In the second part of this series, learn how ” can be used as an effective technique to cope with an overburdened work and home life.
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According to Max Bridger, he leads a charmed life. A drilling foreman for a big oil company, Max works 28 days on a rig in Egypt and then flies home to Louisiana for 28 days. “This on-and-off schedule drives some guys crazy,” Max says, “but it suits me. While I’m on the rig, I’m busy and focused. When I fly home, I leave work a world away. My wife loves that I’m at her disposal for almost a month at a time. And it’s great to have the golf course or fishing hole to myself on weekday afternoons.”
While as many as 40% of the workers we studied say that balance is their primary career priority, few of them take regular midweek fishing trips. We found that most people try to balance by juggling—simultaneously pursuing all of the activities that make a life. They cope by running faster, working harder, and cramming more into their lives. This makes for a rich and multifaceted existence, but it’s also exhausting—often leading to burnout, poor health, guilt, and frustration.
Our research identified people who found more sustainable ways of coping. Max uses one of those approaches, which we call “alternating.” Alternaters trade intense periods of work with breaks to recharge. Within some professions, such as oil drilling, tax accounting, or teaching, alternating is built in. Yet we also found people who occasionally back off from work even if they don’t have automatic breaks. A few manage their finances carefully and quit working altogether every few years. Others use their experience and credibility to buy free time. Bob Harper, a Cleveland-based insurance executive, negotiated a four-day workweek after the wake-up call of a heart attack. “I used to be available 24/7,” he says, “but now my weekends are sacred. I’m fully present Monday through Thursday, but I don’t even think about work during my three days off.” Others alternate by varying the intensity of projects or assignments at work. “I can still be a high performer even if I sometimes take on a project that’s relatively easy,” says Mark Hammond, an Indianapolis-based human resources manager.
Most of the alternaters we interviewed love their work. Many of them alternate because they become engrossed in their jobs. But they love a lot of other things, too, and don’t want a steady diet of long-term work. Wayne Chen started a small, successful software business, then sold it to a Fortune 500 company. Not long after the new management took over, Wayne had an epiphany. “My siblings were married and had kids who I didn’t know, and most of them lived in the same city. I hadn’t gone on a date for five years. The word “play” had disappeared from my vocabulary.” He quit his job and started having a life. “I had a million frequent-flier miles,” he laughs. “I could go almost anywhere in the world for free.” While his social life improved, Wayne stayed current on technology developments. He enjoyed doing it just for fun. Eventually, he signed on as chief technology officer for an Internet startup. “I’ll do this as long as it’s fun,” he says, “then maybe take another break.”
The money Wayne got from selling his business lets him decide whether he’ll work or not. By staying up-to-date professionally, he’ll always be in a position to earn more money That combination—high earning capability and professional credibility—were common to the successful alternaters we met. They were also economically prudent. “I drive a seven-year-old Honda and live in a two-bedroom condo in a nice, but definitely not luxurious, part of town,” says Wayne. “I’d rather have freedom than a house full of luxury items.”
Alternating has the obvious downside of creating financial peaks and valleys. It can also create emotional ups and downs. “It’s tough for my wife and family when I’m gone for a month at a time,” says Max, the oil driller. “I’ve missed my share of birthdays and anniversaries.” Plus, Max’s months on the rig aren’t the only source of stress. “After doing everything on their own, they have to automatically shift gears when I’m around for a month.”
Some alternaters take a team approach, where partners switch off as primary breadwinner. Bridget Jackson, a state supreme court justice, and her husband, Byron, a pediatrician, want both professional and family success. Bridget established her reputation while Byron finished his schooling and training. Byron started his practice at about the time their children were born, so Bridget cut back to part time while Byron dove into work. Once Byron’s practice was established, Bridget went back to full-time work. Although their children were in school and didn’t need full-time parenting, Byron stopped accepting new patients to be more available to the kids. Once Bridget was appointed to a judgeship and their children were in high school, Byron ramped up his practice and spent more time on researching and writing.
Alternating isn’t for everyone. It works best for people who like intensity, yet have multiple priorities. High earning potential coupled with careful money management make it much easier. Plus, it works better in some professions than in others. But even if alternating isn’t a strategy you can fully embrace, there are easy ways to alternate on a small scale, including using all of your vacation time each year in ways that will recharge you, keeping weekends and holidays sacred, looking for less intense assignments at work from time to time, and negotiating for free time or “comp time” at work.