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Hard Work Hardly Works

I used to be a really busy guy. Two phones, back-to-back meetings, no time to pee. The only solution I could think of was sleeping less.

And I wasn’t alone. This recent story in the New York Times, documenting the rise in use and abuse of stimulants like Ritalin among professional adults, shows how crazy things have gotten in the executive ranks.

The pressure to be on 24/7 is so intense that one recent study found the few executives who do work reasonable schedules are careful no one at work finds out.

I finally stepped off the high-speed treadmill when I realized the 24/7 work style was not only counter-productive, but was also huge cover-up for my dissatisfaction, fear and loneliness.

Hard Work Hardly Works
Hard work makes sense if all you’re doing is grinding out the same product again and again — think brick-making. But for more complex tasks, where markets are changing, new technology is disrupting patterns, and products are constantly being improved more than brute force is required to succeed. In most areas of the 21st century economy creativity, teamwork, and constant learning are the keys to success.

I knew all that intellectually, but it wasn’t until I started looking at how I got my best ideas or did my best work that I saw my effectiveness had little to do with how busy I was: I got my best ideas on the chairlift while skiing; my team developed its best products when sitting together over lunch.

And that study that found executives who worked less hid their leisure time from the rest of the office? Well, it also found that the highest-achieving group in the company was the one that had agreed they were going to only work 9-5 and make time for their families.

What’s My Real Commitment?
If, in the heat of one of my over-scheduled days, you’d asked me then whether I was committed to hard work or good work, I would have said I was committed to good work, a fulfilling life and time with my loved ones. I would have told you I was too busy and I wanted to work less.

But conscious leaders know they can judge true commitment from results. And my results told me I was actually more committed to being busy than to any of those things I professed to want.

For me, being insanely busy had some real payoffs:

  • A handy excuse to avoid uncomfortable issues at home
  • Lots of “atta-boys” from bosses and colleagues who benefit from all that work
  • A distraction from my deep dissatisfaction with my company
  • A socially-acceptable way to avoid spending time with my family
  • A way to feel in control of my job
  • A handy measure of my value to others (“I must be important because I have so many meetings!”)

For me being busy was a way to avoid facing lots of uncomfortable truths about my life.

Taking Responsibility
Once I faced into those uncomfortable truths, saw the cost of my over scheduled lifestyle, realized how unsustainable and unproductive it really was, I started to take responsibility for my schedule and the way I had built my framework for overwork.

First, I looked at the relationships and situations where I was taking more than 100 percent responsibility. I found lots of places where colleagues, friends and family were taking less than their share of the work — because I was taking more than my share. These people actually had no way to step up because I wasn’t letting them.

I was ripping off those around me by not giving them the chance to be fully involved and developed in their work.

I also took responsibility for my own self-care: I started making sure I had time for healthy meals, more time for sleep, more time to connect deeply with colleagues and family. It’s a move that study after study has shown actually increases productivity.

Facing Unequal Relationships
The other thing that looking for places where I was taking more than my share of responsibility did was open my eyes to relationships that were not fully serving me. I had to face the fact that some people in my life were stepping up, or that I was unwilling to let some people be fully empowered.

Looking for the roots of those disempowering relationships was a huge eye-opener for me that led to radical changes in the way I worked, the projects I took on, and the people I chose to work with. This realization led to many candid, sweaty conversations where I had to share my stories about the people I was disempowering. In most cases, those conversations led to much better relationships for both of us.

Some First Steps
For me, the first steps to moving from a life of busyness to a life of play and rest (Commitment 9) was owning my unconscious commitment to being busy, recognizing the goodies I received from busyness, getting honest about what I was avoiding by being busy, and then looking at where I was taking more than 100 percent responsibility in my life and cleaning up those issues and relationships.

Then the fun began — I got to dream up new ways to use all the extra time I made.

Tim Peek is a Conscious Leader

Tim Peek is a certified executive coach who advises businesses and their leaders on how they can use the power of disruption to create their desired future. He’s also an Emmy award-winning journalist, former NBC News executive, endurance athlete and Killington ski patroller of the year.

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