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Death by Overwork: Motivationally Speaking Its a Zero

The Japanese have a word for death by overwork: Karoshi. A recent survey said 40 percent of all Japanese workers fear that they will actually work themselves to death.

Karoshi is not my idea of success. Sure, I talk about "Never Settling for Success," but that's not a prescription for becoming an obsessive or a workaholic. That type of single-mindedness is more likely to lead to burnout than peak performance. Never settling for success simply means that you commit to maximum effort within the hours of your life that you've allotted for pursuing a particular pursuit. And you do that in spite of the 1001 excruciatingly attractive reasons, excuses, distractions and temptations that you can find for doing less.

Tip: Focus is a good buzzword. Multi-tasking is a bad one. Computers multi-task, and usually lose efficiency when they do. When people do it, it's usually not multi-tasking at all; it's usually that older clich, spreading yourself too thin.

Tip: During working hours, consider working.

Tip: During non-working hours, consider doing something else.

Now obviously given the realities of life today, there are likely to be times when you're going to have to work during what you would like to be non-working hours. Sometimes. But you'll never fill the glass unless you can find a way to be comfortable with the amount of your life you're devoting to the job. Then you make those hours as productive as possible.

"If I worked as much as others," Stephen Wright said, "I would do as little as they." There's more than a grain of truth to that statement.

Fortunately, as a society we're finally beginning to realize that chronic overwork is not a badge of honor, it's a sign that somewhere, something is wrong.

Tip: If you find yourself proudly bragging about your hours or your workload, you're probably putting in more time than you should.

Tip: Intelligent people don't brag about being overworked. They complain about being overworked.

Tip: If you don't have something in your life more worthy of bragging about, find something.

"Working hard has always been a measure of success in the office," says Alie Hochchild author of The Time Bind. "Now we've internalized it. So instead of the boss harassing you to work more, we do it to ourselves."

The better the manager, the less time it takes him to do his job. A good worker takes care of his health and his sanity, and is as productive as possible during the hours he is working. An astute company values its people and doesn't abuse them or any other asset.

Yet on consulting assignments, I keep hearing remarks like, "Around here, if you don't show your face early mornings, late nights and weekends you're not considered committed." I've seen low level managers cowering in their cubicles, pretending to be busy, afraid to leave the office before their boss leaves: no matter how late it gets, no matter how little they're accomplishing. If they do leave first, it's commented on the next day, either by the boss or by their peers.

I remember an executive who made a great show of carrying home armloads of work every night. Sometimes he had so much he had to make two trips to the car. After I got to know him, he admitted he never worked on any of it. He just lugged it home at night, then lugged it back the next day.

"Don't laugh," he said, patting the pile he was gathering for that night. "I'm considered one of the hardest workers in the office. And it's always a lot easier to influence the guy I'm working for with reputation than with achievement, believe me."

Activity vs Productivity

The idea (for those of us who sometimes forget) is to get the job done as well and as efficiently as possible. I'm always in favor of letting your results do the talking. And of measuring subordinates by the results they achieve. When I was an employee I wanted to be so good at what I did that I didn't have to worry about trying to impress anybody any other way. That saved me a lot of wasted energy: energy that probably helped improve my productivity.

We should never confuse activity with productivity. No matter how many hours someone puts in, no matter how much they appear to be working, the only measurement that really matters is the results.

The refreshing news is that, nowadays, among all the people bragging about their long hours, we're also beginning to hear a few executives boasting that they're good enough at what they do to be able to leave at a decent hour, to get more done, and have time to get home and refresh themselves so they can put in another efficient day's work the next day.

Tip: Never let your company, your clients, your boss, your boss' boss or anyone else make you feel guilty that you're not a workaholic.

Workaholics are people with problems. Do you feel guilty that you're not obsessed by sex (okay, would you feel guilty if you weren't)? Or by chocolate? Do you feel guilty that you don't want to spend your entire life playing golf or loafing, or reading or watching TV? Or that you're not addicted to alcohol or narcotics? Why should you feel guilty that you're too well rounded an individual to want to spend your entire life working?

Barry Maher speaks on management, motivation, communication, leadership and sales. His book, Filling the Glass has been honored as "[One of] The Seven Essential Popular Business Books" by Today's Librarian magazine. And when it comes to sales training, Selling Power magazine says, "to his powerful and famous clients, Barry Maher is simply the best sales trainer in the business."

Sign up for his free newsletter and contact Barry Maher on his website at For an inspiring keynote speaker, a great workshop or seminar leader, an expert trainer and a first rate motivator for your next meeting, conference or convention.


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