Penelope Trunk's column this week is an excerpt from her book, "Brazen Careerist." Chapter 12, "Don't be the hardest worker," offers ways to avoid long hours and job burnout.
It's hard to leave the office at a reasonable time of day when your workplace culture centers on long hours. But the cost of not leaving work is high: a half-built life and career burnout. Of course, if you never work long hours, you will never appear committed enough to get to the top ranks. So your job is to work enough hours to look committed but not so many hours that you risk your personal life and your ability to succeed over the long haul.
People cannot work full-speed until they die. Pace yourself so you don't burn out before you reach your potential. But don't blame your long hours on your boss, your CEO, or your underlings. Someone who does not make a conscious, organized effort to take responsibility for the number of hours they work can be thrown off course by anyone. But the person who systematically follows the steps below will not be thrown off course, even by a workaholic boss in a workaholic industry:
Concentrate on quality of work over quantity. The person who builds a career on doing the most work commits to living on a treadmill. The work will never be done, and you will become known among your co-workers as someone who never turns down an assignment. Read: dumping ground. Quality is what matters. People don't lose a job for not working unpaid overtime, they lose a job for not performing well at the most important times; and a resume is not a list of hours worked, it is a list of big accomplishments.
Know the goals of your job. You need to know the equivalent of a home run in your job. Get a list of goals from your boss, and understand how they fit into the big picture. Judge if your work is high quality by what people need from you and how they measure success. Be sure to get goals that are quality oriented and not hours oriented. Suggest replacing, "Devote eight hours a week to cold-calling" to "Find six qualified leads in three months."
Find the back door. Figure out what criteria people use for promotion. It is never only how many hours you work. In many professions you need to work a lot of hours, but there is always a way to be impressive enough to cut back on hours. In the realm of superstars, achievement is based on quality over quantity. Figure out how to turn out extremely impressive work so that you can get away with fewer hours. For example, if you're a lawyer, you could pick up one, very important client for the firm, and then cut back a little on your hours.
Refuse bad assignments. Figure out what matters, and spend your time on that. Once you have clear short-term and long-term goals, it's easy to spot the person you don't need to impress, the project that will never hit your resume, or the hours worked that no one will notice.
Say no. Constantly. The best way to say no is to tell people what is most important on your plate so they see that, for you, they are a low priority. Prioritizing is a way to help your company, your boss, and yourself. No one can fault your for that.
Go public. Tell people about your schedule ahead of time. For example, "I have Portuguese lessons on Thursdays at 7 p.m. The class is important to me." When you plan a vacation, announce it early and talk about it a lot. The more people know about how much you have been preparing and anticipating your trip the less likely people will be to ask you to cancel it.
Find a silent mentor. Look for someone who is respected but does not work insane hours. This will take careful hunting because this person is not likely to be obvious about it. Watch him from afar and figure out how he operates. Few people will want to mentor you in the art of dodging work -- it's bad for one's image. But you could enlist the person to help you in other areas and hope he decides to help you in the workload area as well.
Know your boss's goals. Your best tool for saying no to a project is reminding your boss what her goals are. If she cannot keep track of her own goals, help her. Because if you worm your way out of work that doesn't matter to her, so that you can do work that does matter to her, she is more likely to back you up. Also your boss will protect you from assignments from other people if you show her how the other peoples' work affects your boss's goals.
Take control of what you can. Even small efforts at control add up to a lot, and best of all, they usually go unnoticed by others. For example, refuse to make meetings on Monday and you are less likely to have to prepare for meetings on the weekend. Refuse meetings after 4:30 p.m. and you are less likely to miss dinner at home. Ignore your phone while you write your weekly report and you're less likely to stay late to finish it. You don't need to tell people: "My policy is no meetings at x time." Just say you're already booked and suggest another time. You can't do this every meeting, but you can do it enough to make a difference in your life.
Know your own boundaries. "Wanting to work fewer hours" is too vague a goal because you won't know which hours to protect. Try getting home by 7 p.m., not working weekends, or leaving for two hours in the middle of the day to lift weights. These are concrete goals for cutting back hours.
Create something important outside of work. If you don't create a life outside of work that is joyful and engaging then you won't feel a huge need to leave work. And if you don't project a passion for life outside of work then no one will think twice about asking you to live at work. So get some passion in your personal life. If you can't think of anything, start trying stuff: Snowboarding, pottery, speed dating. The only way to discover new aspects of yourself is to give them new opportunities to come out.
Be brave. Brave people can say no when someone is pushing hard, and brave people can go home when other people are working late. The bravery comes from trusting yourself to find the most important work and to do it better than anyone else. But sometimes, the bravest thing to do is leave. Some industries, for example coding video games, or being a low-level analyst at an investment bank, are so entrenched in the idea that workers have no lives that you will find yourself battling constantly to get respect for your personal life. In some cases, you are better off changing industries, or at least changing companies.
Penelope Trunk is the author of "Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success." Read her blog at blog.penelopetrunk.com.