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Do less. Get more done.

April 20, 2013 by Amy Gilburg

“Most days I feel like I have been shot out of a cannon.”

“ I don’t feel like I am getting any traction no matter how hard I work!”

“I just need some breathing space. Things are happening so fast and the workload isn’t letting up. I try to catch up by working at night and on the weekends but I never seem to get ahead. I keep thinking that it will get better, that I will have some time for myself, but I now know I am kidding myself…”

These words or ones just like them have been admitted to me on multiple occasions, often with a quiet exasperation.  They aren’t the sentiments of a few time management challenged execs, but seem to encapsulate what it means to work in an organization in the US. For many, work has become unmanageable. There are a myriad of factors that contribute to this sense of overwhelm, including: a heavy workload, technology—whether you have 250 emails a day to wade through or the compulsion to be connected to your smart phone at all times— and the complexity of the challenges we face.  Workers are feeling the stress.

In a recent New York Times article—Relax! You'll Be More Productive, the author, Tony Schwartz, asserts that “Time is the resource we’ve relied on to get more accomplished.” Studies show that a third of us eat lunch at our desks and half of us assume we will work during our vacations! And still, many are feeling overburdened, depleted and stressed out. Fortunately, there is an answer. The research is in. DO LESS, and in the process you will be more productive.

CEO of The Energy Project, and author of numerous books and articles (The Making of a Corporate Athlete, Manage Your Energy Not Your Time), Schwartz has done his research. He makes the case that more rest and renewal leads to increased productivity and life-long sustainable work practices.

It is time to do your own self-assessment.  How sustainable are your work efforts? The Energy Project website has a great online energy audit tool for individuals and leaders to assess their capacity. There are also many ideas for making work more manageable, enjoyable, and fulfilling rather than depleting. Here are a few I like to recommend to my clients:

  • Block out sections of your calendar each day where you can have uninterrupted time to work, think, organize, strategize. No one is going to give you that time. You must be the one to claim it and protect it!
  • Oscillate! This is a term used by Schwartz that describes how our physiology works best. If you want to maximize your productivity, work for 90 minutes and then switch gears. Get up from your desk and move around. If you have been working at a computer, go talk with someone down the hall. Even a 5 or 10-minute walk can reinvigorate focus and energy.
  • Don’t eat lunch at your desk! If this habit is really hard for you to break, tell your staff that if they catch you at your desk eating lunch, you will buy them lunch! Taking a break in the middle of the day can provide some much needed perspective!
  • Walk and talk: If you need to meet with one or two people, go for a walk and talk at the same time. There is no reason you have to sit at a conference table to talk!
  • Resistance is good information: If you find yourself dragging your feet on tackling a project, take a moment to evaluate instead of pushing forward. Some part of you doesn’t want to do it. Why? Do you need to recharge? Are there concerns or fears about the project? What is causing the resistance? Understanding the resistance can often bring us valuable information and/or simple resolution. If, upon reflection, you still don’t want to do the project, is there a smaller first step?
  • Set parameters with staff: If you absolutely must be available to your staff over a vacation, set clear guidelines and parameters. (e.g. only contact me for these specific reasons, I will check my phone and email by 9 am but after that I am not available until the following day)
  • Set aside work-free evenings and weekends: If you find that you are working most nights and weekends, than start slow. Choose one night a week and one weekend a month that you commit to not working.
  • Sleep: Being well rested is one of the best ways to combat stress and stay in good health.  If you have to choose between working, watching TV or going to bed early, sleep is your best choice every time. For some, it is hard to turn off the mind and sleep can be illusive. My short answer is to keep a notebook by your bedside and write down the thoughts you can’t stop thinking with the determined understanding that you will pick them up in the morning.
  • Leave the laptop and files at work: I know many of you bring your work home with you but then don’t touch it. That’s because you NEED a break! So instead of bringing a guilty reminder home with you, which is energy depleting, just leave it at the office! Decide that the recharge and perspective you will get from not thinking about work is more important and will lead to greater productivity.
  • Slow down TIME:  Huh? Is this even possible? YES! There are two aspects to this, and I will cover the second of these in my next blog. The first aspect is if you believe you don’t have enough time, you won’t. My 85 year-old grandmother traveled around the world and presented slide shows about her adventures to various audiences. Whenever she felt really pressed for time she would repeat to herself, “I have all the time I need.” When I asked her about it she commented that it calmed her down and she felt more relaxed and focused rather than frenzied.

Schwartz and colleagues have pulled together reams of data that point to one thing. You CAN work less and be more productive! But this can feel counter intuitive for most of us and I can already hear your voices... “sure, easy to say but how is all this work going to get done?”

In response to this question, I will leave you with a few questions that might help:

  1. Has what you have been doing worked for you? What is at risk to do nothing?
  2. What’s at risk to try something different?
  3. What small action could you experiment with?

I am already looking forward to my next blog on slowing down time. Let me know the ways you rest and renew and how that has benefited your productivity.