Today, let’s talk about avoiding the vicious cycle of working late. I was inspired by this comic strip from Jorge Cham:
(Click the picture to read it in full size)
With friendly permission, copyright "Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham, www.phdcomics.com
What is the vicious cycle?
You did not do enough of what you should have done during the day. I know, this is almost taboo to say – but even consultants are not free from it. Even more so, as there is almost a lot that you can do once you have finished your main projects’ deliverables for the day. As a result, you expand your working hours, and try to squeeze out some more productivity. The next day, you are not running on 100% energy anymore, because you got little sleep. So you get less done. So you make that day even longer… and with some bad luck, before the weekend (hopefully) gives you time to hit the sack and renew, you run into a brick wall. Oversleep. Make bad mistakes. Mess up that Excel sheet on delivery day. Fall asleep on the toilet – what have you.
How to avoid it?
In an ideal world, I’d say you simply only take on as much work as you can handle while still getting 8 hours sleep a day. But the job often demands more. You will not be able to leave the desk while the sun is still shining every day. When it is crunchtime, you need to crunch, and for that you can find advice here: Cranking the deadline. The key is to make best use of the phases where you are not running full speed. Don’t take on additional work after a hard phase just because there is still some time in the day. If you can get to the hotel at 6pm, do it. (You don’t believe that ever happens? Hey, read the article from the Dutch Consultant on "Consulting a honey pot?") Relax. Go to sleep early. That is not being a slacker, that is being reasonable and preserving your sanity, and your energy.
Does this sound too fluffy for you?
Alright. So you can’t balance your workload during the week, and it is too late for managing your boss so that you don’t get swamped when you are over capacity already. My last resort, and the thing I can recommend wholeheartedly because I do it:
Whenever you can, make your weekend holy. Work-free. When projects go into defcon1 and I have not slept enough one single night in the week, I need the weekend to fully recharge. Sleep in. Do fun stuff. Enjoy life. This gives me time to get back to full batteries and full motivation.
When your workload is ok, and you are not in the vicious circle trap, it might be alright to do some work on the weekend. But after a battle, I. Need. The. Weekend. Off.
So you can’t do that either?
You might want to re-read the post “Manage your energy, not your time”. Let’s see what you are up to: You are working more hours than your body can handle. You do not give yourself time to recharge, not even on weekends. You are just working, working, working. Let me tell you something, and let me make it clear:
That is nothing to be proud of. You are risking your health, your sanity and your career. Why the career? Because you won’t be able to perform. Sooner or later, your lack of energy will show, and you won’t be able to compensate with longer hours any more. This scenario means big trouble on all fronts. You have been warned.
Alright, this was quite a rant. I’d love to hear your opinion – I am sure you have one!
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Florian. This is an awesome rant. If you don't mind I think I might steal parts of it to enlighten my sleep deprived friends at my university.