Wired and Tired: How Overworking Destroys Innovation

Arianna Huffington is busy.

Really, really busy.

As co-founder of The Huffington Post, the author of more than a dozen books and a sought-after speaker and political commentator, Huffington is so busy that she once fainted from exhaustion. She face-planted right on her desk, breaking her cheekbone and requiring five stitches on her right eye.

The experience set Huffington off on a personal journey to rediscover the restorative value of sleep.

“There is now a kind of sleep-deprivation one-upmanship,” she said during a 2010 TED Talk on the subject. “Especially here in Washington, if you try to make a breakfast date, and you say, ‘How about eight o’clock?’ They’re likely to tell you, ‘Eight o’clock is too late for me, but that’s OK. I can get a game of tennis in and do a few conference calls and meet you at eight.’ They think that means that they are so incredibly busy and productive, but the truth is they’re not, because we, at the moment, have had brilliant leaders in business, in finance, in politics, making terrible decisions. So a high I.Q. does not mean that you’re a good leader, because the essence of leadership is being able to see the iceberg before it hits the Titanic. And we’ve had far too many icebergs hitting our Titanics.”

You may not agree with Huffington’s politics or her point of view, but there’s no debating the point she’s making here. Our overworked, over-wired, hyper-connected lives sap our physical and mental energy, leaving little room for the kind of joy that sparks creativity and innovation. We are tired. And it’s starting to wear us down. We are suffering. And our businesses are suffering as well.

I can already hear you yelling at me: “But Melissa, you don’t understand the corporate environment. There is no joy. There isn’t even a lunch break.” Reminds me of a Hyundai commercial in which an office full of workers stare bug-eyed at the one guy walking out the door at 5 p.m. while the announcer says, “When did leaving work on time become an act of courage.”

 

I get it. I really do. The still sputtering economy, perpetual understaffing and a pervasive like-it-or-lump-it attitude are just some of the factors pushing against a workplace revolution to restore the 40-hour work week. That doesn’t mean we can try to chip away at major change, even if we have to do it one cubicle at a time.

There are lots of ideas out there to steal back a little of your time. Keep reading for a few of mine. I’d love to know if you’ve tried something that works for you, so please share in the comments below.

  1. Say No. Elton John may have sung that “sorry seems to be the hardest word.” But in the working world, that word is “no.” It makes sense that we’re afraid to say no. One negative response to a request, and we may not get a second chance. We don’t want to get branded as the person who can’t be the go-to guy in a crisis. We don’t want to disappoint. You may not be able to say no to everything, but I’ll bet good money that 10 percent of the requests sitting in your inbox can be 86ed. The key to being able to say no without recrimination is good prioritizing. You must figure out what’s important and what’s fluff. Easier said than done in the era of 24-hour email, where everything can come across as an EMERGENCY. But for your own sanity, do it.
  2. Set Boundaries. I have a friend who last year left a job in private wealth management at a bank to work for a company that provides operation systems for banks. He went from having “bankers’ hours” to working at all hours, sometimes on Saturdays. No one in his office takes a lunch, and they eyeball him when he does. Guess what? He doesn’t care. A year later, he still takes a lunch break every day. It may not be a full hour, but it’s always enough time to actually taste his meal, maybe read a couple of pages in a novel or take a short stroll around the company grounds, and have a little “me time” in the middle of his busy day. For my friend, it’s the thing that keeps him sane amid the chaos and enables him to take a step back when it all gets too crazy. BTW, he was recently promoted into management. Clearly, eating lunch didn’t wind up as an entry on his annual review. Be like my friend. Set sensible boundaries that don’t jeopardize your career but help you find your inner “ohm.” Perhaps it’s taking a lunch break, or maybe it’s not answering email after 10 p.m. Whatever your boundaries are, stick to them.
  3. Get A Life! I mean this in the nicest way. Pay attention to your personal interests, the things that bring you the most joy. Do you miss spending time with your children? Schedule a play date with them and make it a routine. Do you want to learn to paint or play an instrument? Stop putting it off and take a lesson. Do you love cooking elaborate, gourmet meals? Look up that recipe and do it tonight. Stop putting off what you love because you don’t have the time because of work. Make the time.
  4. Cut Back On Technology. There is a growing body of research that strongly shows we need to unplug in order to unplug, literally. We’ve all heard by now about how the light from cellphone and tablet screens can stimulate us to stay awake. We all have inboxes that overflow with dozens or hundreds (or thousands!) of emails a day. Look into the option of an app or program, or even a paid service, that can act as a virtual secretary to manage your inbox. If you’re an inbox whiz, create folders that help you organize the important stuff from the not-so-important stuff. Stop compulsively checking your phone during your off hours. If you must, decide that you will check it only once every two hours. At one company I consulted with, the IT department installed an instant message program on every employee’s computer. It seemed superfluous given the fact that they all had internal email, phones and could just get up and talk to each other. Many of the employees simply never opened the program, opting not to add yet another mode of communication. Good move, I think.
  5. Go To Bed. I’m bringing this back around to Ms. Huffington, who announced last week that she’s leaving HuffPo to build a health and wellness startup. Her words really resonate because it’s baffling to think about how far away we’ve gotten from something as basic as a good night’s sleep. With all of life’s demands and worries, sleep is the thing that gets the shortest shrift these days, despite mountains of research that show the danger of being sleep deprived. A lack of sleep is a sign that you are overworked, which isn’t just bad for you. It’s also terrible for your company, which really needs your sharp wit, brilliant ideas and problem-solving skills. Don’t just listen to me. Here’s what Arianna had to say about it: “I urge you to shut your eyes and discover the great ideas that blindside us, to shut your engines and discover the power of sleep.”

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K. Melissa Kennedy

Chief Innovation Officer, Founder, Intrapreneur. Entrepreneur. Enthusiastic leader and speaker. Teller of truths at 48 Innovate
I spent many years working for and building successful companies. I parlayed that experience into a unique process for harnessing hidden assets inside organizations and turning them into big-idea-generating, $1-billion-revenue-producing resources. (Spoiler alert: it’s the people.) I'm an internationally acclaimed expert, happy to share the not-so-secrets that have led to impressive outcomes for Fortune 100 corporations, major educational institutions, start-up companies and entrepreneurs. Working with companies like Cisco, Lancope, Arby's, Capitol Broadcasting Company New Media - WRAL, PRSONAS, Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog, REVO Communications, Erno Group, Focus Carolina, Madan Global, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, INZONE Brands, Albright Digital, Spring Metrics and NC State Kenan Fellows.

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