Where do our priorities in life really lie?
Why do we continually hold people who aren’t good role models for a satisfying and productive life out as shining examples of how to live?
Take CEOs for example. I’ve read countless articles extolling the virtues of the CEO who sleeps four hours a night and is constantly plugged in to text, email, smoke signals, and every other means of communication.
Coaches are another example of illogically canonized workaholics. Almost every sports fan can name some coach who supposedly sleeps in his office with a film projector whirring in the background.
Maybe it’s that good old Protestant work ethic on which America was founded that causes us to put these people on pedestals. Yeah well, one look at the famous American Gothic painting tells me all I need to know about what a life of all work and no play does to a person over time.
A coach named Dick Vermeil can tell you a thing or two about it, too. He became the poster child for coaching burnout when he abruptly quit his job with the Philadelphia Eagles at the height of his career in the mid-1980s.
It took him over 10 years to return to the sidelines. Even then, some wire remained permanently loosened by the stress of his former ways, causing him to inexplicably cry during nearly every press conference.
These sorts of leaders are successful in spite of their obsessive practices, not because of them. Their unhealthy habits actually hinder their productivity instead of helping it, and their lifestyles are nothing to emulate.
Their health and relationships often suffer from neglect. And even if they’re too blinded by ambition to see it, their work also suffers from the stress of never pulling back and taking a real break.
We’re finally starting to learn that there might be a better way than simply putting blinders on and working your fingers to the bone. Every once in a while, I actually hear a story about someone who does things a little differently and still achieves success.
I have a part-time job as a strength and conditioning coach for a prominent university. The strength and conditioning profession is also notorious for a culture of overwork.
Coaches in many programs arrive before 6 a.m. and remain at the facility until 8 or 9 p.m. Even when there’s no scheduled team workout, like on a Sunday afternoon, many sport coaches—football being one of the worst offenders—insist that strength and conditioning staff be around “just in case” some player wants to make up a workout, or get in an extra session.
Recently, I was shocked to hear of a major university football program that insists all its coaches, both the position coaches and the strength and conditioning staff, leave the building for the day by 3 p.m. Sure, most of them probably still start their days by 6 a.m. and put in nine hours, but they’re home with their families for after-school activities and dinner every evening except when traveling to away games.
And guess what? This particular program’s win-loss record hasn’t suffered at all. In fact, they’ve had more bowl appearances the last five years than the previous 20 years combined.
Maybe if we do things right, wins and losses aren’t even correlated with hours worked.
Maybe with a little planning and efficient time management, profitability isn’t either.
So what can you do to achieve better balance in your life?
1. Set expectations for your work day.
This is easier to do if you’re beginning a new position than if you’re trying to change the way you’ve been doing things for years—but it’s not impossible. Just be clear and unequivocal. Take charge of your own well-being by letting your supervisor and subordinates know that, barring an emergency, you’ll be arriving and leaving each day at a certain time. Build in a couple of short stretch breaks each day, and take 30 minutes away from your desk to eat lunch. That mouse pad really isn’t a place mat!
Once you put this schedule into place, stick to it. If you start making too many exceptions and slipping back into your old ways, they’ll think you’re not serious. And they’ll have good reason to think that way—your actions will be proving them correct.
2. Start working out.
Better yet, I’ll be specific—start lifting weights, and that applies across the board, whether you’re a man or woman, young or old, overweight or underweight.
Of course the strength coach would advise lifting weights, but it’s just about the best thing you can do to relieve stress and improve your health. A little every other day, say 30 minutes, is better than a lot one day and nothing for several. On the non-lifting days, use that 30 minutes to go for a brisk walk.
Schedule a few sessions with a good coach who can show you how to perform basic, compound lifts—squats, deadlifts, bench presses, overhead presses, rows, and chins—with barbells and dumbbells. I have no financial interest in this recommendation, but a certified “Starting Strength” coach would certainly be qualified to teach proper form and outline a sensible training program.
