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How to survive an 'extreme' workweek

When your job gets to be too much, here's what to do, says TODAY financial editor Jean Chatzky.
/ Source: TODAY

How many hours did you work last week? Chances are you didn't put in a 40-hour week like your folks used to do. Topping 50 may even be par for the course.

But have you ever stopped to consider that between the hours you spend actually in the office and those on the cell phone, the computer and the commute you may actually be logging a workweek that tops 70 hours? That's right, 7-0.

If so, according to a new survey published by the Harvard Business Review, you can consider yours an "Extreme Job." That's the moniker coined by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York and co-author of the study, the full title of which is "Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek."

The duties of extreme jobs vary, Hewlett notes, but there are some universal red flags to alert you that you have one (if a PDA buzzing at 3 a.m. hasn't already). These jobs span fields you might expect, such as media and investment banking, but are also found in manufacturing, education and the not-for-profit sector. They typically come with work-related events outside of normal work hours, a responsibility for the company's profits and losses, for mentoring and recruiting and often a great deal of travel.

And interestingly enough, if you have one ... you probably love it. These positions also tend to be exhilarating, says Hewlett. In fact, the survey found that 70 percent of these workers love their jobs. Unfortunately, it's likely to be a brief affair. Some 80 percent of women who hold an extreme job feel they can't keep it up for more than one more year.  They feel pulled by other responsibilities in their lives — children or older parents in particular. Many men, too, feel they'll be burnt out after three to five more years at their current pace.

What's the solution? First, give yourself a break. It's not that your work attitude has become "wimpier," says Hewlett. "It's that the work model just got much worse, and it's not our fault if we somehow can't do the balancing act. We're dealing with an extreme work model." Second, use some of the following tools and strategies that can help you cope with the increasing demands that come with being stretched too thin:

  • Make the most of your time. Eliminate distractions in the office, so you get as much as possible done during the regular workday, instead of muddying your personal time. First, stop cruising those gossip and news Web sites. Then, focus on your e-mail. Everyday, your inbox is probably flooded with time-wasters — I know mine is. These are e-mails may be irrelevant, outdated or plain old junk. Bottom line, they don't need your attention. Try to spot and trash them by simply skimming the subject line, then eliminate any more by canceling unnecessary e-mail subscriptions and tightening your junk filter.
  • Draw a line. You do not have to be a slave to your PDA, and in fact, what originated as a helpful tool can actually extend your time spent in the office. I'll give you an example. You're in a meeting, and someone's Blackberry starts buzzing. They stop to check the e-mail, the meeting slows, and as a result, lasts longer — and this typically happens more than once. Admittedly, these devices can be hard to ignore, but remember this: If there's an emergency — a true, honest-to-goodness problem — someone will call you, not e-mail you. E-mails can be answered when you have a moment, and that doesn't mean while you're driving, or at the dinner table.
  • Let go of what Hewlett calls the male competitive model. "We've been trying to copy this model of a career that is continuous, cumulative, lock-step employment, and if you somehow don't get on that track, you think you've failed," she explains. What's the point in shooting up the ladder, only to crash and burn a few years later? It's better to pace yourself, and know that your only competition is yourself. As long as you're happy with your position, and the way that you're balancing work with personal responsibilities (whatever they may be), you've found success.
  • If it's still too much, scale back, but try not to quit completely. Many women are leaving the workplace, only to find it next to impossible to break back in a few years down the road. Talk to your company about options before you leave your position cold turkey, and consider staying on part-time. If your job isn't flexible enough to allow a cut in your hours, think of other ways you can stay in the game, such as consulting or freelance work. If you plan on returning to work any time in the future, it will pay off big-time to keep your skills, and your resume, up to date. I'm thinking career here, but also retirement — according to the Women's Institute, women lose on average 13 years of earnings after the age of 22 because of care giving or child-raising. That's a lot of money out of your 401(k) or IRA.

With reporting by Arielle McGowen

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .