In English, the phrase “As keen as mustard” means to be really enthusiastic. Back in the olden days, you couldn’t have beef without mustard. Since it added zest and flavour to the meal, mustard became associated with vigour and zeal. By the early 20th century, the association was so strong that people and things weren’t just like mustard, they were mustard.
I remember when that phrase was applied to a friend of mine back when we first started working after university. You’d think it was a good thing right? Only the actual phrase used was more along the lines of “She’s as keen as mustard alright, but…” and subsequently there followed an explanation of how she was always running in the wrong direction, or that she worked hard, but the results were never quite right.
I was reminded of this part of my history by a post on a colleague’s blog “When You Don’t Fit In At Work” by Tina Del Buono, PMAC. The post made me think initially of another friend who struggled to fit in. Then as I reflected a little more, I thought of how much I personally had learned during that time of my life and others when I too hadn’t quite fit in. I absorbed and experienced more about people management and influencing others by the mistakes that I made back then. I remember feeling as though I was running from one fire to the next. Sure I wanted to show how fantastic I was and to make a great impression, but was I effective? Perhaps not!
I also saw this post this week “Doing more only to do less – do we glorify busy?” by SOFAGIRL. She initially talks about some Dutch workers who regularly put in 10 hour days since their workload is too high to fit into the 8 hour schedule. I really liked this comment:
Hmmfff…”, said their pals, “In Holland, if you were to work like that we would think you were not coping.”
SOFAGIRL goes on to talk about an anxiety attack she had and the negative consequences she faced from being over busy. Again her motivation was obviously in the right place, but her well being was compromised as a result. As a result, she makes some very convincing arguments about how to manage your time more effectively. In fact it is a great post and I highly recommend reading it.
When we over work in this way, we are in fact making a choice. Perhaps it doesn’t feel like a choice at the time, because it is a series of very small, tiny, inconsequential choices. Just five minutes more one day, checking your email at the weekend another day, and then accepting a call whilst on holiday the next. We do these thing because we want to be seen to matter; to be seen as an effective force in the workplace; to get a bigger bonus at the end of the year, to be seen as being close to perfect and to be needed and / or wanted.
A lot of other people have posted on this subject, mostly stating that working long hours is not productive and as Sofagirl explained are actually harmful to us in the long run. A couple on hbr.org that I enjoyed were “Overcome your work addiction” and “Set boundaries on the sacrifices you’ll make for work“.
Often though, in my experience, working long hours is rewarded by managers and eventually becomes seen as being the norm. Those that don’t work long hours are seen as being inflexible and not committed to the company. Unfortunately, working long hours are just one of many symptoms. I’ve seen colleagues taking on more work than they can possibly handle, running to and from meetings, making bad quick decisions in the heat of the moment because they don’t have the time to make a deep analysis, taking work home with them and one that I myself often do, which is eating a sandwich at my desk instead of having a proper dinner break. “That’s nothing”, you scoff! In fact, I’m sure everyone reading this could add to the list. Unless you’ve learned from experience, or you’re naturally zen, we all overwork to a certain extent.
Perhaps instead of just being keen, we should also aim to be balanced and effective. Work hard, play hard. Balance. Fun! Identify not just your own strengths, but the strengths of your team. Work out how to organise the work load so that everyone goes home on time, no-one is over stressed and over worked and that each person is doing the jobs that they are the best at.
Imagine person A is great in Excel and person B sucks at Excel, though they are a fast typist. Get person A to do the excel work for the team and person B to do the word processing. Over simplified, yes, but you get the point. Also identify the value added in the work your team does. Identify what is key to the business success and put that to the top of the list. Stop saying yes to everyone and everything, and instead draw a line between what will show your team in a great light and what won’t. You can still be keen, but direct that keenness! As a leader, you should insist on a healthy work environment and take time to let your team relax.
I personally have a tendency to say yes, when I really should say no. I am a team player and will help just about anyone. Just like being keen as mustard, it sounds great, but… I’ve had to really scale back over the past few months due to a vacancy in my team. I’ve had to learn that just because something IS an objective doesn’t mean that it SHOULD be. It might be on my to do list, but the when has definitely become flexible and sometimes even whether or not it is on the list. Obviously delegation helps, but you can only delegate so much before your team also starts to drown. I’ve really learned how to prioritise over the past few months. There’s no magic wand, just a lot of deep calm breaths. Instead of making a quick decision, I’ve learned to make a better analysis and only do the work that I or my team can add value to. Instead of going to every meeting I am invited to and running from one meeting to the next, I check what exactly is on the agenda. Do I really need to be there? Could that time be better spent? Are others going to the meeting that would fulfill the same need? I am trying to work less, but be more efficient and more focussed.
Working long hours simply makes me irritable and over tired. I make poorer decisions and I make more mistakes. Not good for me and certainly not good for the company I work for. Now I celebrate the successes that my team achieve and choose which fights we want to win carefully. I am keen as mustard, but… it doesn’t mean that I can or will do everything.
What about you?