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  • Writer's pictureJames Lee

The Ugly Truth of Overworking

All those 9 to 5 work rules that are beat into our heads that serve to glamorize overworking and burn-out are just rubbish. I have worked with thousands of seniors, and not ONE person has ever told me, "I wish I had worked more." Not even close.

  • First in, Last out - know what burning the candle at both ends leaves you? No light.

  • Career First - your stockholders won't be at your funeral; your family will.

  • Sleep is For The Weak - you realize sleep deprivation is literally a torture technique?

  • Always Available - this inadvertently gives the message your team should be too.

I have had bosses that say "keep your head down" and "just kick ass at work" with that carrot-tone in their voice. You know that part of the song "Shout" by the Isley Brothers "a little bit louder now"? It's as if those bosses were singing to me, "a little bit harder now... a little bit longer now..."

My Truth

I have felt burn-out just like most of you reading this. I have also read many blogs and articles just like this one that espouse the values of not overworking. I have also rolled my eyes and said to myself, "that sounds nice, but let's get real - punching the clock is my reality." I used to think that I would just put my time in now - pay my dues - and that I could slow down when I am more successful. But there was my first true breakthrough: being in control of my own work schedule is HOW I would succeed. A few things I tested throughout my career that are now full-on parts of my every day work routine:

  1. No Emails on my Phone - at one my most busy jobs, I removed email from my phone. I didn't make an announcement of it - I just did it. I freaked out for about 2 months, but then I realized nobody mentioned anything. Ever. I actually became more proactive with my emails, and I stopped being enslaved to the buzz or trill of my phone.

  2. Naps/Sleep - I would find time to take a short nap in the mid-afternoon. Sometimes it would be in my office, or in my car, or since the pandemic days at home. You know that fresh-brained creativity you feel when you wake up in the morning? I have that twice a day now. I also go to bed and wake up around the same time 7 days/week.

  3. Deplete my PTO - I used to routinely waste PTO year after year. I was afraid that using PTO would do two things: leave me hanging when I really needed it for emergencies and signal that I wasn't dedicated to my work. I traded that for a new habit - routinely schedule PTO to do nothing other than enjoy a day to myself.

  4. Early Morning - I really do my best creative work in the morning. So, most mornings I'm up at 5:00 AM, and I do my creative work - either for my job or for my own benefit. This only works, because I go to bed early too.

  5. Broadcast my Self-Care - I let my team know (especially my direct reports) that I'm taking a day or couple days off to enjoy the day. Letting people know that you expect self-care from everyone and that not only was it okay to take days off but that I took them myself, this would signal expectations by example.

Want better work? Get better sleep! Here's a short video from Arianna Huffington.

The Ugly Truth

It isn't that you work for monsters or a greedy, no-heart corporate entity. The simple, ugly truth is that you are responsible for your own mindset. When I think back on it, all of these new and better habits I created for myself happened at the exact same companies where I created the bad ones in the first place - with the same exact bosses, the same exact titles, and the same exact work conditions.

There was no oppressive regime that battled me on it, and I was never disciplined for any perceived wrongdoing. In fact, the opposite happened. I became MORE effective at my work and a better leader to others. My productivity increased and remained sustainably high. The ugly truth was that I had been my own captor - not a company.

It is fear of our own self-worth that binds us to overcompensate with hours. At the end of life, people don't cling to their bosses or their companies as scapegoats. They reflect inward - knowing they had always been the captains of their own ships.

When we are uncertain of our quality, we mask our work with quantity.

What Can You Do?

For starters, don't take my word for it. I don't want you to think what I think. I would love for you to appreciate how I think. I approach most things with the open-minded attitude of "everything is a hypothesis" and then I test it. Those five work routines I wrote about earlier were all tested. Quietly and without fanfare. Over time, I realized the differences it made in my life.

Even now as I look at that list and the many other aspects of how I work, I view them as temporary truths. I leave room for the possibility (probability) that my views could evolve. They likely won't revert to "overwork is a sign of commitment" but they could evolve to new perspectives.

That's the point. Self-care and finding that harmony of life where work is just a part of your existence (not a balancing counterpoint to your life) is up to you. There is no monster under the bed. If, in truth, you have a toxic boss - leave them. Test your hypothesis that your work environment is the root cause of the stress and find a new one. You'll either learn that it was, in fact, your previous boss, or you'll learn that some of the toxicity is self-taught. Either way, you'll learn more of the truth.

Leave room for the possibility that it isn't a work culture that you succumb to but that you are the one who is contributing to the work culture. If you're the boss or the leader of a team, your habits are exponentially more influential to how others perceive their work and self-care habits.

Better outcomes begins with examining your habits. Change your habits and you can change your life. The good news is that you can test your theories in small chunks without anyone really knowing. Try it. Your future self will thank you for it.

Wishing you well and a good night's rest,


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