. Irritated by the old man's laziness, the young man challenges him to a tree-felling contest. The old man laughs and agrees. 
The next day, they start at the appointed time. The young man and old man begin sawing away. After about 45 minutes, the young man sees the old man stop and walk away. 15 minutes later the old man returns. The young man shakes his head and keeps working. 
Throughout the day, the young man watches the old man through sweat-blurred eyes, and unbelievably, sees the old codger has to stop every 45 minutes to rest! The young man is sure he's got this in the bag. 
But at the end of the day, when the trees are counted, the old man has beaten the young man by a sizeable margin.  
The young man, thrashed and tired, says "Grampa, I gotta know - how did you manage to take a break every 45 minutes and still beat me?" 
The old man smiles and says "I wasn't taking a BREAK. I was sharpening my saw!"

In many ways, this story describes my desired approach to work. It's not the hours that you put in - it's the results. And sometimes the best results come from stepping away for a while. Exercising or reading or taking a walk or getting a coffee with someone. Then returning with a fresh perspective - a sharpened saw.

Working Hard to Not Work Hard

When people ask me about my own work ethic, I say "I work very hard to make sure I don't have to work very hard." Like a talented musician, I put in a lot of effort behind the scenes to make it look easy on stage.

I look at regular long hours as a failure. I didn't anticipate something. I didn't manage a project correctly. I messed up. Or I simply have too much work to be effective at all of it.

I spend a lot of time measuring and thinking before cutting and executing. Execution matters for a lot (if not everything) in business, and without a good plan, one cannot execute.

I work hard on not wasting time, mine or anyone else's.

I try hard to keep my saw sharp, to leave work at work, and to take regular vacations where possible, even if just for a few days. I try not to look at email all the time, all weekend long.

I even try to get out of the office for a reasonable sit-down lunch with friends and colleagues at least once a week.

Really, I don't want to put in that many hours at the office or anywhere. I have other interests outside of work. Those interests and that time to think are some of the very things that I think make me good at the work I do.

And when something truly important comes up I want to make sure I have the energy and passion in reserve to devote to it.

I've also learned - several times, the hard way - there are things far more important than work. There's always going to be more work. There isn't always going to be more LIFE.

A Cyborg Future

There are those who argue that we have no choice. The only way to keep a job and stay competitive is to go all in, and perhaps beyond human limits. Needless to say, the prospect is not entirely appealing to me.

How do you balance your work and your life? Do you?

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