When I was a banker, I always laughed whenever someone mentioned work-life balance. Those semi-annual emails from HR promoting that idea did nothing to reduce the reality of my 90-hour work week. Polite suggestions from senior bankers that I “not stay up all night” for a project were meaningless when they followed with “but I need this by 8am”.
I’ll be the first to admit that, actually, failure to balance my work and my personal life was mostly my fault. The office doors were never locked. And no one had physically chained me to my desk (well, there was that one time).
Take my advice, as someone who did a horrible job at the time. If you are going to have a successful, long-term career in banking, a sustainable work-life balance should be a top priority. This is how.
1. Think of it as life-work balance, not work-life balance
Although it may not feel like it when you are starting out, your career is just one stage in a life that will hopefully be full of other meaningful milestones. You should be thinking about how your career fits into your life, not how your life fits into your career. You were not born at your desk, and (hopefully) you will not die there. Before you do anything else, you need to start by rewriting the equation.
2. Admit that you cannot have it all… at least not at the same time
The demands of investment banking are intense. In reality, a 24-hour day is very short. After 16 hours in the office, you barely have enough time to sleep, shower, and make yourself at least semi-presentable for the coming day. It is unrealistic to believe that you can be the best banker while you are also being the most attentive spouse, parent-of-the-year, and some shining beacon of social philanthropy. It is a noble goal, but you will die trying.
If being a rock star banker is what you want right now, then go for it. Set that near term goal and dive right in. But pause now and accept the fact that compromises will be necessary with the other areas of your life. If you start out expecting to have it all, you will be filled with nothing but resentment when you are cancelling weekend plans with friends or when you are trapped in the office on your birthday. The unanticipated disappointments can wear you down quickly.
Eventually (almost) everyone realizes they’ve enjoyed a good run and decide to refocus.
3. Be on alert for bad “habits for success”
Rising early so that you are always the first one in the office? Refusing to leave until the lights are literally turned off over your head? Some would call these habits for success, but they can also be recipes for disaster.
Work has a way of subtly creeping into almost any aspect of one’s life. Don’t confuse being a diligent and attentive banker with being a total pushover. You need to constantly fight to maintain boundaries. Don’t invite work into your bed by sleeping with your phone. Yes, your superiors may love the fact that you are at their beck and call at even the most ungodly of hours. But if you (and if they) really care about your career longevity, you can wait and enjoy those few hours of uninterrupted sleep.
4. Cover for one another
So maybe today just isn’t your day. You already had two pitches to complete by morning, and now your director wants you to “run a few numbers” (and by that, he means build an entire merger model). It appears that you are not going home tonight. Meanwhile your colleague seems to have hit the jackpot… almost. The only thing between him and a 5pm departure is a three hour wait for materials to return from the printer.
Lend the guy a hand! If you are stuck in the office for the foreseeable future, cover for him. Offer to pick up the books from the printer when they are ready, giving him the keys to his early freedom.
There are so many opportunities where the smallest favor can have a material impact. Misery loves company, but it also loves to know someday the favor will be returned.
5. Don’t let the opportunities for a break pass you by
Sometimes the difference between losing your mind and making it through another week is little more than taking a few minutes to step away from your desk and taking a walk around the block.
The truth is, in the course of a seemingly unending workday, not every moment is filled with the frantic demands of the job. Analysts and associates do a lot of waiting around. A workday can quickly go from 12-hours to 16-hours when you’re caught in a back-and-forth with comments and revisions from senior bankers. But those four lost hours should have been your hours!
Embrace these moments! Grab a coffee. Go to the gym. Reclaim what could have been lost time. A little break is all that you may need to recharge and get over the finish line.
6. Make plans… and keep plans
Intentionally make plans outside of work that are hard to break. Too often, “I’ll see if I can make it” never happens.
Make dinner reservations at a restaurant with a punitive cancelation policy. Buy concert tickets months in advance. And if losing a few dollars isn’t incentive enough, promise grandma that you will be the one to pick her up at the airport! If the idea of your elderly matriarch standing at the curb waiting for you doesn’t get you out of the office, nothing will.
7. Even better, make plans with people who work outside of banking.
What do bankers do when they get together outside of the office? They talk about banking. Way to escape work!
If you are trying to get away from the office, then really get away from the office. Spend time with your non-banker friends and family. You will find the change in conversation to be a tremendous breath of fresh air. And the non-finance perspectives will help to keep you grounded.
When you spend all of your time, both business and pleasure, with other bankers, you are trapping yourself in an echo chamber. What you may once have recognized as a skewed work-life balance suddenly seems normal. If you ever catch yourself saying, “I only worked 80 hours this week!” then it’s time to run.
Mark Franczyk is a former investment banker of ten-years. After becoming a vice president, he finally decided to leave finance, attended culinary school and became a pastry chef in New York City and food blogger.