Take a break driver 8

Rock lyricist Michael Stipe of R.E.M put it best, “And the train conductor says, we’ve been on this shift too long…take a break driver 8, driver 8 take a break.  We can reach our destination, but we’re still a ways away.”  This is my message to you this summer:  Take some time off or you’ll crash the train next fall. 

Don’t believe me?  Consider the story of my friend Eric. 

Eric was less than one year into a new career as regional sales manager for an office leasing company based in Seattle.  The dotcom industry was under fire by Wall Street and hundreds of startups were running out of cash.  His region was one of the hardest hit:  Seattle, The Bay Area and Southern California.  As layoffs happened at competitors and client companies, Eric was pummeled with Chicken Little announcements from his coworkers.  That spring, the mood at work was darker than the weather – and just as depressing.

     Even though he’d been a longstanding optimist, Eric couldn’t resist the culture at work, and by late 2001 the scarcity bug made its way into his head.  He became fearful for his job and his family’s survival.  He questioned his commitment, whether he had enough talent, whether he had enough drive.  He even felt guilty for having any fun – attributing “having fun” as the root of the Internet industries woes.  He hunkered down, grinding on himself to squeeze our more production.  He stopped going to the gym every morning because he felt guilty when he wasn’t working. Leaving at 6pm felt morally wrong, as the ship was presumably sinking – so he stayed late and missed dinner with his wife and two toddlers.  

     At home, he continued to grind on himself.  Lying in bed, he was on the emotional spin cycle and slept fitfully.   He started to snap at his wife when she’d ask, “what’s wrong, honey?”

    He cancelled his summer vacation and started to work Saturdays.  On Sunday, he replaced church and football time with email marathons.  His productivity plummeted faster than the stock market.  He wasted hours re-reading the same set of bad numbers from a variety of sources.  He pored over the an endless supply of downward projections for office space. 

     He spent meetings urging co-workers to acknowledge and reconfirm his dire outlook for the coming years.  When they didn’t readily agree, a lengthy debate ensued.  He spent precious face time berating his sales people to try harder because times were apocalyptic– giving them Scarcity, leading to a swift decline in their personal productivity. 

     Sometime during May of 2002, Eric hit the wall.  First, his wife told him that she was taking the kids and going to her parent’s house for the month of June.  She tearfully admitted that she needed some time away from his rat-race.  Next, Eric received a less-than-perfect annual review from his boss.  Even with all of his overtime effort, he had failed to do his core job – manage results from his direct reports.  His boss worried that Eric was burning out and commanded him to take his full two weeks of vacation over the summer.  

     These combined events rattled Eric into a new way of seeing the world.  He realized that if he didn’t take a break he could lose the two things that mattered most to him.   He took the middle of June off, convinced his wife to replan her month too and they disconnected from the world in Cabo San Lucas.   

     By the second week of the retreat he began to get more clarity about his role at home and at work.  He was a leader, motivator and hopefully an cultivator of happiness and success.  He vowed to take weekends off, including turning off email.  He went back to working out and eating dinner at home with his family.   At first it was difficult, but the longer he stuck with his new time-plan, the more he realized it was giving him an edge over everyone else at work (and in his industry).  

      By the fall of 2002, he had a very healthy outlook, as well as energy to burn.   His productivity soared and his sales people’s performance beat the market soundly.  Even though the market was still tanking and office space was hard to sell, his team found a way to be successful.   

     When the market bounced back a few years later and his company merged with a much larger conglomerate, Eric was poised for the opportunity.  His new bosses saw him as fresh, well respected and resilient.  He moved up the ladder and became the vice president of sales.  He’s still on top today, as the office space industry faces another round of pressure.  He’s a rare survivor of Scarcity.  He caught it in time, took the right prescription and stuck with the plan over the years.  

Here’s my refreshment plan for your summer: 

1.  Take at least one week off before Labor Day (if you have it available).  Don’t sit around the house, go somewhere where nature will convince you forget about the world. 

2.  Don’t take your laptop with you on the trip.  Carry your cell phone, but give strict instructs that you are only to be bothered with an emergency.   Only check your email once every two days. 

3.  Take a full weekend day off for the rest of the year.  Don’t check email or even think about work.  

4.  Devote one hour a day to exercise and self-education.  

I promise you that by the end of 2009, you’ll be energized and ready for anything.