Get a Life

Feeling stressed, overworked, and lacking in personal time?

May 1, 2002

For Lon Walters, owner of Coldwell Banker First Affiliate in Sedona, Ariz., it was a trip to Las Vegas, the first vacation he’d taken in months. “My wife and I got to Vegas about noon,” he remembers. “I called the office and there were 21 messages. I spent my whole vacation on the phone.”

For Nancy Black, a salesperson with Realty Executives in Nashville, Tenn., it was a stress quiz that asked questions such as, Do you overpromise and then rush to get it done at the last minute? and Do you drink coffee or other caffeinated drinks to keep going?

“If you answered yes to five or more, it was an indication that you had a problem with stress,” Black says. “I answered yes to all of them.”

Both Walters and Black were bumping up against the limitations of the 24 hours a day, seven days a week mentality that the industry has embraced. They’ve since taken steps to achieve what they believe is a more workable balance between their professional and personal lives.

At one time, real estate wasn’t that different from most professions regarding working hours. During the last decade, however, with the explosion of electronic communication devices such as cell phones, pagers, and e-mail, the perception has taken hold that real estate salespeople need to be available more or less around the clock.

How did we get here?

“Real estate practitioners are caught in a kind of paradox,” says Kevin E. O’Connor, a management consultant and business professor at Loyola University in Chicago. “Some believe they can’t make money unless they’re willing to work when the rest of the world isn’t working—such as at night or on the weekends. But they can’t have a successful personal life if they’re never around when their families are home. The challenge is to achieve some balance in these areas.”

After a client’s 1 a.m. phone call, Amber Burke began to realize how her career was affecting her family. “I needed to establish some boundaries,” says Burke, a salesperson with Century 21 at the Rockies in American Fork, Utah, and one of this year’s “30 under 30” (see page 32).

“There comes a point,” says Susan Pickard, a salesperson with RE/MAX Suburban in Arlington Heights, Ill., “where you ask yourself, ‘How much money do I need to make?’ I want to have a life, not just fund a lifestyle.”

Observers believe factors beyond money are at play in the sometimes obsessive work schedules encouraged within the industry. “It’s an addiction, almost like sugar or drugs,” says Black, who in recent years has spoken to a number of real estate groups about achieving balance in work and life issues. “You have to get the next hit, the next sale, the next deal. It’s too scary when things quiet down.”

“The whole 24/7 mentality starts from fear,” says Joe Stumpf, president of By Referral Only Inc., a sales training organization in Oceanside, Calif. “People think if they want to be No. 1 in the office, they have to be on their guard all the time, and that means coming in early and being the last person to leave. But real estate isn’t—or shouldn’t be—about being No. 1 in the office. It’s about servicing the customer.”

How to gain control of your time

Reining in an out-of-control schedule involves both small and large decisions that are different for everyone.

One of the most important decisions is figuring out what you want. “The key is knowing yourself,” says O’Connor. “People in this industry have a very high divorce rate, and part of the reason is that they put too much emphasis on business goals and not enough on personal goals. How important is it to be No. 1? What are you willing to give up to get that?”

Black began the process of figuring out what she wanted by giving herself time to think. “How do you clear a glass of muddy water? You let it sit still. Then the clarity comes,” she says. Out of that meditative time came a decision that many practitioners say is key to achieving balance between work and personal concerns—setting limits on work hours.

“I take every Tuesday off, as well as every Friday night and Sunday morning. I also take a week’s vacation every quarter,” she says. “It’s not negotiable. I tell my clients I’m not available at those times.”

Walters opted for a more conventional business schedule. “Our business hours are 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and on weekends by appointment only,” he says. “I used to work 80 hours a week. Today, it’s more like 40 or 50.”

Another important consideration: getting a handle on phones and beepers. “I got rid of my pager four years ago,” says Pickard. “I decided there wasn’t anything that was so much of an emergency that people had to reach me instantaneously.”

After the 1 a.m. wake-up call, Burke says, “I thought, this is too much. I’m not a robot. I have to have a life.” Now she shuts off her phone after 7 p.m. “It was a big step,” she says. “But I realized I’m a professional, and professionals have business hours.”

A surprising upside of balance

The concern many salespeople voice, of course, is that by limiting business hours, they’ll also limit their volume. These salespeople say that hasn’t happened.

“The first year,” says Black, “our business increased 30 percent. The second year it increased 40 percent.”

“We did $20 million last year and are No. 1 in the area,” says Walters. “We’re doing well.”

The key, say salespeople, is establishing some ground rules from the very beginning. “When you first meet with clients,” says Pickard, “you have to present how you work, and they have to know it’s not a 24/7 environment. Most are realistic about that.”

The payoff for setting boundaries, say salespeople, is that both office and home benefit. “You feel less frustrated, burned out, and edgy,” says Pickard. “You attract the right clients, because you know the kind you want.”

“I have so much more to give to my customers and to my family and friends,” says Black. “I wish I had realized this 20 years ago. The journey would have been richer in many ways.”

REALITY CHECK

In the seminars she gives on the importance of balancing career and personal goals, Nancy Black, a salesperson with Realty Executives in Nashville, Tenn., asks salespeople to take a quiz to determine their stress levels. Here’s a similar quiz, developed by REALTOR® Magazine. If you answer yes to five or more of these questions, you may want to consider making some changes.

  1. Are you often struggling to pull together a CMA or other presentation just before you need to use it?
  2. Are you impatient with other drivers?
  3. Do you become angry or defensive when buyers and sellers give you bad or surprising news?
  4. Are you perpetually late for sales meetings and appointments?
  5. Do you have a general sense of unease?
  6. Do you tend to talk too much during listing presentations or with your colleagues?
  7. Do you feel that those around you—colleagues, clients, spouse—are always creating problems for you?
  8. Do you have a difficult time getting your mind off of work?
  9. Are you easily aggravated?
  10. Are you accessible to clients and customers 24/7?
  11. Do you become troubled at the thought of delegating work tasks to someone else?
  12. Do you feel guilty about taking time off?

J. Lennox Scott’s new book, Next Generation Real Estate, includes a chapter on helping salespeople create a life plan. The chapter is excerpted in this month’s “For Managers” (a monthly insert for the Designed REALTOR® in each office).

Robert Sharoff is an architectural writer for The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Magazine. With photographer William Zbaren, he has produced books highlighting the architecture of Detroit and St. Louis. He is a former senior editor with REALTOR® Magazine.

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