Consider the following: Works long hours. Carries wireless device everywhere. On the phone at kid’s soccer game. Checks in frequently over vacation.
Does this describe your life? If you’re like the hundreds of executive education students I teach each year at the Harvard Business School, you point to the hours you work, the places from which you work (even on vacation), the times at which you work (even when supposed to be spending time with family and friends), the fact that your wireless device is never far from reach, and declare without any hesitation that you’re always “on”. And, you probably declare yourself an addict.
But what are you addicted to? Your wireless device? Work? These are the most common suspects, but I would argue that many — if not most — of us are addicted to success. We are successaholics not workaholics. We’re obsessed with work because of the satisfaction we get from the kudos for achievement, not because of some deep-seeded satisfaction from working long hours, as an end in itself. And what this means is that it is the definition of success, not some ingrained personality issue, that is at the source of why we are always on. If this is true, then turning off requires changing what we value in each other, not changing ourselves.
Tad, a participant in one of my recent studies, is a great example of how easy it is to confuse a successaholic with a workaholic. Tad is a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group. When I proposed the idea of turning off for discrete periods of time — with the full support of his manager — Tad explained to me: “It’s going to be really hard to let go… even on weekends, I cannot let go… I’m always thinking about work.” Tad was used to taking his Blackberry everywhere and whether during work meetings, his best friend’s wedding, or quiet moments with his nine month old daughter, he kept checking it to avoid being caught off guard with the “oh my god, Tad, this is blowing up” call.
But Tad was part of a team on which I was conducting an experiment. The experiment was to have each team member turn off for one night a week. Starting at 6 pm, for that one night, they were to do absolutely no work — not even to check their wireless devices. They were to completely disengage from work. Each person’s night off was set well in advance and was not supposed to change, even if suddenly there was a client deliverable the next day. And, each week the team met to discuss their progress, with each team member being required to share whether they had taken their night off, and if not, why not. Suddenly, always being on was not the badge of honor that it once had been. Rather, team members were publicly applauded for taking their time off — even the night before a major deliverable — and they were shunned for failing to take their nights off.
Tad like so many others was initially resistant to this plan. He saw this as causing more stress not less. As he said, it interfered with his ability to keep on top of what was happening, always.
Yet, several weeks into the experiment, Tad reported with delight: “It was the first Saturday in three years I did not check my Blackberry!” And soon it was other times as well. Disconnecting from work had once been almost inconceivable and undesirable, but as a result of being “forced” to work with his teammates to do it and make it possible for each other, Tad learned that disconnecting was not just feasible but it enabled him to be more productive and fulfilled. He became so taken with the positive benefits for himself, and his teams, that he went on to become one of the biggest champions of managing teams that worked together to turn off for discrete and predictable units of time each week.
Watching Tad, and so many others like him, taught me that people who appear to be thriving on the nonstop workweek are really thriving on a job well done. And, as soon as the definition of success changes, so too does their behavior. Tad who had once been convinced he was a workaholic discovered he could not only turn off, but he treasured the opportunity to do so. Note: Had Tad been a workaholic as he believed he was, changing what was expected of him by others would have had little effect on his experience of turning off.
What about you? Are you addicted to your work? Or is it really the validation that comes from doing a good job? What would happen if people started holding it against you when you stayed late, emailed after certain hours, called in on vacation? Your first reaction is likely one of anxiety, not delight. But push yourself to think harder about what would happen. Can you even imagine how you might spend the time off? What if you were not only expected to turn off, but your team provided you a support network to make it possible?
My advice: Try working with your team to make this happen — support each other in turning off and you might be surprised how much you like it.
Via Harvard Business Review