ALC English Journal Article April 2014

Work Life Balance

QUESTION: Tips for successful time management: I work from 9 AM to 9 PM, and by the time I go home and finish eating dinner it’s already nearly midnight. How can I balance my career with other parts of my life and make the most of my scarce free time?

ANSWER: Occasionally working 12 hours a day makes sense, but routinely working overtime is counterproductive! More than two weeks of overwork causes productivity to drop to about 80%. Personally I’ve found that when I live like this I make more mistakes and become impatient, which creates problems with my colleagues. All of this further increases my stress level and reduces the chances that I’m accomplishing something valuable.

Here are six simple experiments to help you break out of this negative cycle:

  1. Track how you spend your time. At the end of a typical day take a few minutes to write down everything that you did. What do you notice? When I did this I realized that I was going to meetings I really didn’t need to attend. Recognizing your unproductive patterns is the first step to changing them.
  1. Take “creativity breaks”. Every hour or two walk away from your work and do something that refreshes you. Go for a walk, listen to a favorite song, chat socially with a co-worker, or just stare out of a window. You will find that your work time is far better spent after even a brief rest.
  1. Do a “less than perfect” job. Perfection is required in brain surgery and when launching a satellite into outer space. However, often “good enough” is good enough! It takes judgment to know when perfection matters and when it doesn’t. Use yours to identify tasks where perfection is not required, and purposely stop working on this task before it’s absolutely perfect.
  1. Stop doing something. Are you doing some things that no one else cares about? I’ve heard many people complain about spending dozens of hours creating reports that no one reads. My advice? Stop doing this work! Or at least make your report shorter each time, leaving out more and more detail, until someone complains.
  1. Go home on time. Even if you’re not done with your work, just leave! Walk through the door, go home, have dinner, read a good book, and go to sleep. Don’t worry, your work will be waiting for you the next day!
  1. Work from home. Going to an office makes sense when you need to see other people face-to-face, but you don’t need to go to the office just to talk on the phone or work on your computer. Working from home at least one day a week is an option for many professionals, you just need to ask!

Working yourself to exhaustion day after day may make you feel busy, but this is often only creating the illusion that you are achieving results. The next time you are tempted to overwork ask yourself “When do I get my best ideas and when am I most productive?” Most people will NOT answer “. . . when hunched over my computer for hours, sleep deprived, and exhausted.”

It’s unlikely that your boss will come to you and beg you to stop working so many hours, so you’re just going to have to make these changes for yourself. Experiment with different ways of behaving, or when you retire you’re going to look back and ask yourself “What happened to my life?” What a pity that would be!

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