Companies & Industries

The Quit-Lag Phenomenon


While serving out my notice, I finally had the freedom to do my job right, which meant not sweating the small stuff—or the big stuff

I did not begin by aiming for a business career. I did not have any plan at all. But I went to conservatory to become an opera singer, because I liked to sing. And like all singers, I waited tables and worked in offices to pay the rent. And a funny thing about the business world is if you can follow directions and show any brain activity at all, you have a decent chance to learn something and eventually to be promoted.

So, for a very long time, I was a combination HR (human resources) person/opera singer. And during that period a friend put me in touch with a job opportunity for a much more exciting job than the one I had. I had never interviewed for a job before while working someplace else. I felt excited and disloyal at the same time. I made it through the whole process and got a job offer at the new place—hurrah! Then came the hard part. I had to tell my boss, the vice-president of operations who had helped me in so many ways, that I was leaving.

When I got the new job offer, I walked slowly down the hallway to John's office. "Nancy," I asked his assistant casually, "is John in the office today?" "Nope," she said, "he's out of the country. Left yesterday, back in a week."

Anxiously Awaiting

Oh no! Back in those days, e-mail did not exist. I didn't want to give notice over the phone. I called my new boss: Could I have an extra week to give notice since my boss was unreachable? No problem. So I sat back on my heels, waiting in anxiety for my opportunity to give notice.

When I went back to my desk, the piled-up papers looked like annoying debris. Now that I was leaving, my projects-in-process were meaningless to me. But I had two weeks to kill, so I went to work. I started creating a manual for the person who came after me. I wrote down procedures and lists of contacts and important events coming up in the future. That took about three days. Then I got to work cleaning house.

I threw out papers and cleaned out files. I reorganized employee records and made sure vendor contracts were current. I walked around the office and visited employees who had pending benefits issues or other matters that needed attention. Boy! they said. You are really on the ball this week! Heh, heh, I said to myself. What else do I have to work on?

Lame Duck Period

During the two weeks I had to wait for John to return, I stopped doing my job. Or maybe a better way to put it is my job stopped undoing me. Every big project went untouched. I dealt with immediate and pressing issues only, but I was more effective than I'd ever been before. I actually listened to the employees who had problems. I focused on a very small number of things and saw them through. When I stopped worrying about work, my work improved dramatically.

During that quit-lag period, I learned a lot. I went to meetings and political slights didn't bother me. In the past, HR and accounting were often at odds. "The commission reports had mistakes in them," said one unpleasant lady. "Thanks so much for letting me know," I said kindly. "I really appreciate your help." Political squabbles melted away. What did these small things matter to me? I was leaving.

I had no job stress during that period. Everyone was my friend. I remember thinking, "This is the greatest thing ever! How can I make my every week on the job, every job, this fun and rewarding?"

The Undoable Task

The quit-lag interim had a huge learning benefit for me. By the time John got back to town, I was a different person. I was calm. I could see issues clearly, without the extra shades of "it's your fault, not mine" and "don't criticize me" and "can't you see I'm overworked?" John and I had a great chat. I told him about my transition materials. He was grateful. You can't imagine an easier time giving notice.

But the biggest lesson for me was this: When I went through my stacks and memos and project schedules, I had to face the reality that in my "really important, need to get to before long" pile I had six months of work. When was that six months, in reality, going to arrive?

Never. It was very obvious, once I knew that the "got to get to this stuff" stack was in fact never going to be addressed, at least not by me, not on that job. I had been burdening myself mentally and emotionally with an undoable task, with six months of work on my shoulders that could never be caught up with, not in real life. I was running my legs off just to stay in place. I was setting myself up to fail.

Another thing I realized during my time off-work (I was working, but doing none of the things I'd viewed as my highest priorities) was that lame-duck employees can be incredibly productive. Since then, as a manager, I've tried to remember this and, instead of writing off employees of mine once they gave notice, re-engaging them to accomplish the kinds of important things that only an employee on the way out can accomplish.

Happily Ever After

In the years since then I've gotten better at that. I still bite off more than I can chew. But the quit-lag phenomenon taught me the value of every moment, of taking care of things now instead of putting them off for later, of valuing relationships over political wins and losses. The six months of work in the "got to get to it" pile never got done, and no one really suffered. I went off to a new job and had a great time.

Once I saw how much I had committed myself to what was never going to get finished, I began to take my commitments more seriously. And I saw the value of not working every once in a while—not pushing the rock another inch up the hill—just taking time to clean out space, in the files and in my head.

There was another bonus to my job change. My relationship with my favorite national accounts coordinator changed once we weren't working in the same company anymore. This year, we celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary and send our youngest (of five) off to kindergarten. What would happen if you stopped working, just for a day or two, to sort things out?

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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