Working to Live or Living to Work?

During a recent conversation with a hard-working and fully committed accountant I asked him this question. “How many days off have you not worked in the last 12 months”? The answer? “One.” Knowing this accountant, it was, sadly, the answer I was expecting but I had hoped that I was wrong. The conversation challenged me to consider what habits (if you can forgive me for using a word that does not even begin to describe working 364 out of 365 days) have I evidenced during my consulting career that have harmful or negative consequences.

Working excessive hours

It is probably right to start by outlining what range of total hours is appropriate.

Let’s assume your standard hours are 40 per week – that is 2080 in a year. As a firm owner you expect to earn more and therefore it is not unreasonable for your fellow firm owners to expect you to commit time beyond a standard week. Interfirm surveys report that the average firm owner works total hours in the 2300-2400 region. That equates to somewhere around 46 hours a week. This allows for activities such as networking meetings, out of hours firm meetings and client hours.

But, is there an upper limit? The answer of course, has to be ‘Yes.” 

Key observation/view: If total time edges over 2800 a year there have to be consequences – none of them positive or helpful to work-life balance or mental health.

Key consequences include:

  1. Work-life balance out of kilter
  2. Time and quality with family and loved ones impaired
  3. Increased tiredness and feeling lethargic
  4. Heightened risk to safety while driving
  5. Reduced or maybe no time for pursuing other interests such as sport, culture or faith
  6. Reduced time for exercise
  7. Increase in stress levels 
  8. Interactions with other team members more strained

Others? Of course, and you will know what they are based on your own experience and observations.

What if I am doing over 2800?

Let me level with you – I have in the past been guilty of working more than 2800. Years ago, I was white water rafting down the Colorado river. I have been down the Colorado four times and can recommend the experience. On one occasion in 1988 I became friends with a couple of rafters who were both FBI agents. One day we sat above Havasu Falls. Our lives were completely different – here was I, an accountant chatting away with law enforcements officers whose responsibilities include combating international terrorism, organized crime, and helping to prevent terrorist attacks against citizens and interests of the United States. During these conversations, Ed enquired, “How many hours do you work in a year?” The response I gave was 2900. Ed fired back with a disapproving look as he said, “Why” No way should you be working that many hours.”

This conversation was in August. By the end of November that year I had sold my interest in the accountancy business that bore my name to my partners. I had been developing a range of marketing products that I longed to launch into the marketplace and that conversation made me realise I had to make a choice. I loved the profession – still do – but the lure of doing something different was just too great. Above all, I recognised that working at that level of intensity was not sustainable.

Key point: I recognised that my work life balance was out of kilter. While taking time out away from the coalface of work I was able to reflect on life and my desire to change the work load and intensity to which I had become accustomed. Being an owner of an accountancy business can be all consuming. But, yet we only have one chance to live this life and so it is important ensure you make the most of it. Balance is all essential. Do you need to make a correction? Have you ever faced that Havasu Falls moment?

The most powerful management proposition I ever heard

I have always loved what I refer to in my management workshops as the “Power of Words”. I have a list of 20 of them that provide an inner source of strength and motivation. For example, my first power word was ‘Momentum’. How does that empower me? Inevitably in life there are times or events that set you back. They are probably mostly unexpected. It could a key team member announcing their departure, the loss of a loved one, a long-term illness or a whole range of other setbacks. That’s life, these things happen. It is how these problems are handled that really matters. So how does momentum empower and direct my thinking? For me momentum tells me to see these as a step backward. I need to reflect, accommodate to the change and accept what has happened. Then I must focus on doing (1) all I can (2) when I can to (3) take two steps forward. That is not to put pressure on myself to move on quickly but to take the necessary space to then move forward and advance.

So, the most important word? STOP. The question that emanates from this word is to ask yourself to determine what you need to stop doing. Those who attend my management workshops hear me discuss this toward the end of the session. Having given participants a wide range of management solutions I implore them to work smarter, not harder.  My workshops are not about doing more or adding to the “To Do’ list. 

Key considerations: What are you doing that you can delegate? What are you doing that is no longer necessary or productive – it is just a habit that you keep repeating?

Key action: List the tasks you perform that you can delegate. List the tasks you perform that are not necessary. If you find this a challenging exercise discuss with someone you trust and ask them to help you improve your personal time management. Could technology be of help? Conversely, is technology causing you to be inefficient? That is possible as several clients have told me, especially when the programmes are not connected to one another or not delivering the solutions you need and expect.

The briefcase versus the computer – the temptation is greater than ever before

Back in the 1980s when I was managing my accountancy business, I used to take my briefcase home on a Friday evening. It would sit in the hall close to the front door. During the weekend I would walk past and think about the work I could do. But most of the time I would return to the office on a Monday morning without having looked inside. But, like an alcoholic who always needs to be close to the bottle, a workaholic needs to be close to work. 

But now the challenge is greater that ever. Firstly, the computer at your home is connected to your work and you probably have this from early morning to late in the evening and weekends so you can keep in touch with the news or whatever websites you frequent. The temptation to check your mail, reply to client emails or finish off (or even start) client casework is a problem of epidemic proportions. Recognising the problem is easy, fixing it, not so. The fact is we all do it but possibly fail to acknowledge how this constant work access impacts our lives. The closeness of the computer tempts us to fall into poor personal habits which, as discussed above are somewhat harmful to a well-balanced life.

Key question: Does this feel like me? If so, what do you need to change the focus of your time management? How can you reclaim your personal space? Remember that it is not what you know needs to change but making that life change to do something about it. It’s about stopping believing the lie that the work cannot wait. It’s about not leaving work to the last minute. It’s about not allowing other people to dump ‘stuff’ onto your ‘To Do list.

Back to my accountant friend

Firstly, I know he is reading this and pondering, yet again, what can be done to make the change. I always remind people that we live life in accordance with our priorities. So, for us accountants with so many clients to serve and staff to manage work is inevitably a first priority. For this accountant there is no question that this is the case. He has very high standards. He finds all too often that work performed by staff is not satisfactory. Like all accountants he toggles between meeting client needs, managing staff and completing work. In addition, so many accountants are also managing their own accountancy business. Often there are not enough hours in the day.

What changes do you need to make?

As I recounted earlier, I decided to pursue growing a different business. But that is not necessarily your answer. You might be 40, 50 or older. The question you have to consider is that if anything you have read has challenged you, what will you plan and commit to doing differently?


How do you plan to ensure that those changes are lasting – and not just good resolutions or intentions?

I wish you success in achieving your life’s priorities and workplace realignment