Work Less to Accomplish More

By Leo Gura - June 23, 2013 | 1 Comments

Learn to effectively use your time off to maximize productivity. Avoid the pitfalls of working too much.

Intro

Do you consider yourself a high-achiever? Do you pride yourself on your work? Have you been pushing yourself hard lately? Do you feel good when you produce results?

Yet right now, even though you’re working hard and doing great, you just don’t feel good about yourself. You keep wondering, “Why? I swear I didn’t always feel like this. Why is my life such a grind?”

Here’s the answer: Work less, play more!

Sometimes You Just Need a Vacation

When was the last time you took a vacation?

No, not a vacation where you’re checking your email and stressing over work. I’m talking about a real vacation. What is a real vacation?

Vacation: A goal-less activity that shifts your mind away from what you are working on, allowing your mind to rejuvenate.

Sometimes you just need a vacation. It feels like your life is frustrating because you’re not doing or achieving enough, but that’s not the real problem. You’ve already been pushing yourself hard. It might seem like you need to push yourself harder, but who are you kidding?

A vacation is what you take when you can no longer take what you’ve been taking.

— Earl Wilson

Counter-intuitively, a vacation is just what you need. If you’re a high achiever, you like to work, but you also forget what its like to be on top of your game, inspired and refreshed. If you haven’t had a vacation recently, chances are you don’t even remember what this feels like.

You’ll be surprised how much a couple of days completely away from work will revitalize you. And it’s not just work. Any goal-directed activity qualifies if it takes up significant time and mental focus. This can include: gym, a diet, a project, social engagements, activities, commitments, and obviously work.

When to Push Hard and When to Let Go

One of the reasons you may be pushing yourself so hard is that you’re coming from a place of fear. It’s usually a fear of failure, losing control, or falling off track. Perhaps you’re really anal about sticking to a diet, or not missing a single gym day, or going beyond the call of duty at work.

Fine, motivating yourself from a place of fear can be effective in the short-term, but is it ideal? Fear-driven motivation tends to backfire as the pressure builds. The consequences can include getting sick, getting burned out, stress taking its toll on your body, angry outbursts, neuroses, an unbalanced lifestyle, and reduced longevity.

There are phases in your life when you can hit it hard and go off balance for the sake of something big, but these are generally unsustainable. If you want to do that, do it in bursts, with strategy behind it. Working 80-hour weeks without end will ultimately lead to problems of one type or another.

I know, I know… There’s so much stuff that needs to be done. Stop making excuses! You’re not thinking long-term. You have to consider your long-term, sustainable productivity. Your success at work depends on consistency over a period of years, not weeks or even months.

The Ladder of Progress

If you’re still afraid to let go, lest you fall of track, it’s okay. The following model might put things in perspective for you.

All things are difficult before they are easy.

— Thomas Fuller

When you’re working towards something, using discipline to get it done — whether it’s a project deadline or a fitness goal — you will generally go through the following ladder:

  1. Not doing at all, resisting
  2. Doing it using lax discipline and failing early on
  3. Forcing yourself to do it using harsh discipline, lots of fear and guilt
  4. Easing up the discipline and falling off track just like you feared
  5. Coming to peace about the situation, reconciling your anger and inner demons
  6. Re-engaging with soft, steady, unemotional discipline
  7. Integrating on such a deep level that you don’t ever consider not doing it

A lot of us get stuck on step #3. We just guilt and fear ourselves into action because we believe it’s the only way to prevail against failure. That’s fine for a time being, but eventually you want push the issue to a head and force the reconciliation. Once you sort out your anger and inner demons, once you accept the reality you’re struggling so hard to resist, you will emerge out the other end with a steady discipline that ensures lasting, painless success.

The Trick to Being Extremely Productive

Productivity in life is about pacing. You have to come to grips that life is a marathon, and not a sprint. The key is to accept that you need time to rest and unwind, and that this is okay. In fact it’s more than okay! It’s your source. It’s your primary means of super-charging work time.

