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14 ideas for how to work less

Busyness, working long hours and constant hustling can contribute to exhaustion and burnout – and might not make our work any better. Here are some ideas for how to work less in a world that often demands more.
14 ideas for how to work less Image credit: pexels.com

Madeleine Dore

Tuesday 18 February, 2020

 Busy. Burned out. Overwhelmed. Overscheduled. In just one conversation with anyone working in the arts, it’s easy to glean why working longer and doing more is common solution.

Yet working more rarely correlates to working better. Decades of research demonstrates the link between the hours we work and how productive we are to be tenuous at best.

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In fact, we might be better off taking rest and working less. In Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Silicon Valley consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang further debunks the myth that our days must be filled to the brim in order to get thing done. 'All of the research points to the importance of rest in our fast-paced lives. While our culture may be pushing us toward working overtime, 24/7, this is clearly not helping us to be more productive or to come up with creative solutions to our problems,' he writes.

These findings are nothing new – as early as the 1950s, one study from Illinois Institute of Technology found that scientists who spent 25 hours per week in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five.

So what’s the alternative to this longstanding yet harmful approach to work?

The secret to working well may have less to do with the amount of hours we squeeze out of the working day, but how we learn to let go and embrace doing less.

It’s difficult to create a catchall approach, especially in an industry as diverse as the arts, yet there are various approaches from experts and researchers we can experiment with, make our own and mould to our own working days.

1. Create a new answer to the question, ‘How are you?’

Busyness can also be contagious – there is almost a peer-pressure to have something to show for our time as an overworked lifestyle, Silvia Bellezza, co-author of a Harvard Business School study explains.

'When you signal you're busy, you’re basically telling others that you are high status and important, not because what you wear is expensive, but [because] you are extremely desired and in high demand.'

To circumvent the peer pressure and move away from the busyness trap, we can start by something as simple as having a different answer to the question 'how are you?' – instead of the default busy, share what you’re excited about, what you’re learning about, what you’re doing less of.

2. Manage your focus, not your time

Srini Pillay, part-time Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Tinker, Dabble, Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind says that the brain operates optimally when it toggles between focus and unfocus.

'When people try to manage their time, what they are trying to do is complete tasks as efficiently as possible,' he says. 'What people don't realise is that in order to complete these tasks they need to use both the focus and unfocus circuits in their brain.'

Too much focus or emphasis on our to-do lists is restrictive to creativity and productivity, according to Pillay. 'It drains your brain of energy and prevents you from seeing connections between things.'

This also explains the sense of fatigue we may feel at the end of the day, he continues. 'If you focus and then spend some time recharging the brain using one of the unfocus exercises, you can change how your entire day works.' 

3. Embrace the break

Taking small daily breaks or introducing more flexibility into your week has been beneficial for both creativity and productivity.

We need to breathe in inspiration, in order to breathe out ideas and creativity, and there may even be an ideal break time to facilitate this.

In 2014, the social networking company The Draugiem Group used the time-tracking productivity app DeskTime to study what habits set their most productive employees apart.

Surprisingly, the top 10% of employees with the highest productivity didn’t put in longer hours than anyone else – often they didn't even work eight-hour days. Instead, the key to their productivity was for every 52 minutes of focused work, they took a 17-minute break.

4. Embrace the ebb and flow

What can be difficult as an independent creative is a fluctuating workload and working hours – you may find yourself working 50 hours one week, and 15 the next.

Here, it’s helpful to embrace the ebb and flow of creative and freelance work – seizing opportunities as they arise to both work at your full capacity and rest.

As 'slashie' Lillian Ahenkan (aka) FlexMami has found, it’s about knowing how to work smarter, not harder. 'There have been times when I've been working my hardest and I've nothing to show for it, and there have been times where I've been listening to a podcast for 12 hours and sent one amazing email and that got me an amazing gig that keeps me alive for the next year. It's just one of those things where you have to be accountable for how you resource your practice, and understand if it's working for you positively or negatively.'

5. Practice email etiquette

People spend an average of thirteen hours each week reading and responding to emails and according to recent research by the University of California, it is lowering productivity and heightening stress.

The solution to our email overwhelm may start with a question, first posed by writer Melissa Febos: do you want to be known for your writing, or for your swift email responses?

Adopting simply email etiquette might be as simply as first checking ourselves. The more we send, the more we will receive. Cull nicety-only replies such as 'great, thanks' and aim to keep all emails to five sentences or less. Write a clear subject line and make sure the first sentence provides the reason for emailing, the action required and any time sensitivity.

Secondly, stop apologising as it perpetuates expectations. Most emails don’t have deadlines, so what are we apologising for? Rather than the onus being on the recipient, become a better sender and convey your intentions. State a response deadline if you have one, and if not, let’s cut each other some slack. A good alternative to apologising: 'thank you for your patience'.

6. Work with your natural slumps

There will be ebb and flow in our careers but also our days and it can be helpful to pay attention to these natural slumps.

Pillay suggests first identifying the slumps in your day. 'For most people their energy begins to fall mid-morning, directly after lunch, mid-afternoon and again when they get home.'

Once you’ve identified your key slumps, build in an unfocused activity from Tinker, Dabble, Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind to help the brain regenerate.

Unfocus time is creatively potent. For co-founder of Working Not Working, Justin Gignac, working in a slump period can be a great way to get a lot of work done, 'At night I’m a little more tired and I don’t have the capacity to get distracted as easily. I find I can focus when my brain becomes slightly sedated and I’m able to be super productive.'

