Financial Success Versus Working Too Hard

Erica writes in:

Loved your recent article about living life true to oneself, made me really think. I wonder if you could address another of those “regrets of the dying,” wishing I hadn’t worked so hard. I feel like I am losing my whole life to constant work. I have a family I don’t see enough and no hobbies to speak of. Feel like I am constantly working, and for what? I have an okay retirement savings but I won’t have friends or hobbies when I do retire. My life is my job and I am starting to regret it.

This is a great question, one that, as many good reader mailbag questions do, goes far beyond what could be answered in a short mailbag answer and requires a full article.

So, in my article about avoiding life regrets, I focused almost entirely on the top regret, which was living a life true to oneself. I didn’t move on to address the other four regrets.

The second regret, which is the one that Erica is interested in, is also very straightforward:

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

Bronnie Ware, the palliative care nurse who wrote about the regrets of the dying, described it in a bit more detail: “This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

That’s a feeling that I think a lot of us can identify with.

Right now, I feel like I am in a pretty healthy place with regard to keeping my professional life in balance with other aspects of my life, but that was not an easy balance to achieve. I spent most of my first decade of professional life feeling like I was spending far too much of my life on professional goals and tasks and too little of it in other areas, particularly my family. I know almost exactly how Erica feels, in other words, because I was there, too.

The biggest challenge in changing things is that there’s a strong sense that if you rock the boat too much in terms of your career, or if you say “no” too much, you’re going to find yourself without a job or even without a career at all. You’ve spent many years training and likely at least some years establishing yourself in your career and in your current job. It pays reasonably well. You don’t want to lose what you’ve built. So, when you’re asked to put more and more on your plate, you just say “yes” because there’s an underlying feeling that saying “no” means you will lose what you have, which will cause a major professional crisis that will spill over into personal and financial consequences as well.

The first and most important thing to recognize in all of this is this simple fact: if you feel like your life is out of balance, you’re probably not performing well to begin with. As a wise friend of mine once said, “If you’re juggling six chainsaws, you’re probably not cutting down any trees.”

There comes a point in one’s professional life when there is so much on your plate that things simply start falling through the cracks. You can’t give quality work to everything, and you’re likely just failing to complete some things that just fall through the cracks. There is a limit to how much you can actually do, and when you reach that limit or go beyond it, it goes from cutting down trees to juggling chainsaws. Rather than doing things well, you’re just trying not to drop any balls, and that isn’t helpful for you or for whoever you’re working for.

I found myself in this exact position a few times in my career. I was juggling more than I could sustain in my professional life and it left me feeling torn away from my family, my friends, my health, and my other interests. The thing was, once I was able to step back from that, I realized that I wasn’t doing any of my tasks very well. I had transitioned to doing a bunch of things in a mediocre fashion, both because I had too many tasks on my plate and because I wasn’t left with much time or energy for anything else. I was heading down a path of pure regret, in other words.

So, how can you fix that without damaging your career or your income? Here’s what I was able to figure out while moving through those situations.

Build a life that doesn’t require your current salary – a “light at the end of the tunnel.” This is the absolute number one most important thing that you should be doing.

One important aspect of personal finance that I love to hammer on is the idea of “golden handcuffs”. “Golden handcuffs” simply means that your life is set up in such a way that you are reliant on the benefits and salary of your current job and your life would undergo some serious stress if you were to lose that job for even a very short period of time.

Being in “golden handcuffs” means that you do have some nice lifestyle perks that come from having a good income, but you are stuck at that job, period. You can’t take any career risks. If you’re considering jumping to a new job, you have to be very careful not to put your current job at risk. You can’t have frank conversations with your boss or ask for any real changes at work. You can’t rock the boat at all. You just have to swallow what you’re handed.

It’s miserable. But at least you have a lot of money to spend, right?

The thing is, money isn’t everything. Study after study has shown that having money and income beyond the basic level needed to meet your needs and to indulge in a few minor wants doesn’t bring you any additional happiness whatsoever. In fact, if you’re making choices that make you unhappy in order to simply have more disposable income that you then immediately spend on things that don’t actually contribute to your lasting happiness… you’re not really gaining anything, are you?

