Breaking Free From Overwork Tendencies

by Gary Gilles

I talk with a lot of worn-out people. Most of these people are overworked and on  the verge of burnout. They say they want more work-life balance in  their lives but this goal seems to elude them. Most of these folks typically work an average 40-50 hours a week, in addition to their commute. That is manageable for most people. What puts them into the overworked category and primed for burnout is the “second shift. ”

This second shift begins when you leave your full-time job and start the endless list of activities that leave you little or no discretionary time to replenish your physical and emotional reserves. These second-shift activities include: running errands, picking up kids at various locations and buying dinner before arriving home. This is followed by a hurried meal, more chauffeuring, a meeting, helping with homework, putting kids to bed, phone calls, dishes and paying bills. There may be even more that you try to squeeze in before you fall into bed exhausted. The overworked or burned out person typically tries to make up for a lack of time by “stealing” from their sleep. They wake up tire the next morning to start another day of the double shift. Do you know anyone who keeps a schedule like that?

This describes my life on certain days. In fact, many people I know live life as if they had two full-time jobs. Perhaps this describes you. If so, you are among the majority of Americans who feel they are always working, even when they are at home. The values of productivity usually found in the workplace have seeped into our “free time.” And it is wearing us out.

But does life need to be this exhausting and frenetic? Is it possible to create a work/life balance in this stressed-filled world we live in? I think it is. But it requires that we make changes in the way we approach our work lives. I’m going to offer three suggestions as a starting point:

  • Deliberately slow the pace and intensity of your life
  • Make a work plan
  • Learn to say “no” to urgent demands

Slow your pace and intensity

The idea of slowing down is scary to some people. They are so accustomed to moving in perpetual motion they never give serious thought to using their time in any other way. Multi-tasking is viewed as a necessity to get through the day. But living continually at this pace is very stressful and diminishes the quality of your life.

When we deliberately slow down, we are forced to make decisions about how we will use our limited time. We have to because we are choosing to do less. Instead of spouting energy in all directions simultaneously, we focus that energy in one direction at a time. This enables us to do what we do more thoroughly, deliver better quality, and enhances our engagement and satisfaction with the work.

It also forces us to be mindful of our values. The truly important activities or people will get the energy they deserve and those items lower on our list must wait or perhaps even be put off until much later.

Here are some simple but effective ways to begin slowing down:

  • Slow the pace at which you walk. Look around you, especially when you are outside. Glance up at the sky and notice the shape of the clouds; feel the breeze on your face, etc.
  • When eating, take smaller bites, chew your food more slowly, taste the flavors. Too often food is simply “refueling” and not the enjoyable experience it can be.
  • Choose your words more carefully in conversation. This will force you to talk more slowly and become more aware of what’s being said. Search for words that clearly communicate what you want to say.
  • When driving, lighten up on the accelerator. Leave a few extra minutes so that you don’t have to weave in and out of traffic, tailgate, or get yourself worked up over slow drivers.

Others will become evident to you as you develop a new life rhythm. Those who are willing to choose slower ways of living often find they enjoy life more, feel less stressed and, believe it or not, get more done. They are also more satisfied with their work because they are attending the things in their life that are most important.

And that leads us to our next point.

Make a work plan

Most people spend enormous amounts of time on trivialities that are unnecessary at the moment. This means the truly important matters get pushed aside. If this happens often enough you might find yourself moving from one deadline or scheduling crisis to another. “Dan” was one such person who came to counseling for stress-related concerns.

Dan told me how he spends most of his evenings and weekends at work trying to stay ahead of his workload. His wife and children resented his employer because his work responsibilities left him little time at home. After asking Dan to tell me about his job and specific responsibilities I asked him to tell me how he organized his daily time. He said his normal work hours were always 8-5 so there was no reason to keep any kind of calendar. It was not a calendar I was interested in, but in how he prioritized his workload for a given day. He had no plan. In fact, after I asked him to keep an hourly log of his work time for an entire week, he found that he was spending an average 2-3 hours a day chatting with co-workers, checking email, filing documents, and answering the phone. None of which was essential to his main job description.

With practice, he was eventually able to turn that “wasted” time into productive accomplishment. This resulted in him rarely needing to work overtime, gave him much more time with his family, and restored a sense of work/life balance that produced more satisfaction with his job.

An effective work plan includes both job and personal life events. It involves recording on paper what the events, projects, and commitment are, realistically estimating how much time each will take, and plotting your course of action to accomplish them. By putting this on paper, you make the plan concrete. If you want to increase the likelihood that you will stick with your plan, tell someone who will hold you accountable for it.

As helpful as slowing your life’s pace and making a work plan are to creating work/life balance, both can be derailed if you don’t practice the third idea.

Learn to say “no” to urgent demands

There is no shortage of urgent requests that confront us in a normal day. Some of these, no doubt, must be attended to. But many, if not most, only have the appearance of needing immediate attention. I’ve found that people who tend to let urgent requests run their schedules interpret these requests by others as obligations instead of choices.  I’ll use an example from a student I’ll call Gloria who recently attended one of my stress-management workshops.

Gloria told the class that she was stressed out because she had so many “troubled people in her life that constantly needed her.” Every day a new “emergency,” as she called it, would come up, taking her away from her job, family, or other responsibilities. One of the other students asked her why she felt she needed to be the caretaker for all of these people. Her response: “Because these people depend on me. They have no one else.” Another student asked, “Why don’t you occasionally say ‘no’ to them; telling them you have personal commitments that keep you from helping at that moment?” She began to cry and said, “I don’t feel like I have the option to do what’s best for me.”

After interacting with Gloria for a day, I would call her a classic “people-pleaser.” She rearranges her life to accommodate others so they will like her and give her the respect she longs for. The problem is not her desire to help others, but her willingness to disrupt her life when someone makes a request. She doesn’t give herself the option to say ‘no.’ As a result, her health is poor, her family in disarray, and she’s at risk of losing her job.

It’s perfectly acceptable to say ‘no’ to urgent requests that come your way. Don’t say ‘yes’ when that small voice inside is screaming ‘no.’ Respect your time and your limited energy. If responding to a discretionary “emergency” means you are inviting unwelcome stress, forces you to waver from your work plan, or puts you in a position you don’t want to be in, simply say ‘no.’ Elaborate explanations of why you can’t accommodate them are not necessary.

Breaking free of overwork tendencies is more about changing what happens inside of you than trying to change your environment. The reality is, we live in a stressful, demanding culture. None of us can do much to change that. But you can change your response to how fast you move, how focused you are to accomplish the work that is most important to you, and choose those things that are in your best interest. And that’s a great start to toward a satisfying work/life balance.

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