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When You Die, Your In-Box Will Still Be Full

To be a better leader, live a better life

The Wakeup Call

It was a dark and stormy night. Well, maybe not stormy, but likely quite dark because I found myself once again working late. It’s not that I was pressured to do it. It’s more that I enjoyed what I did and there was a lot of it to do. Nonetheless, I had been working too many hours and was feeling the strain of it, including from the pattern I had fallen into: once I got home from a somewhat long commute, there was little time for anything else other than grabbing something to eat, maybe watching some TV, and going to bed. Rinse and repeat. You get the idea.

On this particular evening, my boss (one of the best I’ve had the privilege to work for) stopped by my desk on his own way out the door. And he said something that has stayed with me (apparently it has quite the staying power, since it’s the title of this very post and the events described happened two decades ago!). He stood at my desk and rather cheerfully said, “Go home. When you die, your in-box will still be full.”

Whoa! That hit me between the eyes, as did all the implications of it. He left and I sat there taking in what he had said, knowing it could easily be true and that without a course correction, I might actually be hastening the day that would prove or disprove his theory.

I considered that at that time in my life, work was about all I did. No hobbies, no groups, just the pride of doing my job reasonably well. I’m sure I was REAL fun to be around (all work and no play, etc.). My boss, by contrast, was rather open about what his life looked like away from work. He had hobbies and took vacations to pursue them, happily sharing the resulting photos with anyone who asked. In short, he seemed (at least from where I stood) to be leading a happy life. And it feels important to add that there was no question at all about his commitment to the success of our company or concern about how many hours he spent there—he was there during business hours, occasionally later, and was a rock star.

He wasn’t just the excellent leader of our own little merry band, but he also was actually living a pretty great life overall. As I contemplated this over time and thought about my own situation, I began to grasp that I wasn’t living the life I really wanted. It’s not that I didn’t have outside interests. I just wasn’t making the time to pursue them and integrate them into my life.

I realized it was an easy excuse to tell myself (when I bothered thinking about it at all) that I was “committed to my career” and in a very real way was anesthetizing myself into believing that on some future magical day, it would all be worth it. All the long hours and self-denial would one day PAY OFF in some kind of big yet mostly vague way. What was also true was that if I maintained my current course and speed, I was going to die with my stupid in-box still full, and little else to show for it. I envisioned my tombstone saying, “His Inbox Was Still Full!”

So I made changes. I reconnected with hobbies and interests that I had let lie dormant, and as a result, I became a happier person, both at work and away from it. In fact, I think it made me more effective at work, because the more balanced life I was leading allowed me to have more energy, be more focused and be a more pleasant person to be around during work hours.

The Trap We Fall Into

You know how this goes. Our western culture (particularly in the U.S.) generally rewards work and looks a little bit askance at things that aren’t work. We tend to think working long and hard-- while continually putting off what actually brings us joy--will someday pay off. And truth be told, it might be that way for some of us, but overall, the conclusion I’ve come to after 3 1/2 decades in the work force is this: overall, allowing work to be the sum total of what you do when you’re awake (i.e., you’re either getting ready for work, commuting, doing the job, going home, or recovering, ad nauseam) is not worth it unless the work, effort, and lack of an actual life is enough of its own reward. If that describes you and you are clear it’s what you want, I sincerely wish you the best of luck with it.

But if you are anything like I was, thinking that you will define a well-lived life by titles, income, houses, cars or some other of the many popular outward signs of success, I invite you to rethink that. What happens—I’ve observed—is that one of two things is likely to happen. One, you will bust your hump to manifest one or more of those things, and once you have it, your expectations will automatically and very quickly adjust to the “new normal” and you’ll be focused on the next thing, the next level. (“Gosh, I thought the Ferrari was going to be THE car, but now I have my eye on the Bentley.”). And so with each new acquisition—once the “new car smell” wears off--you’ll still be left feeling empty.

Either that, or (Door #2) those prizes you’ve had your eye on don’t materialize for whatever reason, and you come to the very unfortunate realization that you’ve wasted a lot of time, effort, sweat, and relationships trying to manifest something that hasn’t shown up. And you’re left with the quite unsavory conclusion along the lines of “I think I’ve been wasting my precious time.” And that is a situation in which you do not want to find yourself.