7. Wait until the last minute

While we tend to beat ourselves up for procrastination, but something known as precrastination – the tendency to rush too quickly into tasks, which can deplete focus but also increase your chance of doing your work incompletely or inaccurately – can be just as perilous.

Waiting until the last minute might actually be efficient. A concept known as ‘Parkinson’s law’ suggests work expands to fill the time available to us – if we have a week available, we will fill that week with idling. If we have an hour, we will seize that hour.

So rather than needlessly filling our time trying in vain to do something we will leave to the last minute, better to be honest with ourselves and do something else in that time and seize the last minute.

8. Rethink your to do list

We can perpetuate our busyness by putting things on our to do list that we won’t ever do. It’s easy to forget that just because something could be done does not mean that it should be done.

Digital product designer Ryder Carroll and creator of the hugely popular bullet journal method, uses the system as a ‘paper mirror’.

'It reflects back what is going through my mind and what I am allowing into my life. When check into myself that way, I try to work on less and less things.'

A process of removal that’s integral to the bullet journal system is what Carroll terms ‘migration’ where tasks are transferred by hand from one place – be it onto the next day, week or month – and therefore providing an opportunity for reflection.

'There are a lot of productivity systems that help us create lists, but few encourage us to re-engage with them,' writes Carroll in The Bullet Journal Method.

'This may seem like a lot of effort, but it serves a critical purpose: It weeds out distractions. Because it takes a little bit more time to rewrite things by hand, there’s a built-in incentive to pause and consider each candidate. If an entry isn’t worth the few seconds of effort required to rewrite it, then it’s probably not that important. Get rid of it.'

9. Be a time realist 

An overcrowded schedule might be the result of being a time optimist – which while it sounds positive, it can have an effect of stress and overwhelm.

The antidote to over-cramming your to do list is to be a time realist – that is, really looking at a task and breaking down how long it will take. However long you think something will take, it can be helpful to double it.

10. Banish productivity guilt

Instead of acknowledging the very human tendency for things to go off track, we often experience a 'productivity guilt'. From this perspective, doing nothing can feel like moral failure and it can be difficult to shake the perpetual feeling that you should be doing something else.

Yet equating our worth with our output implies that we have to deserve a break, rather than having one simply because it’s impossible for anyone to be ‘on’ all the time.

While finding ways to be more efficient and effective can improve motivation and provide a sense of meaning in our working lives, doing nothing and taking pause is often necessary for our focus, energy and wellbeing – and something that we can learn to embrace.

11. Focus on what you want to do, not what you should do

As career counsellor William J. Reilly penned in How To Avoid Work in 1949, 'Altogether too much emphasis, I think, is being placed on what we ought to do, rather than what we want to do.'

Filling our lives with meaningful activity allows us to capitalise on the highs of being busy, not to mention that achievement that may or may not result from our activity. 

In fact, when we become completely immersed in a given task, we lose the sense of being busy completely. The burden of external expectations or of whatever else we have to do subsides. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly coined the term 'flow' to describe this optimal experience of mindful activity.

12. Flip convention and embrace flexibility in your workday

If you have the luxury of being able to determine your own schedule, make the most of figuring out what works best for you. There are a lot of articles touting the importance of being an early bird, but DJ, presenter, writer, and podcaster FlexMami has ingeniously flipped it.

'You hear how all the best business people wake up at 4am to get a head start on the day ­– I think the same logic applies for going to bed at 4am!'

She adds, 'I still have a start on the day by being up from midnight to four and getting it done. That way, when I do get up there will be emails in my inbox, as opposed to doing the emails at six in the morning and then having to wait for replies. That just sounds inefficient.'

Waking up anytime between 8am and 12pm, FlexMami is relaxed about being a late riser as tasks like emails and some admin takes place during conventional work hours, but the majority of creating and executing work for freelance clients takes place in the evening.

'My proper working day starts around 6pm. After traditional business hours is a great time to work – nobody really emails me or annoys me, so it’s time to start creating the content I need to create.'

13. Measure your work by consistency, not by the hours 

Rather than focusing on the hours you work, focus on the consistency of the tasks you executes.

This can be achieved through simplifying your workload with a daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly task structure. For example, artist and writer Austin Kleon will write every day, which goes into a weekly newsletter, which then becomes a talk or presentation, which then becomes a book.

Consistency can also be measured in simple checkboxes – pick 1-3 simple things you’d like to do each day, track them, and celebrate the accumulative effect.

That consistency is what builds your practice – it is not so much about working super hard, but rather consistently showing up over time.

14. Cultivate enoughness

One reason we might work more and more is to pursue more – more success, recognition, accolades, opportunity, more balance, more perfection.

Striving and perseverance isn’t something we should necessarily change, but rather keep in check and assess how it is serving us – and whether the attached schedule is sustainable.

It can be helpful to consider what enough looks like. As Brene Brown said, 'Sufficiency isn’t two steps up from poverty or one step short of abundance. It isn’t a measure of barely enough or more than enough. Sufficiency isn’t an amount at all. It is an experience, a context we generate, a declaration, a knowing that there is enough, and that we are enough.'

About the author

Madeleine Dore is a freelance writer and founder of Extraordinary Routines, an interview project exploring the intersection between creativity and imperfection. She is the previous Deputy Editor at ArtsHub. Follow her on Twitter at @RoutineCurator