How to ‘punch out’ at an always-on job

Over the years, I have given several talks at companies known for extreme hours. I know that sometimes the speech organizers are wary that an outsider might not understand the culture. So I often suggest that they have a few people track their time for a week and share their logs with me. I find it a win-win; I get to know a few audience members beforehand, and the powers that be are assured that I know what I’m working with.

I gave a speech for one such organization earlier this month, and sure enough, the logs reminded me of what I have long known: even in extreme jobs, there can still be space. Less space than for people with 9-5 type limited-travel gigs, sure, but in their not-work time, people were exercising, attending concerts, hanging out with friends and family, planning weddings, going to worship services, etc.

If you are the holder of such an extreme job, it can sometimes be difficult to see and savor this space. But I think a few strategies can help with punching out from an always-on corporate-type job:

Get real about the number. People in extreme jobs don’t work 40 hours a week. They also almost never work 100. It is often in the 60-hour range. Some weeks might be higher — perhaps a string of 80-hour weeks on a tough project — but others (like, say, the week before Memorial Day weekend) wind up lower. Tracking time for a few weeks can give a sense of the range. If you generally work 65 hours a week, and sleep, say, 52 (my average!), that leaves 51 hours for other things. That’s more than 7 hours per day, averaged over the entire week. It isn’t nothing.

Build personal time into travel time. One reason extreme jobs seem so extreme is that they often require extensive travel. People in the early years of consulting jobs, for instance, are often at the client Monday-Thursday. But this is seldom 100 percent work time. You can exercise in the morning before showing up at the client site (Tues-Wed-Thurs — you might fly there Monday morning). Sometimes teams choose to take a break between client work and having dinner together. People can exercise, or read, or call family members during this time. And people often Skype family members before bed too. A 13-hour work day still allows 3-4 hours for other things. This is not unconstrained free time — you are probably at a Hilton somewhere in Ohio — but recognizing it and making use of it is key to feeling like you have space in your life.

Remember the mid-point of the week. I have people track their time on weekly spreadsheets that start Monday at 5 a.m. This seems like a good start time for the week. But here’s the cool thing: if the week starts Monday at 5 a.m., the half way point is 5 p.m. Thursday. Really! It is end-of-day Thursday! I know, mentally, that can seem like the end of the week, but it is not. It is the halfway point. In extreme jobs, 5 a.m. Monday to 5 p.m. Thursday is almost entirely work dominated. You may be at the client that whole time (well, and your hotel). But then if you leave Thursday mid-day, the second half of the week looks entirely different. The first half isn’t “balanced” but neither is the second — in an entirely different way. Seeing space involves recognizing that.

Put anchors on the weekend. To be sure, if you’ve been traveling all week, when you get to the weekend, you may want to do…nothing. But putting in at least a few anchor events can make this time feel more rich and full. Let’s put it this way: if you’re regularly clocking 65-hour weeks, your leisure time is too precious to be totally leisurely about leisure.

Consolidate weekend work. Yes, of course, it happens. Some project managers are better than others at respecting weekend time. On a really bad project, weekend work can be part of the deal (that’s when the clock hits 80). But if it isn’t, and you’re just catching up on email or prepping for Monday, consolidate this into, say, a 2-hour block somewhere (like on the plane, if you need to fly out Sunday night), so it doesn’t bleed into everything else. Speaking of good and bad projects…

Control what you can. Some people are better to work for than others. If demand is low, you’ll take what projects you can get. If demand is high, you can can be slightly choosier, and do your best to get staffed on projects run by people you like and respect. (Or at least projects that feature a direct flight from your home location!) You might not be able to control overall economic demand, but by developing certain expertise, or a good reputation, you can boost demand for you. You aim to be, per the title of Cal Newport’s book, “so good they can’t ignore you.” That can make it easier to punch out at an always-on job.

If you’ve had an extreme job, I’d love to hear your strategies for making it feel sustainable.

2 thoughts on “How to ‘punch out’ at an always-on job

  1. Travel — especially long flights — gives you a lot of time. No reason why some of that can’t be spent relaxing and reading a good book or watching a movie. We tend to class business travel as all “work”, but it’s usually not. Also, if you are away over a weekend, take some time and do some sightseeing, even if you are somewhere you have been a hundred times. Whenever I’m in Sydney or Seoul over a weekend, I try and make a point of seeing something I haven’t before, or taking a tour. It helps me relax, rejuvenates me, and helps me connect with my team members who live there!

    Time is precious…and plentiful, even if you don’t think it is.

    1. @Jeff – agreed. Some people work on the plane, but a lot don’t. It’s not unconstrained free time, but watching a movie on the plane is definitely leisure, even if you’re not at home. And good tip to go sight seeing! I always like to find a museum or run in a park when I’m traveling places.

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