• Wednesday, February 21, 2024
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Why can’t we stop working?


I hadn’t seen Jim in two years. When we reconnected recently, I was shocked. The handsome professional I knew had gained 30 pounds and started smoking. Bursting with nervous energy, he told me about his business travails – work so busy he was staying regularly until 10 at night, and a billionaire client who was sapping his energy and causing him grief. Fortunately, the project with the billionaire would soon be over. “That’s great!” I said. “So you won’t have to deal with him again.” Well, Jim allowed, there might be another contract with him in the works.

It wasn’t about money. We were standing in the middle of his vacation home, enjoying prime mountain views. Business was booming; he only wished it were possible to spend more time up here at his dream home and perhaps start dating. Of course, it was possible. But for some reason, Jim was choosing to work harder instead – and he wasn’t the only one.

As Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen and his co-authors Karen Dillon and James Allworth describe in the best-seller “How Will You Measure Your Life?,” work’s return on investment is immediately apparent. You get instant feedback and, often, instant gratification in the form of raises, promotions and new contracts. The arc of family life is different. In the moment, it can be banal or discouraging.

Harvard happiness researcher Daniel Gilbert has shown that children don’t increase parents’ short-term happiness; in fact, on a day-to-day basis, parents prefer almost anything (from watching television to exercising) to spending time with their kids. Work is certainly one societally sanctioned excuse. Yet, says Christensen and his co-authors, many professionals are dismayed to wake up in the middle of their lives and discover frayed relationships and alienated family members. We have to grasp the difference between the short- and long-term rewards of work and our personal lives.

Another challenge, says Shawn Achor, author of “The Happiness Advantage,” is that we misunderstand the relationship between happiness and success. We assume that professional triumph comes first. But we’ve got it backward. Instead, Achor writes, “Happiness is … the precursor to greater success. Every single relationship, business and educational outcome improves when the brain is positive first.” In other words, success is a result of happiness, not the other way around. And yet, so many executives work tirelessly, questing for a goal – happiness – that doesn’t come from professional achievement.

For many top performers, the idea of dialing back on work is disturbing because they fear it will torpedo their career. This anxiety is largely exaggerated. Since humans fear loss more than they covet gain, it’s easy to frame any career deceleration as a potentially disastrous mistake. The problem is that in some particularly competitive fields like investment banking, long hours truly are mandatory. And, culturally, we’re regaled with examples like Tesla’s Elon Musk, a twice-divorced father of five who took one vacation during a four-year period.

But even when it’s not all about us, the pressure to keep working full tilt can be intense. As one successful consultant friend told me, “There are a lot of people that depend on me – the people who report to me, the people I mentor, and my clients. It’s very hard to turn away from them and let them down.”

So how can we strike the right balance between work and home, particularly when the former can be so gratifying? True success means recognizing our real, individual priorities and, as best we can, living them out today instead of pinning our hopes on some mythical future state of “I’ll be happy when …”

(Dorie Clark is a strategy consultant and speaker for clients such as Google, Yale University and the World Bank. She is an adjunct professor of business   administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, and the author of “Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future.”)