What You Might Do Instead

I’m not advocating avoiding hard work. I am advocating getting clear on what kind of life you want to lead, and then identifying the work (and other circumstances) that allow you to have the life you decide you want. And once you’ve identified them, it’s also about finding the balance that works for you.

Hey, I caught that eye roll. Yes, “balance” as a concept is often poo-poo’d. Yet I stand by my assertion that creating at least a semblance of it in your life can be very helpful. Living a more balanced life is doable, but only if you give it some thought and then commit to giving it your honest effort. And to be clear, we’re not going for “perfect” balance, since there is of course no such thing. What we’re going for is at least better than what you’ve got now.

Here’s the Step-by-Step

How do you go about it? Here’s a simple outline of how to bring more balance into your life. (Simple to describe but not necessarily easy to stick to. A coach could help you with this.)

  1. List the different parts of your life.  It could be something like health, relationships, spiritual wellness, fun, finances and yes, work/career.    
  2. For each area, decide where things stand now using a 0-10 scale (with 10 meaning it’s so good you can’t imagine it being any better).
  3. Decide where you want that # to be in a year, without judging whether it’s likely or even possible, and write down that number.
  4. Note:  for this step, you can include all the areas of your life you listed, or just choose one or a few that you want to start making positive changes on.  For the areas you’ve selected, write out what will be happening when that part of your life is operating at that level (again, as best you can, without judgment of how likely it might be for your life to actually look this way).  
  5. For each area, create 3-5 action steps you will experiment with over the next month to nudge things in the better direction.  Start slowly.  It’s perfectly fine to choose one area to focus on for now.   
  6. Tips:  start small, be patient with yourself, acknowledge progress, acknowledge when it’s hard, and above all, don’t let setbacks or roadblocks stop you from keepin’ on. 

The Leadership Tie-In

Oh, and since I typically write about leadership and you are likely interested in the topic if you follow me, I know what you’re thinking: What does this article have to do with leadership? Where’s the actionable “hard” information on things like Key Results, Moving the Needle, Ecosystems, Core Competencies, Snackable Content, CRM, ROI, OKRs, LBJs? (that last one is just to see who’s still paying attention.)

Here’s the deal: creating and living a more balanced life has nothing to do with those perfectly fine topics, and yet has everything to do with your capacity to operate those business “levers” in a way that will both generate results while allowing you to live a life worthy of your time; one with as few regrets as possible.

You’ll be so much more effective at work, in part because work won’t be the end all and be all of who you are. The time and energy you spend doing other things will also (bonus!) be a time when your brain is solving work problems even though you may not be aware of it. There’s plenty of science that backs that up, by the way.

You’ll also be a lot more pleasant to be around and you will by virtue of your example, be encouraging those around you to do their version of this. As a leader, you do not want burned out, unhappy people on your team. What you want are mini versions of you, in this particular sense—that you have a work force of engaged people living a life that is by their own definitions meaningful. And to the extent you see them doing that and you encourage it as best you can, the longer they will happily stick around doing their thing in your organization. And if by chance this way of thinking invites them away from your organization, you will in my opinion have earned their lifelong gratitude and admiration. Maybe they’ll even write articles about your positive influence decades in the future.

It’s a Wrap

To be a better leader, live a better life: one that is worthy of your time and attention, one that you’ll look forward to going home to, one you’ll love with few if any regrets. Do it in service of being a better leader, spouse, partner, parent, and friend. And yes, do it simply for yourself.

The alternative can be a relentless, grinding struggle and a constant striving for the next thing—I assert that it’s simply not worth it. Take the time to figure out what your own version of a well-lived life is, and then give yourself permission to create it. It may or may not lead you to change your job or career or make other huge changes. Sometimes, relatively minor adjustments can make a meaningful difference. Bottom line: If you lead others, do them and yourself a favor and live the best life you can imagine. And don’t worry about that in-box. It’ll take care of itself!