And remember the 80/20 rule as it applies to your workouts. Eighty percent of them are just going to be average. You’ll put in the work but nothing great will stand out. Twenty percent of them (one out of every five) will be outstanding. Enjoy those, but don’t fret over the others. Establishing that consistent habit of training regularly through life’s ups and downs is the key to success, not being a world champion in any single session.
3. Schedule family time.
You put work appointments on a calendar, right? Well start putting chill time with your family on there too, even if you don’t have specific plans to go somewhere.
It’s easy to think we have all the time in the world, but we really don’t. Kids don’t stay little forever. Parents are aging faster than we realize.
My own eyes were opened recently when I started teaching a wheelchair strength training class to seniors at a group home. Part of my duties include logging their names and birth dates in a computer program. As I was logging them, I realized 75 percent of them are younger than my own mother, who luckily still maintains her independence. But she won’t forever, so right now is the time to put a note on my calendar to regularly call her and to stop making excuses and schedule that visit.
4. Sex needs to happen.
Intimacy with your partner is another important thing that’s likely to get pushed to the back burner if you don’t prioritize it. We make a big deal in our society about romance and spontaneity. Sex is always spur of the moment and unplanned in the movies. Yeah, well, it’s a Goddamn movie people!
You know what’s really unromantic? Your partner off having sex with someone else because you never make time for each other. So get over these weird notions about what’s romantic and what isn’t and put that sh*t on the calendar. You don’t have to jump right to the sex. That’s the point of scheduling it—to give yourselves time to enjoy each others company over dinner, or a glass of wine, or whatever.
5. If you’re lucky enough to get paid vacation, use your allotment—all of it.
If Wikipedia is accurate on this point, all industrialized nations except the United States now have statutory requirements for minimum paid annual leave, and most of them are quite generous at that. Even if we’re lucky enough to get it, many Americans sell all or a portion of their leave time back to the company.
Are we really that greedy, or do we just feel guilty being away from work? I don’t know the answer to that. But I suggest finding a way to make due on a little less money if that’s your issue, or find a way to shed the guilt, if that’s what’s preventing you from enjoying your hard-earned time off. There’s plenty of amassed research out there now that clearly shows how burnout from working long hours with little or no vacation time negatively affects worker health and productivity.
Don’t be that guy who punches the clock day in and day out but has all the bounce in his step of a zombie. Show up to work rested and energized so you can be fully committed. The only way to do this is to step away once in a while and forget all about it, and that means fully stepping away and resisting the temptation to answer emails or “check in.”
6. Stop the incessant fiddling with your stupid phone.
I’m hard-pressed to think of a bigger drain on productivity than being shackled to your phone constantly responding to texts, checking social media, playing games, and whatever else. Remember the old business rule about setting aside 30 minutes a day to check emails and to schedule that time after important tasks that require real thought have already been completed? We can easily apply that same sound advice to all these little phone antics.
Put that damned thing away most of the day and concentrate on important stuff you need to get done. If you have children, maybe you’ll need to set aside time to check it at regular intervals, so do that. It still beats being tethered to the thing and responding to alerts like Pavlov’s dogs.
Each step I recommended comes down to having the discipline to effectively manage your time so you can achieve balance. Allocate too much time to one activity, or run past the allotted time—and everything that follows suffers.
We think of discipline as somehow being confining, but it’s actually the opposite.
Discipline is liberating.
When you figure out what’s important to a balanced life—things like a reasonable work schedule, regular workouts, downtime with your family, an active sex life, and a real vacation—the only thing that’s left to do is stand up and demand them.
And you make this demand not by shouting and hoping, but by having the discipline to schedule an appropriate amount of time for things that are important—and then sticking to that schedule, even if it doesn’t quite mesh with someone else’s expectation. That’s their problem, not yours.
I’ll close by taking a shot at that Protestant work ethic that’s so ingrained in our belief system. You deserve a balanced life—not because of any amount of work you did or didn’t do—but simply because you’re a human being inhabiting this planet for a short time.
You alone have the power to choose to stop running from one obligation to another with your tongue hanging out.