Have you ever wondered why theater, drama, comedy, storytelling, dance, and music have played such a big part in ancient society? When I think of ancient Greece, or a remote African tribe, the first image that comes to mind is a horde of happy people feasting, dancing, socializing, and entertaining themselves.

But isn’t that kinda frivolous? Wouldn’t they be better served working through the night?

There are two ways to think about this:

1) Entertainment as a Means

Counter-intuitively, entertainment makes you more productive. Sure, you’re “wasting” time doing unproductive things like getting drunk, signing, laughing, and lighting your farts on fire, but in the meantime your brain is rejuvenating, so you’re ready to work hard the next day.

2) Entertainment as an End

Entertainment is actually the joy of life. Have you ever thought that you might have this whole work/play thing inverted? After all, life is short. You will be dead very soon. What is the point of all this work and achievement?

Being present and completely relaxed, and just taking in the world around you without having to work towards any objective is one of the greatest joys in life. Something magical happens when you stop pursuing objectives, even if just for a while: you stop judging things as good or bad, which leads to peace.

Seeing things a good or bad comes from judging what you think will be useful to you for achieving a particular end. If you have no objective, you don’t care about controlling or manipulating anything, and life becomes effortless. Without any objectives you are easily able to soak in raw experience and release all the tension in your body.

As I write this I’m thinking of fishing on a serene pond in the forest on a nice, lazy summer day. Contrast that to waking up in the morning and having to do the laundry, check email, make calls, write articles, etc. As much as I enjoy writing about self-development, I feel more connected to life when I’m fishing on that pond without a worry in the world.

So take your pick. Think of entertainment as a means towards more productivity or an end in itself. Or both! But either way, recognize the importance entertainment should play in your life. You are hurting your performance, deceiving yourself, and frankly, wasting your life, if you think that constantly worrying about your work problems is helping you.

The trick then is to design your life to have lots of vacation time. But I don’t mean flying off to Hawaii every month. I mean using every bit of your free time to unwind and enjoy life so you can get back to work effectively.

My Not-So-Obvious Vacation

Lately, I’d been stuck in my house working and studying a lot. Some days I didn’t even go outside until dark. Although I was productive, after a few weeks I noticed my mood change for the worse. I started getting tired and I started building up resistance towards work. Resistance is that feeling of, “Oh man… Not this again! Sigh… What a bummer.”

Then I remembered I’d forgotten to take time off. So that weekend I decided to take my mind completely off work for two full days. I wasn’t allowed to read, study, write, or even think about anything work-related. If you’re a high-achiever type, it’s harder than it sounds and you might need to force yourself to get started.

For my vacation I went clothes shopping to the local mall! For such a simple change of events, my change in mood was amazing! After one Saturday of shopping I already felt refreshed and eager to get back to writing.

I was really tempted to spend Sunday doing a bit of work because I felt refreshed, but I caught myself — my work-a-holic tendencies kicking in — and decided to spend Sunday shopping too. By the end of the day I was fully re-energized and at peace. In fact, ideas started popping up for what kind of new blogs I could write.

I was refreshed and inspired to start Monday off with a bang. And I did! That Monday was productive and felt unusually stress-free. Because I had allowed my mind to vent and get distracted, work was interesting to me again. I found myself getting into flow more easily, without the resistance I would have had if I’d spent the weekend working or even just thinking about work.

So what happened here? Am I telling you to replace work with shopping? No! I’m telling you to take strategic breaks in your work life in order to refresh your mind. The type and length of the breaks will depend on your specific situation.

Although it may not sound thrilling to you, a weekend of clothes shopping was like a vacation for me. It was a way for me to get my mind off work, get out of the house, and move my legs. It was even a little exhausting, but I enjoy shopping so it made me happy.