The most powerful solution I’ve found for this dilemma is to dial back your spending and start using that money to make yourself ready for a possible professional transition. (There are many, many ways to do this – stick around The Simple Dollar for a few weeks and you’ll find a ton of tips and tactics for how to do this in various areas of your life. Here’s a starter kit.) This isn’t to say that you’re going to make such a professional transition, but simply that one becomes easily possible. The first effect will be that if you get fired, it’s not apocalypse. Sticking with it, you’ll begin to see that other job options with lower salary but lower intensity and other perks are not only possible, but completely feasible options.

This transition mostly revolves around spending less than before, which has two key benefits. First, it means that you need less salary to continue to function. You can live your “ordinary life” with less income than before. Second, it also means that you have some financial reserves that can help you through a bumpy transition.

Together, these things create a very interesting effect at work. As you break those “golden handcuffs,” you no longer feel nearly as “forced” into unpleasant job choices as you once were. Your boss has a lot less leverage over you and you don’t feel as though you have to accept the short end of the stick professionally all of the time. You have options. It’s not the end of the world if this job goes away or this career path closes up or changes.

So, what’s the first step here? I generally encourage people to follow something close to Dave Ramsey’s debt snowball, which he prescribes in his book The Total Money Makeover.

First, build a $2,000 emergency fund. Dave’s original advice was to aim for $1,000, but that’s a number from several years ago. Aim a little higher – shoot for $2,000. I suggest doing this by setting up an automatic weekly transfer from your checking account to your savings account for a small amount – say, $50 – and leaving that on permanently, then contributing more than that manually until your savings is at $2,000. Don’t turn off the automatic contribution – that way, when you do need that cash in a pinch, the account isn’t depleted and will continue to refill itself automatically.

Next, start tackling your high interest debts. This includes basically every debt you have with an interest rate over 5% or so. Order them by interest rate or balance size, whichever you prefer (there are reasons for both – I lean toward interest rate, but there are nice psychological benefits for doing it the other way). Then, make minimum payments each month on every debt on the list, but make a big extra payment on the debt on top of that list. When that top debt is paid off, erase it and keep moving down the list. As you eliminate debts, the total of your monthly required bills is going to get smaller and smaller, which is going to make debt payoff faster and faster and give you more and more breathing room. You’re breaking the golden handcuffs!

Just keep moving from there. At this point, as those debts are starting to disappear, you’re going to start feeling like there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that’s an amazing feeling. It sets the stage for being a little more assertive at work in terms of having a balance between work and other aspects of life that you’re happier with.

Now, we’re going to move onto some tactics that might seem impossible if you’re tied up with the golden handcuffs, but become a lot more plausible when you have some light at the end of the tunnel.

Block off time for relaxation, period. Simply create a few blocks of time each week that are dedicated solely to relaxation and leisure. Put them in your planner. Make them absolutely sacrosanct. During those times, turn off your electronic devices and do something that makes you feel whole.

I actually do this pretty often. I meditate each day for about 15 minutes – it’s sacrosanct. I read for about an hour each day – it’s uninterrupted, with the phone off. I have two social evenings each week – again, uninterrupted. I usually spend about an hour with my kids uninterrupted each day. I also usually box off one weekend afternoon a week for a family event of some kind.

During those times, my phone is off. I don’t get interrupted no matter what it is. My focus is on the thing I’m doing right now, and the rest of the world really doesn’t matter.

If you think you don’t have the time for this, make time. Maybe that means you don’t do household routines quite as often as you once did. Maybe that means you have to back off on a few minor unimportant tasks at work. Maybe it just means you have a few less time wasters in your life. Whatever you need to do, make room for uninterrupted leisure and social time in your life. Pencil them into your calendar, turn off your digital devices when that time comes around, and don’t think about anything else when they’re happening.

