Most people I’ve encountered who work ridiculously long hours admit that they aren’t happy with their situation. Many of them see the inherent value in the familiar phrase, “nobody on their death bed wishes that they had spent more time in the office,” but can’t seem to use that phrase as a catalyst to change their behavior. They feel trapped by the external pressures surrounding them, and helpless to break free. Often they blame their circumstances. Common statements like “If only my boss wasn’t so demanding,” or “if my job didn’t have such tight deadlines,” or “if my peers didn’t work so many hours” serve as excuses for continuing their exhausting lifestyles.
I deeply empathize with those that feel the immense pressure to work longer and harder. I have, on occasion, succumbed to the external pressure to overwork. This pressure has caused me to work late nights, early mornings and on weekends. I have personally experienced the negative effects overworking can have on my physical and mental health, as well as on my family.
While I don’t claim to be an expert on effective solutions to improving work-life balance (it’s a constant work in progress for me), I do claim to know something about ineffectivesolutions. To me, diagnosing what doesn’t work has been just as insightful as exploring what does. I have personally tested the following five solutions to the work-life balance conundrum, and I can say with assurance that they are bogus.
Multi-tasking: It is difficult to find a job description today that doesn’t require the “ability to multi-task” as a core job skill. Our corporate culture is obsessed with it. Unfortunately, the human brain doesn’t agree with our corporate culture. In 2009, Stanford Professor Clifford Nass ran a study on those who considered themselves “high tech jugglers,” or, in other words, people who preferred to check email, watch TV, surf the internet, and perform other electronic activities simultaneously. The study found that the high multi-taskers turned out to be “suckers for irrelevancy,” and had trouble separating the elements that were relevant to complete the test with the distractions. The low multi-taskers, on the other hand, had less trouble ignoring those things that were irrelevant to their tasks, and were better at storing and organizing the information necessary to successfully complete the test. The paradoxical conclusion is that by doing less, people accomplish more.
Working Harder: This fake solution assumes that if there doesn’t appear to be time to get the work done, then employees should just apply more force—simply put their heads down and grind a little harder.
This could be a potential solution for lazy employees. But most employees in Corporate America aren’t lazy, and telling employees who are already working hard that the solution is to work harder is like telling the driver of a car which is stuck in the mud to floor the gas pedal. These individuals eventually “run themselves into the ground,” digging an even deeper pit for themselves from which it is hard to escape. What’s more, by working harder and harder, they set the wrong expectations for their employer—that they have superhuman strength and capacity beyond normal mortals. The problem in doing this is that the next time a deadline comes up, employers will expect the same breakneck pace as before. For the employees, the pit keeps getting deeper. It never stops.
Leveraging Technology: Over the last several decades, US labor productivity has increased exponentially, and we owe this increase primarily to advances in technology and innovation. The average US worker today is 4.3 times more productive than the average worker was in 1947, according to charts published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Inverting this figure illustrates that an employee today could work less than one fourth of the hours than someone in 1947 and achieve the same output. Even over the last 10 years, productivity has increased by 22%. Yet have you noticed people taking advantage of this phenomenon by reducing the number of hours they are working? Me neither.
In truth, technology isn’t reducing work; it’s just changing the rules of how we work. Now, instead of staying late in the office and missing a child’s soccer game, an employee can leave work in time to attend the soccer game, and then work on his or her mobile device from the field. This hardly feels like improvement in work-life balance.
Relying on Corporate Initiatives: Companies mean well. They really do. But asking a corporation to be in charge of your work-life balance is like asking McDonald's to help you manage your cholesterol. They may smile and nod at your request, but they have powerful ulterior motives.
There will never be people policing the corporate halls at 5 pm telling you to go home to your family or friends. Furthermore, every time you decide to put in extra hours, your company will happily accept your offering. And while there may be formal policies in place at your company that strive to help employees improve work-life balance, the responsibility will rest primarily with you.
Giving it 3 More Years: Alas, we reach the most dangerous solution of all! This one is a procrastination tool used to kick work-life balance problems down the road the way an irresponsible politician would handle a budget problem. The statements made by those who use this fake solution sound something like this: “I know my work-life balance is terrible right now, but if I can just get through these next three years, I will…” and then comes one or more of the following statements:
“Be in a better financial position that will allow me to focus on work-life balance”
“Be promoted and therefore have more autonomy to set my own schedule”
“Spend more time with my children”
“Make my spouse my number one priority”
“Take time to develop a hobby”
“Spend more time serving in my community”
“Re-connect with old friends”
“Take some time off to relax”
Three years. This is the magical number that is just close enough to trick employees into thinking they will actually change, but far enough away to ensure that they don’t have to start changing any time soon.
The notion of “giving it another three years” fails to acknowledge the reality of how things really work. Granted, after three years of hard work, many individuals do get promoted and are indeed in a better financial position then they were before. Yet those promotions generally don’t come with more freedom over their schedules. Rather, promotions are generally accompanied by increased pressure to perform. Instead of relaxation, employees get handed more responsibility. Instead of free time, they get more underlings to manage. The natural reaction to this increased money and responsibility is to reset the mental clock for another three years. And then another three, and another three…
For those of us in demanding corporate jobs, work-life balance is an ongoing challenge. Again, I’m not offering solutions to the problem here. But perhaps there is wisdom in the old adage, “when you are in a hole, the first step is to stop digging.” If we can at least avoid these fake solutions, perhaps we are already on the path to discovering the real ones.