How to Design a Successful Vacation

The key to a successful vacation or break is to do something that takes your mind completely off work. Ideally you want to totally forget that work exists and get immersed in something different. What that activity is will vary from person to person. Perhaps for you it’s playing with your dog, or lounging on the beach, or socializing with friends, or going clubbing, or playing golf, or going for a hike, or driving around town, or fishing, or cooking, or painting.

Laughter is an instant vacation.

— Milton Berle

Notice that successful vacations don’t have to involve expensive travel, resorts, or cruise ships. Anything that takes your mind off of your day-to-day routine qualifies as a vacation, and it can be as short as a couple of hours.

Whatever activity you pick, the important thing is that it’s distinctly different from what you usually do. You want your vacation activity to flood your brain with a whole new set of physical and emotional sensations.

When you get tried of work it can seem like your brain gets bored with getting fed the same sensations over and over again. Your brain craves variety. Give it variety or you might literally start to go nuts.

There’s a good reason why solitary confinement is reserved for the most cruel of prison offenders: the human brain needs stimulation. So feed your brain what it needs to be happy and productive. Take the blinders off and feast yourself on the variety of life.

Breaks Are Just Short Vacations

The idea of taking rest to rejuvenate your mind from periods of work also applies to taking breaks throughout the day. There’s no qualitative difference between vacations and breaks — one is just a shorter form of the other. Both improve productivity and creativity by distracting your mind.

How many breaks do you take throughout your workday? How do you use your break time?

If you’re work-a-holic your natural inclination is to not take any breaks at all. Or, you might not be a work-a-holic, but you effectively waste your breaks by keeping your mind focused on work. The key question is, Are you really using your time off to relax? Make sure that you are.

Looking back at my own past I notice that in times when I was consistently productive — productive for months — I made good use of my time off. When I fail to do this, I’m not as productive. My body craves rest and distraction when I’m working hard. So much so that I can use this feeling as a sign that I’m on track to success.

To maintain a consistently high output of work I’ve found that I need to plan my free time well, making sure that it’s restful and that I’m not tempted to squeeze out work “on the side” or ruminate about work when I shouldn’t be.

The 2-Hour Work Schedule

The best work schedule I’ve found is to work in 2 hour blocks, with 15-30 minute breaks in between. Each day you only do 2 or 3 blocks, equaling 4 to 6 hours of work.

6 hours might not seem like a lot, but this is solid work time — very different from the 9-5 most people put in. The 2-hour block I’m talking about is concentrated work where you are mentally focused, undistracted, and very productive. Then you take a 15-30 minute break, taking your mind completely off work by doing stuff like watching TV, reading, eating, taking a walk, taking a nap, exercise, meditation, online shopping, etc. Then you start an new 2-hour block.

When you play, play hard; when you work, don’t play at all.

— Theodore Roosevelt

I like this schedule because it shifts the emphasis from hours-in to quality-hours-in. Most people who claim to work a lot are actually wasting a big chunk of their time doing unimportant things.

If you’re working on mentally demanding job, your bottleneck is focus, not time. It’s very hard to keep laser-focus for more than 2 hours at a time without burning out.

In the book, The Talent Code, the author talks about how top-performance athletes, chess players, and musicians can only sustain deep practice for 3-5 hours per day. Many cannot do more than 1-2 hours per sitting and feel exhausted afterwards. These world-class experts need lots of sleep and naps to recover.

Time-in is not a good measure of your productivity. Focused, uninterrupted time is a far better measure.

Can you recall a period in your past when you were really productive? Wasn’t it because you were highly-focused and free of distraction?

That’s why I like the 2-hour block schedule: it maximizes focus-time and lays bare, very starkly, how much work you’ve actually done. If you string together three 2-hour work blocks, by the end of the day you will feel very productive, despite the fact that you technically only worked for 6 hours.

Bottom Line: Take your time off seriously. You cannot be productive over long periods of time without having an effective system in place to unwind. Take a vacation.

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Datson Mark says:

Thanks Leo. Much needed

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