You've stayed late at work every night this week, leaving your spouse and kids to have dinner without you. Or you're spending the weekend catching up on missed emails and tight deadlines. You try to have "quality time" but you can't remember the last time you just hung out with your kids or had lunch with a friend. Instead, you spend most of your time at your desk.
If this sounds familiar, you have lots of company. "Americans are stuck in overdrive," declares Jeremie Kubicek, co-author of 5 Gears: How to Be Present and Productive When There Is Never Enough Time. "In our desire to be more productive, move up the corporate ladder and grab that mythic brass ring we call success, we've forgotten how to do anything, it would seem, besides work."
In a recent BBC report, he adds, many Americans said they'd taken as few as five vacation days in the past year--or sometimes none at all. When asked why, they said things like, "Even when I'm on vacation, I can't relax because I'm worrying about work getting done."
"This is a problem," Kubicek says, and he's right. Work schedules like these are bad for our relationships, our health, and our emotional well-being. Not only that, it's actually pointless. There's ample research to show that you lose so much efficiency if you work more than 40 hours a week on an ongoing basis that it's actually counterproductive.
But what can we do? "The pressure to move the needle in business is real--if we don't sell enough products, keep our deadlines, launch the next great company, the wheels of progress will slow. And we do have real responsibilities, like providing for our families," Kubicek says. So it's natural for our work lives to feel like we're constantly in a race against the clock. "But there's an unintended consequence of staying in constant overdrive in our jobs," he says. "We will run over the very people we're working so hard to support and eventually we will completely burn out."
There is a better way, he says. "It requires developing a new mindset and learning how to shift gears." Here's how to get there:
1. Ask yourself some tough questions.
For example: "If today were my last day, would the people who really matter say I was there for them, or on the phone closing a deal for work?"
If you're not sure about the answer, go ahead and ask your partner, family members, or friends. Wanting a great career--and working very hard to have one--is fine. But if you're never available to the most important people in your life because you're too busy earning money to support them, you're doing something wrong. And it will likely backfire when they go off to seek love and emotional connection elsewhere and you find yourself alone.
2. Align your schedule with your priorities.
This won't and can't happen every day--don't expect that it will. Some days you'll have to prioritize your job. Other days a partner, friend, or family member will need your full attention. It's healthy to shift the weight of your attention back and forth, according to the needs of your loved ones and of your workplace.
But it's not OK if your priorities and the way you actually spend your time are out of sync over the long haul. "Do the math," Kubicek says. "If the main thing in your life is family, but you work 80 hours a week and are not emotionally present when you're at home, work wins. At what cost?"
3. Put relationships ahead of tasks.
"It's easy to get caught up focusing only on tasks, given the constant pressure to meet deadlines and keep within budgets," Kubecik says. But it's putting the focus in the wrong place. "Having relationships is the secret to both effective work teams and a happy home life," he says. "Be intentional in taking time to develop them."
4. Learn when to throw yourself into work, and when not to.
There are times when working long hours to meet a deadline or solve an immediate problem makes sense. But if you're doing it every day, or every week, you've got a problem. You may find then when you finally do take a day off you'll have been stuck in high-efficiency mode for so long that you've actually forgotten how to slow down and deeply connect with the people in your life.
When you finally do take time to focus on your personal relationships, it may even feel a bit awkward. "It'll become easier with practice," Kubicek says.
5. Make time to recharge.
And that means recharging whatever way works best for you. "Learn what recharge and rest look like for you--whether that's a golf game with friends or time alone to read a book," Kubicek says. Then make sure you make time in your schedule for whatever that is. "Being purposeful about taking time off and slowing down is key to connecting well with others and staying productive."