I think it’s important that people take time off when they need it, but it’s hard to build institutional incentives to promote this. One part of the problem is that if a manager says “take the time off you need”, but that manager conspicuously seems to be working all the time,[1] it can be hard for their teammates to take the message to heart.

I want my teammates to work at their long-term sustainable optimum and to have the energy to go hard during crunch time before events. I want to de-emphasize a focus on hours and instead to focus on output. It works for me to work a lot and I don’t want to take time off when I don’t need to.[2] I want the teammates who produce their best work when they sustainably work 60 hours a week to work 60 hours a week and those who do so working 40 hours a week to work 40 hours a week. I’ve been talking with other managers about this problem, and have been testing out the following analogy to encourage proper resting to help my teammates avoid burnout:

Sometimes, when I’m hiking with someone, I worry about breathing too hard. I feel like it’ll be embarrassing if I’m clearly struggling, and like the hike should be easy for me. But it isn’t, so I kind of hold my breath and conceal the difficulty. As a result, I find the hike much more difficult overall and have to stop climbing much sooner than I would have if I let myself breathe heavily.

I’m trying to lead a team with an ambitious culture for taking challenging hikes, and part of this culture requires people to feel safe and comfortable breathing as loudly as they need to in front of each other, without fear of judgment. It also involves people pausing to take rests to catch their breath when the going gets tough.

Not everyone is expected to have the same lung capacity and no hiker is at their best forcing themselves to appear comfortable when they aren’t. Some great hikers may not need to catch their breath often, but others will need to breathe hard, and this need doesn’t imply they are worse hiking companions. 



 

  1. ^

     I think part of the reason it seems like I’m working all of the time is that I have two toddlers. They sometimes pull my attention at random points during the day, so I’ll make up for it by waking up early, working after they go to bed, or getting some work in over the weekend.

  2. ^

    Some managers have encouraged me to take time off when I don’t need it to create a culture of taking time off. I don’t like this plan because: 
    1. It feels fake, and 
    2. My work continues to pile up while I’m gone, so I’m more stressed if I force myself to take time away.

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I like this! Thanks for sharing it.

Another analogy I've been playing around with* is "having an impact isn't a sprint or a marathon - it's an endurance hunt." Things I like about this include:

  • You're not competing against other people - you're trying to succeed at something that (a) is much less structured and (b) may or may not actually be possible
  • Probably the best strategy isn't to run a constant, steady pace - depending on how the hunt is going at any given moment, it may suddenly be really valuable to run flat out for a stretch, or it may be fine to maintain a steady jog, walk, or even stop
  • There isn't a clear, pre-defined route you should be following - instead, you have to constantly be making the tradeoff between going hard in the direction you think is correct, vs. reorienting yourself and deciding to make a small or large course correction (e.g. based on stopping to read tracks or something)
  • It's also not clear how far or how fast you'll need to go over the course of the hunt, so you need to budget your energy with that uncertainty in mind (which could include consciously making the choice to risk going too hard for a chance at an amazing yield)
  • If you do go too hard and exhaust or injure yourself, you're not only hurting your own ability to finish the hunt and participate in future hunts, you're also likely causing teammates to have to abandon the hunt to help you

I think your analogy about breathing carries over too - just like on a hike, if you're hunting in a group then no one is helped by you pretending you have more stamina than you do.

Two flaws with this analogy are 1) it's not the friendliest for vegetarians, lol and 2) there seems to be some controversy over whether persistence hunting is even a thing? Hiking is much better on both of those points!

*Read: started drafting a post, then let it languish for months

FWIW this article has a direct account of persistence hunting among the Tarahumara. It also cites other accounts of persistence hunting among the Kalahari and Saami.

"My work continues to pile up while I’m gone, so I’m more stressed if I force myself to take time away."

This is often true whether or not you actually need the time away. I think this can sometimes be addressed at the team level, either by adjusting expectations about what will be achieved in a particular quarter or year, or by building extra capacity into the team so that everyone's work can be covered by someone else when they're away and no one comes back to a huge backlog.

I probably should have mentioned that I'm Head of Events at CEA, so I'm setting the expectations and ambition level. It is much easier for me to adjust work capacity for other teammates, but I'm choosing between doing some things myself or them not happening. It is true that I could decide to be less ambitious, but I don't want to :)

I have been building lots of capacity on the team this year (maybe quadrupled FTEs on the Events Team?), but we've also added a Retreats Program and Community Events Portfolio, scaled EAG, etc. Hiring for the team has probably been the biggest thing to take my time this year, and it is often time-sensitive because people need to know whether they are a fit. Events are also time-sensitive: an event has a set date, so it comes whether you're ready or not. 

I think it would be sad if I decided to scale down EAG or host some number of fewer events or miss a hire because I think I'm supposed to take time off, even if I wasn't finding it particularly restful. All that said, I'm taking time off this week to go visit my niece for her first birthday! 

Love this post!

In software engineering culture, "forced vacation" is not done so much for the good of the person taking it, but the good of the team to make sure that they are set up to reliably cover the person taking the vacation as practice in case anything happens to that person (they might leave or fall ill). It's probably easier for software engineers to substitute for each other than for you to figure out all the different people that would need to cover different aspects of your leadership role though.

I like this post and the sentiment that employees should really be discouraged from overworking themselves.

But I'd like to note that this:

I want the teammates who produce their best work when they sustainably work 60 hours a week to work 60 hours a week and those who do so working 40 hours a week to work 40 hours a week.

...is a choice between what I'd think of as 100% and 150% of a full time work week. But I expect some people to struggle to hit that 100% as well, or even not be able to do that at all, for a variety of reasons (disclosure: I'm currently one of those people).

Thanks for sharing! I considered including different numbers but landed here. I agree that this can also apply to numbers lower than 40 (or higher than 60) and I've had many great colleagues over time who have worked quite different hours. 

FWIW I originally shared this analogy with my team when someone was struggling and I wanted to help them feel ok about taking time off and working fewer than 40 hours a week. 
 

Hey Amy

Thanks for this post and the tangible metaphor. 

I’m having this issue on my team at the moment and the issue I’m struggling with is how to approach remuneration - does the person working 60hrs get paid for the same amount of work as the one doing 40hrs (I.e. Are they both salaried regardless of the amount they work). 
 If yes, does that not risk demoralizing the former. And if no, then does that not create a culture of incentivizing working hours far beyond the regular 40hr week?
Any insights would be much appreciated.

Hi Evan,

Thanks for asking! I agree this can be pretty tough, especially because people are really different. 

In most cases (aside from external contractors) we don't pay people based on the number of hours that they work. So, salaries don't really vary based on the hours exactly. 

But, if someone truly is able to sustainably and productively work long hours, they will probably perform better.  As a result, this could increase the chances that they get promoted, which means higher salary etc.

However, I have also seen cases where people have needed to scale back their work in order to make better judgment calls, and take care of their health, and that ultimately led to promotion. It varies a lot!

Thanks Amy, I find your perspectives here really helpful and insightful, much appreciated...**goes off to talk to team**!