Leveraging Flexible Work Hours To Increase Productivity And Happiness
When I entered the work force after my studies, I went all in. I got a job at an international startup in hyper-growth stage and helped growing it to a big corporation over the course of almost 5 years. During that time, I learned a lot about marketing, communications, PR, launching a startup, analytics, crisis communications, optimizing processes, growing pains, hiring great talent and much more. And I learned how to do it fast. How to hustle to get everything done, when your team consists of 2–5 people and there is no one else there to to do the job.
Looking back, I wouldn’t want to miss that time and experience. I did pay a price, which shall not be discussed here at this time. But luckily, in hindsight, we tend to put more focus and weight on the positive moments. And I think that’s a good thing.
The never ending struggle with working too much
What my startup years taught me, is how to take back control of my time. Obviously and as many before me, I had to fall on my nose first for that to happen. But hey, there are so many things we learn about and know in theory, but to actually make a change, we need to learn it the hard way.
In the startup world there are no business hours. No one is logging work time, no one gets paid overtime, no one gets an offline vacation with no laptop. And that’s okay, and probably needed, for some time. Startup employees are ready for this and willing to put in that time, effort and dedication. For a specific period of time. And then something has to change. Because as much as it might seem or feel like this is how it has to be, it is not sustainable in the longterm. Not for the people and not for the businesses either. People, who reach that point have 4 options:
- Talk to their boss (if there is one) and hope that they magically get more vacation, paid overtime and regular work hours. (Spoiler alert: It’s not gonna happen.)
- Take a never ending sabbatical (not sure how all these people do it, but hey, good for them).
- Get a new job with regular working hours. (This option should definitely be considered and is a logical and great step for many people.)
- Take control of their time, get organized and learn how to prioritize and say no.
I chose the fourth option. Multiple times. And every time, I get a little bit better at it.
Curse and blessing of being a passionate employee
When it comes to a healthy work-life balance (oh, how I hate that term). The big problem is our own motivation, drive and passion for what we do. We want our businesses to succeed. Even if we don’t own the company. But we want to do our part in growing the business and making it successful. We want to be here for our teams and to not let them down. We have that unique feeling of ownership and we feel responsible to do our part and to do it good. And we have fun doing it. And that’s great, but there’s one big problem with that: We don’t realise when we take on too much. We don’t notice the little signs our bodies and minds give us to signal exhaustion. We don’t realise we should take a break to be able to perform better later. We don’t let ourselves rest. Because we don’t even feel like we need a break. Even if that break is urgently needed and would result in us doing an even better job.
The moment we realise all that, is usually when our bodies shut down and force us to rest, OR when all that hard work doesn’t pay off over time (think no promotions or other recognition at work) and that nagging voice in the back of our heads slowly, slowly becomes a little bit louder and stronger. The voice that’s asking “What are you doing this all for?”.
Back to taking control. Working in a world where labour laws don’t apply (of course they do, but you know what I mean) is a lot about accountability. Accountability for the work you do, but also accountability towards yourself. And it takes some time to realize that and to find ways to do that. It is okay, and sometimes needed, to work hard and be passionate about what you do. But it is also okay to rest harder and be passionate about yourself. After my first three crazy rollercoster startup years, I realised I had more power than I thought up until that point. I had the power to communicate and to say no.
- No, I can’t do that today. But I can do it tomorrow.
- No, that deadline isn’t realistic, we need to plan more time.
- No, I can’t lead that additional project, because I’m at full capacity with A, B, C.
- I need more time to do this.
- This is not a priority right now, but I will get to it next week.
- I can do this now, but that means project B and C will not be finished on time.
- What makes this so urgent? Can we push it to tomorrow?
And then later, with a bit more confidence, on to even simpler, but clearer statements, such as:
- I need a break.
- I have plans tonight and won’t be reachable.
- I’m not productive right now and wasting time. I am going to the gym and will finish this later during my creative night hours.
- I need to sleep in tomorrow.
- I need to focus on this project and will work from home tomorrow.
- I have period cramps and need to lie down, but will still finish this on time.
- I won’t read my emails during my vacation. Call me when it’s urgent –but only then.
As so often in life, communication is key. What I found, is that usually managers, founders and team mates react positively to this type of communication. The startup world moves fast and we move fast with it. Everything feels pressing and urgent. And some things are. But that’s where prioritizing comes in. Take a step back, look at the tasks ahead of you and prioritize according to urgency, business impact and effort/time needed to complete the task. What you will find, is that in most cases, there are loads of things that can wait another day or two. And pushing these things back, gives you a quiet evening at home. A long workout session. A calming evening walk. A laugh with friends at dinner. A few hours with a good book. And it’s these little moments, that recharge your batteries and give you the energy, motivation, but most importantly: Clear headspace to go back to work together with the passion that makes you so good at what you do in the first place. And managers and peers understand that when you communicate it and when they know that you deliver on what’s important.
Doing the work when it needs to be done. And don’t do it when nothing needs to be done.
I like to structure my work days around the actual work that I need to do. Meaning: If shit hits the fan and I need to clean it up, I’m right there in the middle of it. I’m all in. Until midnight or longer. For days or weeks.
But every storm is followed by a period of calm. And what we all like to do, is fill our time with tasks and things to do, even if there is nothing to do. And in this environment, it’s important to recognize these moments and drop what you’re doing. You’ve put in the work when it was needed and urgent. You deserve to rest now. Even if you’re not tracking overtime, you deserve to take that afternoon off and spend it by the river. You deserve to sleep in, have that long breakfast and show up at work after lunch. You deserve that 2 hour gym session in the middle of the day. Because there are no urgent business matters to attend to. It’s important because it gives you the motivation to work until midnight next time it’s truly needed.
It is your job and your responsibility, but most importantly: Your decision to put in the work when it’s needed and to take breaks when there’s nothing to do. Because no one is going to tell you “hey, how about you don’t show up for work tomorrow?”
*I’m very much aware that not everyone wants to work like that and many people enjoy and need structured and normal 8–5 working hours. And that is great! In this post I’m just describing my own experience in a world that’s not able to offer that yet.