It’s been a very interesting ride so far.
It’s Friday night and I’ve just finished my first work-week since taking on the Stop Working Late experiment. My rule for the month is to stop work at 5:00, no matter what. To many of you, this might not seem like a difficult challenge. For me, it’s a huge change from what I’ve been doing. Lately, I’ve been working from before sunrise to long after sunset, often pulling all-nighters.
Working that much is not good for your health or your relationships, or even for your business. Eventually, no one is getting you at your best.
I chose to do this experiment in January for two reasons.
- I was getting pretty close to my breaking point, and I needed to make a change sooner rather than later.
- January is one of the busiest times of the year for me. I’d just taken two weeks off and I knew I’d have hundreds of emails waiting for me. I wanted to see if I was up to the challenge.
How It’s Going So Far
I’m happy to report that things are going extremely well. It hasn’t been perfect, but it’s been much better than I expected.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure I could pull this off. Even when I was working 16 or 24 hours a day, it was never quite enough time. I always had more work to do. Partly it was because things at my little business were going well. We had a lot of projects underway. Frankly, I was suffering because I had bitten off more than I could chew.
The thing I needed to realize was that I could control how much I put on my plate. I guess you could say I needed to learn portion-control for my work plate.
I talk with my entrepreneurial friends about this. We know we’re taking on more than we should, but some part of us thinks it’s wrong to turn away good work. It must be a survival instinct left over from our hunter-gatherer days. “The work is what feeds us, and if we want to be wise, we’ll get as much as we can.” We don’t want to go through a harsh winter wishing we’d stored more in the pantry.
The truth is, I wasn’t living paycheck to paycheck. I’m not rich by any measure, but we have more than what we need to get by. It was safe to scale back, whether I realized it or not.
I knew this would be the most important day of the entire monthly experiment. If Monday went well, I’d have momentum for Tuesday and Wednesday and so on. If it went badly, I was going to fail.
I should mention that I get about a hundred emails a day; and I’d just taken about two weeks off for the holidays. I hadn’t checked email at all, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I came back.
I sat down in my home office on Monday morning and hit the button I feared most. Send & Receive…
Downloading message 1 of 423.
I had braced myself for something in the thousands; so I was pretty happy with the 423 emails I had to deal with. I sipped my tea and started reading. I knew I was quitting at 5:00 no matter what. For a little extra insurance, I promised my wife we’d go out to dinner. I was going to keep my promise.
Still, I was looking at a mountain of work. Normally when I have a huge amount of work to do, it feels like time goes by much faster than usual. I’ve had days where I sit down at my desk in the morning and the next thing I notice is that the sun is setting. I hate days like that. I hate feeling like life is passing by without me even noticing.
Monday was different.
Rather than time passing at warp speed, it crawled at a snail’s pace. Somehow, knowing my day was finite made it pass by slowly. I adapted to my challenge. I felt deliberate. I felt like I was in control of everything. Instead of feeling scattered and overwhelmed, my thoughts were crystal clear. I may have had a mountain to climb, but I knew exactly how long I had to do it. I took one deliberate step after another.
I’d set an alarm for 4:00 in the afternoon so I’d know when I only had an hour to go. My inbox was over a hundred at that point. When that alarm went off, I turned into a machine. I entered a state of flow and plowed through my inbox like crazy.
At 4:55, my last alarm went off. I looked down and couldn’t believe what I saw.
I took that screenshot (added in a message that summed up how I felt) and sent it to one of my business partners.
I can’t describe the joy I felt at that moment. Just looking at that image gives me a grin I couldn’t hide if I wanted to.
My inbox hadn’t been under a hundred in months, and here I came back from two weeks off and got to 28 in one day. I shut down my computer at 5:00 on the nose and stepped back. I felt happy and proud. I was also extremely confused.
How the hell did that happen?
I remembered something I read years earlier in the 4-Hour Work Week. Parkinson’s Law basically states that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”
If you’ve ever put off writing your big research paper until the night before it was due, but somehow managed to crank it out in time, you’ve experienced Parkinson’s Law.
“No working past 5:00” became an unbreakable limit, and I adapted to fit my new reality.
Time to Celebrate
It may sound a bit silly, but I wanted to celebrate my little victory. Why?
- We had leftover champagne from New Years Eve 🙂
- Operant Conditioning
Say what? Operant Conditioning is a term borrowed from the field of Psychology that deals with the modification of voluntary behavior.
If you’ve ever trained a dog using positive reinforcement training, you already know how this works. If the dog does something you want it to do (like sit when you give a sit command), you reward the dog with something it likes, usually praise or food.
My wife and I foster dogs in the summer when our schedules allow it, so I’ve had a lot of practice doing this. I decided to use the same reward principles to “train” myself. Yes, I was using dog training techniques on myself. I know that sounds weird.
We capped off the night by going out to a nice restaurant in our neighborhood. It was easily the best work day I’d had in months.
Tuesday – Friday
I kept detailed notes of how each day went, but they’re pretty boring and I’m not going to make you read them.
The rest of my week went well. I stopped work at 5:00 every day without any problems. My inbox is under control, and under 30 emails. I finally caught up on a few things that have been on my to-do list for months. I took extended lunch breaks a couple of days and even took my dog to the park in the middle of the day on Wednesday. That may have been the highlight of the whole week. My wife and I have gone out to dinner every night, finally crossing off restaurants on our list. We won’t keep going out all the time, but it’s been fun this week.
Negative Side Effects
One negative thing is that I’m not making quite as much money as an average week. I work on a project basis and also on an hourly basis, and my income is probably down by 30% from last month. That might seem like a terrible thing, but I suspect it will slowly increase to, and possibly beyond, my old income level as I adjust to this new schedule. Even if my income never went back up, I’d still be happier working this way. More money isn’t worth the level of stress I had.
Another negative side effect has been the feeling of putting things off. Some days, I just don’t get to everything I wanted to do during the day. (The trips to the dog park probably don’t help.) I’ve had to make a conscious choice to call people back a day later than I normally would. I have mixed feelings about that, because I really value being quick to return communication. So far, it’s only happened a few times and no one has complained. I think it’ll be less of an issue as I get used to this.
I’m only one week into this experiment, but it’s already been life-changing. By placing a limit on my work-life, I’ve made time for my personal life. I’m feeling happier, more in control and healthier. I’m not tired or stressed like before. I’m spending much more quality time with my wife and our friends. I’m making a bit less money, and possibly not as quick to respond to clients, but those things aren’t a big deal. I think they’ll get better as time goes on.
I’m really excited to keep going with this experiment. I have a huge product launching next week. It’s been two years in the making and I know there will be a lot of last-minute stuff to do, but I’m planning to stick to my rule.
If you’ve tried something like this, how did it go? What helped you set clear boundaries? What were the best or worst consequences? I’d love to hear how it went for you.