Many years ago, I was fortunate enough to attain the coveted promotion that I desired in my company. I was appointed to an executive position in a newly formed and fast-growing business unit that energized me, provided a great fit and growth opportunity in my areas of strength, and stretched my mind to deal with myriad complex issues all at once. At the same time, I was in the final phases of a doctoral program, completing my research and writing my dissertation. Either situation by itself was intense and at times stressful; but put them together, and words can’t adequately describe the pressure to perform well.
However, I couldn’t walk away from either opportunity, nor could I press the “pause” button. I reasoned that the overlap between these two major life challenges was only about a year, and that surely I could manage to get by. I was single at the time, with no children or significant other, so I told my family and friends what I was focusing on and that they wouldn’t see me much for a while. Then I dove in, spending almost all of my time working, studying, and I took a break to go to church.
You can already imagine that I probably wasn’t a lot of fun to be around, neither for my team at work or my colleagues at school. I was very focused on trying to get everything done, because I couldn’t make excuses to either my bosses or my professors for failure to perform to a high standard.
I remember it all came to a head one Friday after another demanding week. My girlfriend called and asked if I wanted to join her for a movie that evening. I was mentally exhausted and I knew I needed a break, so I agreed to do so. The only problem was that I somehow wasn’t clear on the time and the theater, and couldn’t get in touch with her to confirm. This was in the days before cell phones were prevalent, so there was no way to contact her. Somehow though, I was able to get there just before the show started. When I realized that I had found her, I was so emotional that I broke down in tears. THAT’S when I realized how much I needed to take a break.
I learned from that experience about the need for balance in my life. And while I’m pleased to say that I made better decisions thereafter to make time for relaxation and friends, there were still many times when I felt like the demands of life dictated that I had an “S” (for Superwoman) that I needed to wear on my chest. But it was crooked, and held in place by a combination of safety pins, crazy glue and Scotch tape.
The Amazon Way
While my work style reflected my perspective on what it took to progress and effectively contribute to the organization, it also reflected the culture in that environment.
The New York Times’ recent profile of Amazon’s work culture painted a picture of a high pressure, high performance setting that has yielded positive results and high marks for customer service orientation. But it has come at a price for some, as current and former employees recounted stories of emails in the middle of the night requiring immediate responses; employees weeping, apparently from the stresses of the job; and a woman reportedly sent on a business trip a day after miscarrying twins. One person described seeing employees “practically combust” on the job, while another described how the seductive addiction of wanting to be successful drew people in.
Amazon isn’t the only organization of its type, and in fact, what characterizes a work culture of high stress and demands may vary depending on the individual. But the results of that environment are clear in the toll it takes on those who operate within it. The challenge is to find your balance. Make it a priority and allocate the time to take a break, and relax. Find something that you enjoy doing that takes your mind off of those things that induce stress. I like to call this taking your own personal sabbatical.
The concept of a sabbatical originated thousands of years ago as the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah for the people of Israel. Letting the land lie unplanted for a year reflected God resting on the 7th day of creation, and also permitted the soil to replenish its nutrients. The term evolved to refer to an individual taking an extended absence to accomplish something of value; like a professor taking a sabbatical to do research.
Taking a break to rest and do something different provides both mental and physical health benefits. It’s a time to refresh your mind and body, to then enable you to be more effective and creative in your work; to bring a fresher perspective. Few of us have the luxury to take off months at a time on sabbatical, so the best way to approach it is to prioritize and make time for your sabbatical in daily, weekly, monthly and annual increments. A few minutes a day, a few hours each week, or several days at a time.
Use the time to do something enjoyable and relaxing, that affirms your values. For some people it may mean setting aside all digital communications devices. Others may realize the need for reflection and rearrangement of their life activities. Unfortunately, people are sometimes forced into a sabbatical of sorts, either by extended illness or transition between jobs, and they realize a need to adjust their everyday life to align with those things that are most important.
So get in touch with your passions, reconnect with the people who are most important, allow time for your creative juices to flow. I know that all of this sounds low priority when you’re in the midst of business and family pressures, challenges and problems. After all, the more work to be done, the more you need to work. Makes sense, doesn’t it? I would instead suggest that you’re more valuable to your organization and your family when your priorities are in balance, and you’ve taken the time to recharge your mind. So take a break!
Priscilla Archangel, Ph.D. is a seasoned leadership consultant, executive coach, author, speaker, and teacher. She has a passion for developing leaders, and motivating individuals and organizations to align their values, behaviors and goals with their purpose. Visit priscillaarchangel.com.