The Double Win
For most of us, our sense of what’s possible is shaped by the cult of overwork. It’s a widespread belief, one endemic to major corporations and small businesses alike. And it holds vast numbers of workers in its sway. Knowingly or not, to one degree or another, millions of us have accepted the idea that
- work provides the primary orientation for life
- constraints stifle productivity
- work-life balance is a myth
- a person should always be busy
- rest wastes time that could otherwise go to work
We may never consciously verbalize these ideas, and many of us would deny them when they’re stated so clearly. But they hover in the background, nonetheless, quietly informing our thoughts and actions. The impact of this belief system on our lives is staggering.
Consider health. Eight in ten workers in the US suffer from on-the-job stress. When we’re under pressure, we tend to abandon healthy self-care habits, which amplifies the problem.
What about relationships? Three-quarters of US professionals say stress undermines their personal connections. Entrepreneurs seem to suffer considerably higher divorce rates than others.8 Same with CEOs.
Overwork also damages job satisfaction, productivity, and more. A recent study by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence examined engagement and burnout in over a thousand US employees. Twenty percent of employees reported both high engagement and high burnout. They were passionate about their work, but they were suffering from it too.
Once you fall into this trap all it often takes is common sense to get out. But when people are desperate, common sense gets even less common than usual.
Five Principles of the Double Win
High achievers feel compelled to overwork for a variety of reasons—some good, some bad, some inherent to the very nature of work itself.
Fortunately, we can learn counterproposals to the cult of overwork, or what authors refer to as the five principles of the Double Win.
Our Multifaceted Lives
Principle #1 Work Is Only One of Many Ways to Orient Your Life
Life is multidimensional, and success is too. Work is only one of many ways to orient your life. There are several domains beside work. But family, friends, community, physical and emotional health, and all the rest are easily marginalized while pursuing career ambitions. The cult of overwork obscures the fact that success is only sustainable when most of these domains thrive together—which is a challenge.
Technology encourages work to backflow into our nights and weekends. And that eclipses other life-enhancing pursuits, which undercuts both our personal and professional lives. A culture that encourages employees to work all hours will damage the support structures that make those employees good at their jobs in the first place.
The easiest way to tell if work is your primary orientation is to ask how much attention you give the other domains. How much time do you spend each day, each week, on the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional? Do you make time for your health, your spouse, your kids, your friends? When is the last time you pursued a real hobby?
There are three primary categories that need attention.
Self-care. Your health, your relationships, your children, your hobbies, your work—at the center of all of these is you. You’re all you have to offer these various facets of your life.
Relational priorities. Just like self-care, we need to schedule our relational priorities. Maybe for you it’s blocking out your kid’s athletic events or performances. Maybe it’s a quarterly overnight getaway with your spouse. We have to plan for it in advance if we want the win.
Professional results. This is the last but it’s also essential. To succeed, we must drive results at work. That’s true whether you’re a business owner or an executive, an individual contributor in a larger team or a middle manager. This begins with clarity on the results you’re responsible to produce. What do you deliver?
Liberation through Limits
Principle #2 Constraints Foster Productivity, Creativity, and Freedom
Constraints foster productivity, creativity, and freedom. Early in our careers, neither of us were taught to appreciate the power of constraints. But we all have a finite amount of time, money, energy, mental bandwidth, and creative capacity. Since we can’t do everything, constraints force us to make choices. We have to decide where and how to best spend our time, money, and so on.
Constraints enhance productivity. When working within the constraint, we experience tremendous gains. Not only does our productivity improve, but so does our capacity for fresh thinking. We’re also free to engage our whole life, not merely the parts tied to our laptop or smartphone. Ironically, it’s when we refuse to acknowledge life’s natural constraints that they get the better of us. If, on the other hand, we embrace constraints, we can turn them into aids to achievement.
Constraints enhance creativity. Shorter workday not only encourages greater focus, it also encourages new and creative ways of approaching work altogether because they limit the overwhelming number of available choices to a manageable subset. In turn this allows us to explore less familiar paths, to diverge in previously unknown directions.
Constraints enhance performance. Enhanced performance is one of the key outcomes of shorter workdays and workweeks when tried. Companies that have experimented with constrained work hours report better collaboration and ready adoption of labor-saving tools and techniques, along with greater focus and concentration.
The Promise of Balance
Principle #3 Work-Life Balance Is Truly Possible
Work-life balance is truly possible. Many think achieving work-life balance is a myth because they assume balance is an attempt at some sort of Zen-like state of equilibrium when everything is in perfect proportion, perfect alignment. Once achieved, you’re set for all time. Since that’s impossible, they believe balance is likewise impossible. But that’s not reality—nor is that what we’re advocating.
Work-life balance is dynamic, not static. Consider the gymnast walking across a balance beam, or an acrobat walking the tightrope, constantly adjusting. Balance requires us to anticipate and deal with variables. It also requires us to weigh the different domains of life intentionally and with a view toward seeing they all get the attention they require. It’s not about the perfect distribution of our efforts and interests, time and talents, or anything so precise. It’s about not dropping the ball because we took our eye off it and forgot to check back.
