THE BLOG
05/14/2014 11:13 am ET Updated Jul 14, 2014

There's a Time to Lean in, and a Time to Lean Out

Bloom Productions via Getty Images

I went on "holiday" recently, and I spent a lot of it thinking about how I spend my time. It's truly amazing how a week away from your life can free up mental space to do that. I suppose it's the same with anything -- you need distance for perspective. (And some sand between your toes doesn't hurt either.)

I'm extremely grateful for the life and career I have in New York. I've survived for 17 plus years in one of the toughest cities on the planet and definitely one of the most expensive. And in many ways, I am very lucky: I'm a creative director at a wonderful Madison Avenue ad agency with great people, some of whom I adore -- all of whom teach me something every day. New York has been good to me; I can definitely say I've "made it" here.

"Leaning in" has helped me significantly. My life changed after reading Sheryl Sandberg's brilliant book. In fact, the first chapter about girls being called bossy undid years of damage. Every woman on the planet needs to read it. Immediately.

But to me, true success is all about balance. And for the last nine months I've had next to none.

I could blame my job, my boss or the 24/7 lifestyle that Gotham enables. Seriously, we are all responsible for the codependent relationship our 24-hour culture has created. It's way too easy to work till 8 p.m. every night when you know you can do that and still get to the gym, pick up your prescription, grab a bite and get a manicure -- because everything's open until 11 p.m. or later.

For a while, I was willing to sacrifice my personal life for this job. It's been an amazing opportunity for me to learn and grow exponentially. And I always want to do the best work possible. With great clients, wonderful account people and talented creatives, we've consistently succeeded in getting great work out the door, which has made everyone happy... but at a price. So what if I spent every weekend last summer in bed, completely exhausted from my intense weekdays at work? "It's temporary," I thought.

In an interview about her new book Thrive with New York Times Bestselling Author, Greg McKeown, Arianna Huffington talks about this unhealthy trend.

"Over time, our society's notion of success has been reduced to money and power...This idea of success can work -- or at least appear to work -- in the short term. But over the long term, money and power by themselves are like a two-legged stool -- you can balance on them for a while, but eventually you're going to topple over. And more and more people -- very successful people -- are toppling over."

Thank God I'm not the only one.

It's been nine months, and I still sleep until 1 p.m. on the weekends and am afraid to make plans with friends for fear of being too tired (or stuck at work) and have to cancel. I'm that burnt out.

Ultimately, how I manage my time is up to me.

I nearly missed this much-needed vacation because of a bad head, cold-sinus thing. Clearly my stress-laden life has started to take a toll on my emotional and physical health. A recent blood workup showed my thyroid and adrenal glands are completely out of whack (that's a technical term), and the bags around my eyes are starting to tell my true age. When I was forced to postpone my trip, and still barely made my 6 a.m. flight two days later, I knew I had a lot of thinking to do.

There was a timely article in USA Today about this "dangerous" work culture. Lotte Bailyn, a professor emerita at the MIT Sloan School of Management (ground zero for overachievers, I'm sure) writes about the "anytime, anywhere" performance standard where "corporate cultures... assume employees are always available and judges them harshly if they're not."

I've seen this first-hand. One of the most competent account directors I know was taken off an account because she missed a client's after-hours call, and she couldn't respond immediately due to no cell signal. Seriously.

Just because we can (be available 24/7) does not mean we should, in my humble opinion. But this requires more than a little self-restraint.

Several weeks ago, I got an angry email from a senior manager at 11 p.m. Why did I look? I don't know -- because I can, I suppose. And because I take my job seriously, I was really concerned. I was up until 2 a.m. debating whether or not to respond and how. (Thankfully, I did not.)

But here's the kicker, in the light of day and after more information, he was fine.

I was exhausted. He was fine.

So basically, had I never looked at that email and waited until getting into the office, fully rested, the next day, it all would have been resolved on its own. Lesson learned.

Men (and women) need to lean out more often, Bailyn suggests. "Performance shouldn't be judged on how many hours you work, but by the work you do."

I couldn't agree more. In the end, everything in your life -- work and personal -- starts to malfunction if you don't "turn off" enough. It's like my iPhone: After a while it just stops working if I don't power it off once a week.

And just because I don't have a toddler to pick up at daycare or a husband to meet for dinner doesn't make my personal time any less valuable.

At the amazing 3% Conference roadshow last week in New York, the panelists spoke about the importance of women speaking up and setting better boundaries. Especially working mothers who need to be even more efficient when balancing work and kids. I totally agree. Walking out the door at 5:30 or 6 so you can be there for your family is to be commended. And it's necessary.

"The job demands and vampire hours cause most women to lifestyle out of advertising right as they're most valuable."

But what about walking out the door at 6 to be there for yourself? I don't have kids yet, but my life outside the office is just as important -- especially if I'm ever going to have time to meet the father of my children.

My sweet calico kitten, Pumpkin, throws herself at the door each morning as I try to leave. She cries and rolls on her back, exposing her belly as if to say, "Nooooo, look how cute I am. Don't go!" Even she knows it will be at least 12 hours before she sees me again.

There's only so much of me, and I am the only one who will suffer if I don't do something about the lack of balance in my life. Which is why I've decided to make some changes. Starting immediately.

I need to value my time away from the office as much as I do the time there. That means sometimes leaving before everything is done -- because at my level, it never is. That means scheduling yoga, time to write, meet friends and (gasp) to date. That means not checking email when I'm "off" (unless there's a good reason to) and sticking to it. Because nothing will change if I don't.

I'm not suggesting that the work should suffer, because I will always put 100 percent into whatever I do. Even if I leave the office earlier. In fact, I'm pretty sure it will all somehow get done anyway. It always does. The quality of my work probably won't change a bit, but the quality of my life is certain to.

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