Still-Have-a-Life Managers, directors, leaders?
March 26, 2021 8:59 AM   Subscribe

Are you a manager/leader in a corporate job that has figured out how to work "normal" hours (let's say 40ish hours a week) and stay sane/stress-less in an industry where those types of things are not the norm, (though not too off, i.e Finance, Law and Advertising do not apply)? How do you do it? What philosophies/scripts/actions did you apply?

I've been lucky enough to have had a career making a upper 10% income in the US where I've averaged well under 40 hours of week of actual work. I'm 15 years into that career and may have 25 years left. As I look up all I see is people working tons of hours, being stressed and being kind of dicks.

I've had instances where I've been a project lead and I definitely have skills and personality to be a leader, even though I consider myself a high functioning slacker. Every time I've been in leadership roles I've been able to work ok hours, but I'm always thinking about work, but so if you count that I'm working basically 100+ hours a week. I reallly don't want to do that, and I just don't see myself staying as a individual contributor (but maybe that is what I need to stay with--but I don't see the path there?)
posted by sandmanwv to Work & Money (5 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I know what you mean; I've fallen into that trap myself. I'll share my thoughts but eager to read others'!

I think if you've only done leadership roles for a year or two, what you haven't had a chance to develop is a team you trust under you. That's really the greatest difference, because once you have people where you are confident they will escalate to you when they need to, the "on my mind constantly" part goes down - not away, but down.

What I find doesn't change is being on call. I've learned to do the thing people who don't have management experience sometimes hate, which is that I time shift things around fluidly. So, if I'm up until 10:30pm dealing with a crisis and my family hasn't seen me in three days, I might take the following afternoon off (with a cell phone in hand). Most of my team will never see the up until 10:30 part if I'm doing my job with the confidentiality it should hold, so they just see Management Leaving Early.

I used to burn myself out not doing that so I wouldn't annoy people, and I had to get over it.

The other thing I've been able to do currently is block Sundays off. This is highly industry dependent (in marketing we never could do that as our executive got his ideas on Friday afternoons to be implemented Monday morning) but if you are clear at the start that people have to call you on Sundays as you are email and Slack free those days, it can help.

Another thing managers cannot ever do is procrastinate. I mean, we can, but you never ever know when a crisis (real or manufactured) will hit. So for me, I try to keep my own work done well in advance so that I don't have to manage it + crisis close to a deadline. It took me a few years in media to work that out, which cost me a lot in sleep and a bit in quality. But once I got it things improved a lot. I'm doing summer work right now, in terms of planning and getting buy-in.

Other than experience in three fields (media, marketing, and fitness) is that because I'm both the top and the bottom of my team, meaning I get tossed into high-level things and also have often had to pick up slack at the other end if things went off the rails (usually for unforeseen things once I learned how to keep track of my team's work better), managing just does come with a lot of churn that results in periods of longer hours.

If you don't mind those peaks and valleys it can work but if you want consistency, it might not be the best choice.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:13 AM on March 26, 2021 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I don't know how satisfying of an answer this will be, but for me it has boiled down to two things.

1. Caring more about the rest of my life than work. If I find myself getting stressed or working too much, I repeat the mantra "it's just work" to myself. I have pretty strict start and stop times, I don't look at my email after hours, and I don't work nights or weekends. I use my vacation time, and when I'm on vacation, I completely disconnect and forget about work. You will NEVER find me checking slack or work email on "vacation" (I delete it from my phone to avoid even accidentally seeing it). On the extremely rare occasion that I do need to work outside of my normal hours, I will make up for it by starting later or ending earlier that day (or maybe the day before or after depending on the timing of things). I regularly remind myself that no one will die if some piece of work doesn't get done TODAY. Also they probably won't fire me. I am good at knowing what the critical stuff is, and making sure that gets done first, so if something gets delayed, it's not the most important.

2. Choosing (or lucking into) workplaces and leaders that allow me to succeed with this attitude. There absolutely are companies where you can't rise high in the company without working crazy hours. I do not work at those places. A couple of times in my career I have found myself at one, and I have moved on. Again, life is more important to me than work.

I do think you need both of these. Obviously if your employer will not allow you to draw boundaries, you're going to be stressed. But even if you're at an employer that allows (or even encourages) boundaries, it requires a lot of discipline and the right attitude to make yourself do it. I have moved high in my career, gotten lofty titles, and been paid a lot of money, while working reasonable hours. At those same companies, there definitely are people who work crazy hours and are always stressed, even though my situation is proof that this is not required. Do they move up 5% faster than me? Maybe. I don't know. Would it be worth it to me? Not a chance.
posted by primethyme at 9:22 AM on March 26, 2021 [9 favorites]

Warriorqueen has a very good point . The first year or two in leadership roles can be really rough because you're getting to know people and their strengths/weaknesses and simultaneously setting up the structure in which you expect your team to function. Once that happens, you can shift from a mode where you worry about everything to one where you know where problems are likely to occur and you can plan for them (Bob is good at X but bad at Y; that means Alice should review all the X widgets that Bob makes) and focus more of your effort on vision setting, building systems that allow people to do more with less of your input, and engaging at the most highly leveraged point in any project. That means you can focus on avoiding crises instead of resolving them when they happen - something that doesn't require as much nights-and-weekends work.