It is very important that you block this time off and dedicate it to the things you care about. If you don’t, it’ll be lost in the form of minor tasks and idle time. Block off a few hours for a hobby on the weekend or a dinner party on Thursday and you’ll find that the things that are actually important still get done. The only thing you lose is idle time staring at the television or your phone or time spent doing minor and unimportant tasks.

Evaluate your job and figure out what’s working and what isn’t. If you feel as though your job is pulling too much out of you, you absolutely owe it to yourself to figure out what aspects of your job are really worthwhile and which ones are not. What you’re truly looking for is what parts of your job are ones where your particular skills are producing a lot of value for the company and which ones are not.

Most people tend to enjoy the aspects of their job where they feel they’re applying genuine skill and producing good results. It’s the other aspects – the ones where you’re not applying skill and you’re not producing any results – that leave a person feeling as though they’re just dumping hours of their life away into nothing while the other aspects of their life die on the vine.

I like to point at the 80/20 principle here. The 80/20 principle, as I described in an earlier post, simply says that 80% of the value you produce comes from 20% of your time and effort. In other words, most of what you do at work that really produces value comes from a small portion of the time and energy you devote there.

What you need to seek are ways to cut back on the tasks that fill the 80% of your time but only produce 20% of your results.

Now, every job is different. It’s hard for me to have any idea as to what aspects of your job are the 20% that are really productive and the 80% that aren’t. However, I can say that the value you have for your organization mostly comes from that 20%.

You need to amplify that 20%, not drown it with the 80% that’s clogging up your professional life (and other aspects of your life, too).

So, sit down with that question in mind and really look at your job. What things do you do that really produce value for your organization? Set those things aside – they’re probably the things about your job that you enjoy the most, anyway.

What you need to address is everything else – the low value stuff. Start figuring out how to deal with it.

Actively eliminate as many of those negative factors as possible. All of those other aspects – the 80% of your work that produces only 20% of the value – needs to be chopped down or tossed out as efficiently as possible.

Again, there are lots of ways of doing this. You can perhaps automate some of them. Maybe you can come up with a much more efficient workflow to get those drudgery tasks out of the way faster (or ask for help in coming up with that workflow). Maybe there are tasks that make more sense if they’re given to someone else with more appropriate skills. Maybe there are meetings you go to where your input really isn’t needed and those meetings can be cut.

Whatever the case may be, start chopping down that 80%. Your goal with that chopping is to get to a place where you can easily find room in your life to block off plenty of time for leisure, for social events, for other aspects of your life. If you’re deleting or downsizing useless tasks, you’re freeing up time at work that you can use to take care of things you might have previously taken home with you. If you’re getting that stuff done at work, then you’re freeing up time outside of work, time you can devote to things you care about.

Yes, there are probably some aspects of this that you’ll have to talk over with your supervisor. Just simply state that these X tasks are ones where you don’t think you’re providing much value to the company and they’re interfering with these other Y tasks where you are providing a lot of value to the company and look for solutions together. Your boss might push back on whether some tasks are really ones where you don’t produce much value, but it’s likely that some of them are tasks you’ll agree on, and then you’ll have an ally in making them go away in some fashion.

I went through all of these processes during a stretch in time where I felt completely overwhelmed with work and life. I went through a period where I felt completely lost in my career and felt as though everything was badly out of balance and wouldn’t ever change.

For me, the shift away from that started with a genuine commitment to turning around my finances so that I felt like there was some hope for the future and some leverage in my workplace. As I began to find financial leverage in life, I began to make some major career changes, only to find that after a few years, I was right back in that same tight “all work in no play makes Trent a dull boy” corner. At that point, I really just assessed what things I was doing that really produced value and which didn’t, and then made it my goal to cut out as much as I could that didn’t produce value.

Today, I feel like I’m in a very healthy place. My work is mostly joyful. I do not feel that I will regret overworking when I reach the end of my life. The foundation of that is strong finances, with some realization that my income is earned by the things I do well and not by my busywork.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.