You are a youngish employee in an organization dominated by Baby Boomer bosses. They work hard and they look disapprovingly on anyone who leaves work early and is not tethered 24/7 to their smart phone and email. They expect you to be constantly on call, and when you hunger for a better work-life balance, they feel you are somehow less committed, and you worry about how their disapproval will impact your career.
Everyone is overworked, and your organization has been through more rounds of downsizing and outsourcing than you can count. You have to do more with less, and everything seems important. Your work week seems to be continually expanding, and you are feeling more disconnected from your family, your hobbies, and your friends. Your spouse says you are getting crabbier all the time.
It feels like you are on a treadmill that has no off switch. If you go on vacation, or even take a day off, the emails just seem to pile up so that it feels like you have to work double time upon your return. You wonder why you took the vacation in the first place, and all the while you were off, you were stressing about what was going to be waiting for you when you returned.
(According to the latest survey by Expedia, on average, Americans earned 14 vacation days this year but used only 12. Those 12 days are low compared to vacation days taken by employees in other countries. In France, Spain, Denmark, and Brazil, workers receive 30 vacation days on average, and they take each of those vacation days.)
Sound too familiar? So some of what you face is probably the nature of your company culture, and you probably can’t much affect that from where you sit, but isn’t some of your work-life balance pain self-inflicted?
At Xavier Leadership Center, we think so and believe you CAN devise some strategies to help you keep up and get out of work earlier. Three recent articles by CBS’s Amy Levin-Epstein call attention to this problem and offer some advice about how to make the situation better. The first is called “3 Ways to be Instantly More Efficient at Work”, the second is “Why Most Meetings Are a Waste of Time, and What to Do About It“, and the last is called “3 Tips for Leaving the Office at 5”
First, you have to reach a mental point when you can convince YOURSELF that “enough is enough”. Until you resolve to change something about your work style, you are not likely to succeed. (We hope you reach the conclusion well before you develop health problems or marital ones.) It may help you to do a kind of self-assessment exercise (please contact me if you would like to get a couple of simple ones that force you to look at what is in and what’s out of balance in your personal and professional life).
For me, it took a trip to the emergency room one day with chest pains. Thankfully, it was not a heart attack, but one caused by anxiety. For me, at least, it was the wake-up call I needed. (Again, we urge you not to wait for the scare.)
When you finally reach that point when you are ready to try some new approaches to getting out earlier, here are some tips suggested by either me or Levin-Epstein:
1) Decide before you start that you are going to leave at a specific time. Choose a time that is 30 minutes or more – earlier than is normal for you. Think about it as if you had an important doctor’s appointment or dinner reservations to get to. The pressure of that self-imposed deadline may help you stay focused on pacing yourself better during the day.
2) Turn off the email noise. While you may have a job that makes you need to be receiving email messages, at least turn off your alert noise that some mail servers ring when new emails arrive. It will help you complete tasks you were in the middle of – before getting distracted by that next email. I have seen some people who put a note on their email saying that they check emails ONLY at 2 or 3 specific times during the day, and not to expect a response in between. (you might add that if it is a real emergency, to call your cell or some other number.)
3) Create an organized priority (to-do) list, and stick to it. This is a ritual you should get yourself into at the same time each day, say before you go home (make you action list for the following day, and put them in priority order.
4) Put the larger tasks first. Start the day attacking the “A” items on your list first. Get them out of the way first. So, if you run short of time, at least will have gotten the more challenging tasks off your list.
5) Schedule private meetings with yourself. What’s wrong with going to your outlook calendar and scheduling meetings with ONLY yourself when you can have some private time to work on your projects? Others using the group scheduling feature on Outlook will see you are not available and will likely leave you alone during those times. If you have an office – close the door.
6) Get away from your normal work space. It may help you to grab one of your company’s “huddle” rooms, conference rooms or even camp out in the company cafeteria. This makes it more likely that you can work undisturbed. If you have a job that permits it, work at home for a couple of hours in the morning or late in the day where you can better control your interruptions.
7) Don’t go to needless meetings. If you receive a meeting invitation, ask the organizer “. . . to please send me an agenda, meeting goal, what role you are asking me to fulfill, and what am I expected to do to prepare”. Depending on the response you get, you may better be able to conclude that the meeting is a waste of your time. Don’t be afraid to decline those meetings at which you can’t add much. You might even consider saying – “I really think you guys can handle this fine without me, please send me a meeting summary, and feel free to call me if you run into an issue that needs me to resolve.”
8) Avoid Informational Meetings. If people schedule meetings for the purpose of sharing information rather than for planning, brainstorming, or problem solving, you might ask if they can maintain the communication in written form – when you can read it on your own time.
9) For meetings you organize be better prepared, and make sure others are as well. Never have a meeting without: a) an agenda stating the meeting purpose, and discussion points; b) define what you want people to do to prepare (e.g. collect information, think about some issue, develop some proposals etc.); and c) set a time limit (I recommend an odd time like 45 min (instead of an hour) and establish the discipline of starting on time and leaving at the appointed stop time.) During the meeting, allow time for discussion and debate, but set a time limit and cut the discussion off when you reach it. Draw the meeting to a specific conclusion – asking for a vote (if that is your style) to thanking people for their input if you plan to consider it and make the decision by yourself.
10) In your meetings, BE a process “cop”. Make sure to cut people off if they are ranting, engaging in blaming others, or grand-standing. After a little of this people will learn to stick to the constructive input.
11) Stop Multi-tasking. Evidence shows that multi-tasking is NOT efficient. Do one thing at a time and then move on.
Go ahead, give some of these a try, and then let us know if they helped.