I track my goals week-to-week and quarter-to-quarter. This makes it easier to measure what I've accomplished - something that becomes harder when you move out of individual contributor roles - and allows me to acknowledge that I've had a good week even if work piles up over the course of the week. It also helps me understand how much I can do in a given week/month/quarter, which helps to break the cycle of inadvertent overcommitments and corresponding stress. The combination means it's a lot easier to take evenings/weekends, though I still wouldn't say I have a 40 hour a week job.

The more senior you are, the more people will tend to attribute inaccurate meanings to your moods. I frequently find myself explain to members of my team that "Alice isn't mad at you, she's stressed out because ." For me that's a forcing function for making sure I'm taking care of myself because the at-work downstream implications of me being stressed or in a bad mood can be worse than taking the time I need for myself and slipping something a few days.

All advice like this has to be taken with a grain or heap of salt, though because it's so industry / company culture dependent. I've managed to carve out a role where the consequence of my approach - a reliable march of steady, incremental progress - is appreciated even among people who aren't inclined in that direction themselves. I think it's a lot harder if you need to manage a client who expects you to be available at all hours or turn around work over the weekend.

posted by A Blue Moon at 10:28 AM on March 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

Sure, although I work longer hours than 40 hours a week, I work fewer than are typical for the world I work in. I agree with warriorqueen.

I think the hardest transition is going from supervision where you are the primus inter pares and the ultimate authority on how something should be done to your first management role where you no longer directly see all the output and many people stumble at that point and try to work longer and longer hours. I see the roles like this:

1) Individual contributor - your main job is carrying out certain tasks, you may occasionally have tasks which require mentoring others or reviewing their work but you are not accountable for it

2) Supervision / managing output - you review and approve the work of others and may give them tasks to do towards a larger whole for which you are accountable. You may well still be an individual contributor as well and have to learn to balance getting "your" work done with managing the work as a whole. You will personally have eyes on every bit of work product that is completed multiple times but you probably have only limited ability to affect team composition.

3) Manager / managing people and processes - you have a more abstract accountability. Work is carried out by your team that you will never see, let alone be involved in directly creating.

Failing to make the transition between (1) and (2) looks like giving insufficient guidance and trying to do all the work yourself. Failing to make it between (2) and (3) looks like insisting on being CCd into things, being the final approver of things, and keeping too much state in your own head rather than that of other people and of systems.

I do not think about my specific job (although I do think about energy systems but that is the more academic side) when I am not working. The way I do this:
-You have to get and keep the best people in your team and delegate whole areas to them. People. Ideas. Things. In that order. There are areas of my role that are critical and that I do no think about because I know that I have someone really good looking after them and they will escalate if something is not going right. If I could do nothing but recruit, nurture, and motivate people, I could do about 80% of my job. If I wasn't such a perfectionist I could get to 95%.

-Systems keep you and your team calm. Things that don't live in systems either live in people's heads (where they cause anxiety) or they don't get done (causing anxiety). These can be anything from a complex computer system to simple understood business rules. For example, there are things which can lead to us having to work on a weekend unexpectedly, per project we therefore have a designated "coverage" person who will pick up and route emails / call people should that be required. Therefore if my phone has not rung over the weekend, I do not check my email because I know nothing urgent has happened. [Actually I do work on the weekend, although not as much as when I was a more junior "supervisor" level person but the point is I don't check my email 5 times an hour just in case something has come in. I'm either working or not.]

-I use a rather elaborate to-do system based on GTD and setup in an online tool called Amazing Marvin. This is not for everyone but for someone who has 10-15 broad areas at any given time to work on, tooling is really useful. I also use it for time tracking so I know what I actually spend time on. This is part of my MeFi block. When you have a job that means you could be in front of a computer the whole time, it is really important to track what you're actually doing. When I started tracking, I realised that I was probably spending 10 hrs a week on marginally or unproductive stuff that also wasn't fun. Trusting the system means that when I'm not looking at my to-do system, I can clear my mind completely.
posted by atrazine at 2:47 PM on March 26, 2021 [13 favorites]

Great answers already so I think the only thing I would really add is that I used to be a lot like you in that I was very rigid about protecting my non-work time and working only the time I was supposed to. I have consciously relaxed that boundary a bit as part of the trade-off of becoming a senior manager.
My boundaries are that I'm very conscious of whether I'm working or not working. When I'm not working I don't check mail, Teams etc. I try to always stop and have some family time at "normal" end of day and then think about whether I need to do another hour or two in the evening. Unless things are exceptional I try to do no more than a half day at the weekend.
Those work for me (along with my work systems) so I mostly don't feel stressed or like I'm always working. But I think some stress and some long hours are part of the deal. Its fine if you don't think those things are what you want, but I guess what I'm trying to say is that you can still have a life and switch off from work while setting some boundaries on what works for you but those boundaries may have to be different to the ones you have now.
posted by crocomancer at 5:34 AM on March 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

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