Here are three vital aspects of balance to keep in mind, especially as we apply the concept to our work and life:
Balance is not the same as rest. Balance is about distributing demands so we can stay on track with a win at work and at life. We don’t want to cannibalize one sphere of life to feed the other. That takes intentionality. Don’t be discouraged. It’s just part of the challenge.
Balance is dynamic. “Life is like riding a bicycle,” Albert Einstein said in a letter to his son Eduard. “To keep your balance you must keep moving.” We’ve all experienced this. The slower you go, the more trouble it is to keep your bike from wobbling until you crash. Momentum helps us stay upright and on course.
Balance is intentional. Our bodies are programmed to stay upright, but it takes a bit more focus when it comes to the complex responsibilities and relationships that make up our lives. We have to make purposeful decisions and actions if we want to maintain balance. It’s not accidental. Those decisions and actions will look different for each of us, but they’re essential for all of us to make, just the same.
A Profitable Pause
Principle #4 There’s Incredible Power in Nonachievement
There’s incredible power in nonachievement. High achievers struggle to hear this, but many of the most enriching, restorative activities in our lives are ends in themselves: hobbies, art, child-rearing, friendships, music, wine, crafts, games, and more.
This is difficult to embrace because high achievers want to measure everything. It’s got to count or it doesn’t matter. We’re hardwired to pursue the all-important return on investment. But not everything is a goal. Not everything has an ROI outcome to measure—at least not in the short term. Even more problematic is wrongly believing that achievement is always good, and nonachievement is pointless.
Your brain is never off, just differently on. The question is, what are they working on? Periods of nonachievement allow other parts of our brains to operate, and this pays tremendous dividends. In fact, psychologist and Kellogg School of Management associate professor Adam Waytz calls leisure our killer app.
Discussing the present and future disruptions caused by AI to the job market, Waytz asks what humans can do that computers can’t. For one thing, he says, while our minds wander, computer processors don’t. If we’re thinking about focusing on the work right in front of us, that might be good. A wandering mind might forget to respond to that important Slack message, might struggle to finish the monthly financial report, might miss a key point in a meeting. But there are benefits to a wandering mind too. And downtime helps us access them.
Strong connections exist between mind wandering and creative thinking, lateral problem solving, and generating unique ideas. “By encouraging our minds to wander, leisure activities pull us out of our present reality, which in turn can improve our ability to generate novel ideas or ways of thinking,” he says. “When we let our minds drift away from work, we return to our tasks capable of tackling them in more inventive creative ways.”
Principle #5 Rest Is the Foundation of Meaningful, Productive Work
Rest is the foundation of meaningful, productive work. The cult of overwork devalues rest. Sleep is of no commercial value, right? In fact, some regard it as the enemy. If we’re not careful, we can view rest as a necessary evil, a biological need we begrudgingly endure to keep working and consuming.
Never mind the overwhelming body of evidence showing that sleep rejuvenates our mind and body, keeps us sharp, and powers performance. Sleep is not only the secret weapon of enhanced productivity, it’s also the foundation for it. When we undervalue sleep, we also fail to understand the negative consequences when we and our team are sleep deprived.
People brag about how much they work and play but never how much they sleep. Usually, it’s the opposite. Celebrity executives, famous entrepreneurs, and their admirers tout their short nights under the covers as instrumental in their success. Elon Musk, Martha Stewart, Jack Dorsey, Marissa Mayer, Indra Nooyi, Sergio Marchionne, Julie Smolyansky and the list goes on. From where we sit, this all seems pointless. As historian Susan Wise Bauer says, “The larger the boast, the smaller the truth.”
We shouldn’t focus on what we might gain from incremental hours in front of our screens. Such gains are largely illusory. Given what we know about the high costs of sleeplessness, we should instead focus on the exponential losses we’re suffering.
In short, instead of shorting our sleep, we should be investing in it. It’s safe to say the Double Win is otherwise impossible. Sleep creates the necessary conditions for success in all domains of life.
Creating Your Own Double Win
The cult of overwork thrives when our imagination shrinks.
Imagine a day when you’re able to take time off away from the business, completely unplugged for a full month, with the confidence that nothing will fall through the cracks at the office. How does that feel? Is the stress starting to melt away just a bit?
Now, imagine a day when you’re winning at work and succeeding at life—a day when you’re thriving in the business you dreamed of and enjoying the life you’ve always wanted. Remember, you’re not going to drift to that kind of destination. You have to design it. Good intentions aren’t good enough. What decisions do you need to make to move toward your desired outcome?
Why not start by saying goodbye to frantically hustling on the treadmill? Why not use today as the day to change the trajectory of your business and your life? Don’t hit the snooze button. Get started on the path to winning at work and succeeding at life. The view is spectacular.