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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Why My Super Awesome Flexible Schedule Completely Backfired on My Career

My first two jobs out of grad school spoiled me with flexibility. While each had core business hours (i.e., “be available between 10 AM to 3 PM on a regular basis”), there was no defined start time, and I was free to leave whenever I pleased. If I wanted to exercise in the morning and arrive a little later, it was fine. If I wanted to put in extra hours one night in order to put in a few less the next day, I could do that, too (just as I did for my birthday last year).

And, though the preference was for me to be present in the office as much as possible, I could pretty much work from wherever I wanted. Like my mom’s house in Pennsylvania, my best friend’s house in New Orleans, or my favorite coffee shop at the end of the street. The overarching golden rule was: “Just get your stuff done, and get it done well.” Which I did.

The ownership I had over my schedule was pretty fantastic. I had no issues scheduling doctor appointments (no PTO hours lost is a major win!), could meet up with friends or family at any time, and would commonly duck out of the building for an hour or so to attend a fitness class with some co-workers.

But after almost a year at my second gig, this excellent perk started to work against me. Because it was around that time I started to realize just how unsatisfied I was professionally. I tried to ignore this feeling for a while—after all, I’d left my first job only a year before, and I didn’t want to admit defeat again. So, I kept telling myself to suck it up, to do whatever I could to make it better.

But as hard as I tried—consistently providing my boss honest feedback; alerting her to the fact that I felt disengaged; exploring the possibility of a position on a different team—things didn’t really change. And, besides that, it became quite apparent to me that even if some things did change, they would only be temporary fixes. Ultimately, my desired career path was going in a different direction than the company could take me in, and there’s not much that can be done to fix that other than leave—which I didn’t figure out fast enough.

Instead, I gave up. I became apathetic. And lazy.

The freedom to flex my schedule served as my number one enabler. I started to work remotely once a week, sometimes twice. One time, after a particularly large snowstorm that shut down half of DC, I didn’t go into the office for two weeks—days after the sidewalks were clear enough for me to navigate on my walk to the metro. And when I remained in my apartment, I took serious advantage of having zero supervision.

I went to bed later and slept a few hours longer. I spent more time than usual at the gym mid-morning. I distracted myself with laundry and other household chores (I know—super entertaining, right?). I binge watched The Hills and Real Housewives during “breaks.” And I would spend a little (cough—a lot) more time on my external writing projects, which I was much more passionate about. All of this was doable because my laptop remained open and on—that little green dot next to my name in the chat list indicated I was present, and I didn’t stay away from it for obscene amounts of time.

Don’t get me wrong—I met all my hard deadlines. I finished and delivered each report on time or ahead of schedule, and I was always available to assist my teammates if needed. But those ongoing, no-due-date assignments I was supposed to dedicate downtime to? Yeah—those got pushed to the bottom of my to-do list. Again, and again, and again. Instead of performing at an A+ level, I was averaging a B—and I was OK with settling for that. (Because it’s still above average, right? I wasn’t failing completely.)

This lackadaisical attitude worked against me for obvious reasons. Because I wasn’t going the extra mile, there was little chance for a promotion. Sure, I didn’t really want one, but you should always be trying to better yourself, right? After all, if nothing else I could’ve been improving on my soft skills—skills that are valuable in any job you’ll ever have. I also wasn’t doing any favors for my teams’ processes—processes that needed a lot of improvements and that I could’ve helped make better if I’d made the effort.

But it affected me negatively in other ways, too. It was like my subconscious “forgot” I had a full-time job. One that paid a decent salary and provided me with benefits and some great colleagues-turned-friends. Whenever someone would send me an email, assign me to a task, or ping me via our chat system to ask a question, I became resentful. They were “bothering” me and interrupting my precious time. (A.k.a.,—they were doing their job, and I was annoyed that they were expecting me to do mine. The nerve.)

Not surprisingly, this behavior meant I felt like complete crap about myself. I want to be a good employee. I want to be a good teammate. And even though I wasn’t really letting anyone down, I wasn’t meeting the standards I usually hold myself to. I knew I could (and should) be better.

This isn’t a story bashing flexible schedules. In fact, I’m a huge supporter of them. This is a story about how a really good thing can end up being not so great for you if you aren’t careful. And that one awesome company perk can make you overlook a whole lot of negatives—in my case, the negative being that I was trading career happiness for working in my sweats.

If you’re lucky enough to have a laid back work situation like I did, use it the way it’s supposed to be used: to facilitate you in achieving maximum levels of productivity and work-life balance. Not to ignore your responsibilities and indulge on bad reality TV from 2006 (that’s what weekends are for). And certainly not to hide from the fact that you might need a new job if you spend most of your workdays avoiding it.

Photo of person working with dog courtesy of Caiaimage/Paul Viant/Getty Images.