It is a full month now since I have quit my job. Freelance work is beginning to trickle in, and the little pile of cash my wife and I have made is flowing out. So, that means it is time to really kick things into gear on finding work or even another permanent job. It also means anxiety at the thought of returning to the frenetic pace that I recently escaped from.
One of the most consistent challenges I had at my last job was the feeling that something wasn’t right about the frenzied pace we kept. I should say at the outset that I am not talking about simply long hours, or even hard work. There is nothing really to be said against either of those two concepts in isolation. As a church staff, and as Christians in general, I believe we were and are always called to do excellent, passionate, even remarkable work to bring glory to the name of God. And this may even mean that there are times when long hours are necessary.
That isn’t the whole story, though. There was something else that made my previous employment untenable; an attitude of frenzy.
As a staff culture, we were often scurrying from one project to the next while texting in the midst of a conversation about something else that needed to happen tomorrow and answering a phone call about why something didn’t happen yesterday, all while trying to remember a hallway conversation we just had about three things for next week. Any number of days, I would only return to my desk at 5:00 to begin the “real” work of the day after everyone else had gone home. This is not unique, of course. Many people live like this. It is just a consequence of trying to keep up in a fast-paced world where the accelerating pace of change means if you don’t keep running, you will just get run over. At least that is what we all believe.
Research tells us a different story, however. Today I ran across this article on Swiss Miss. The gist of it, for those not curious or patient enough to read it in it’s entirety, is as follows; working hard, working with focus, separating work and play and defending leisure time can be the difference between average and excellent, especially when all other factors are largely equal.
This isn’t news, of course. It is just another note in a growing chorus of voices singing a tantalizing tune in the world of business consulting and leadership thinking. The challenge is, to dance to this new song we must give up our beloved notion of ourselves as tragically heroic workaholics simply trying hard to get what we really want; better results in our jobs and our lives.
Mind you, there are some people for whom workaholism is an end in and of itself — individuals whose lives and work are so intertwined that they cannot extricate them, or who are running from something in their personal lives they would rather not deal with. And there are also those who simply don’t know any better, having only seen that kind of single-minded devotion modeled and there are even those who are so absorbed in their work that nothing else could possibly hold the same allure. For all of these people, any suggestion that working less for any reason is likely to smell foul. Suspicions of laziness come to the surface almost immediately.
However, for most of us, working frenetically is not a means or an end. Many of us really want to do good work, even great work, but aren’t terribly sure how to go about it. We believe busyness is the price we have to pay to get what we want; just a little more money, to get one big project out of the way, to get on top of things at the office, to get the next big promotion. Whatever the reason, it is the lot of many of us to live in a state of constant, buzzing frenzy at work; a condition likely to spill over into the rest of our lives.
What is startling about the study cited in the aforementioned article is not that there is a meaningful difference between individuals on talent or capacity, but on discipline. This would come as no surprise to anyone who has worked in an environment where even one individual’s lack of discipline, attention to detail or adherence to systems has caused conflict. Hence phrases like “your lack of planning does not constitute an emergency on my part.” Excellence is, then, a function of personal character as much as it is a matter of perseverance or skill.
This is vitally important for anyone looking to improve or “get ahead” or even just catch up in any organization. It blasts apart the illusion that working just a little more could possibly be the X-factor that will propel you into the new level of productivity or achievement you seek. Past a point, the busier you become, the less effective you are, and thus more work will simply act like a governor on your own potential.
Thinking you have to do more to get better results is a treadmill that never stops running. The answer isn’t finding a way to run faster. It is finding a way to focus on getting off.