How Working Less Can Help You Accomplish Essential Tasks

Human beings really are prone to extremes.

It's not just the current harsh political divide in the U.S., either. In education, the pendulum swings all the way from rote or programmed learning on one side (boring, but easily facilitated by computers) to discovery-style, discussion-based, hands-on learning on the other (which leads to deeper thinking, but may leave students light on concrete facts).  As another example, we have hoarders on one side and location-independent, live-out-of-one-backpack advocates on the other.

It takes patience and hard work to find a compromise which uses the best of two or more approaches, or a happy medium that meets the needs of the majority of people.


So this isn't a surprise...

When it comes to work, I think most of us fall into one of two extremes:

  • We work way too hard, with little boundary between work life and everything else, and never feel that we've accomplished enough.
  • We procrastinate and get distracted, and feel guilty about how little we get done.

Either way, we're dissatisfied with the results, and feel stressed and depleted by work.

...but maybe this is.

I think there's one solution for both groups of people: work less.  But what would that entail?

  • Do fewer things, and be more mindful and committed to those things.
  • Recognize your victories.
  • Rest, recreate, and connect more.

Now I know that not everyone falls into one of these two extremes, and that not everyone can change the number of hours they work.  But now that so many of us are working from home, I think this idea could make a difference.

The "work too hard" group

This is the group I tend to fit with.  I try to get everything done, and I hate leaving anything unfinished.  When I work, I work very long hours with very few breaks, because I'm trying to get it all done.  I want to conquer my to-do list!  

Of course, at some point exhaustion takes over, and the quality of my work slips, and I'm forced to stop.  But I feel like I haven't done enough.  I often feel like that, even when an objective observer would say I've made a ton of headway, or that they can't believe how much work I've churned out.

So working less doesn't seem to fit my MO, even though I recognize that I sometimes work too hard and rest too little, and that my work sometimes takes over the rest of my life.

Working less would mean reducing the number of projects I undertake, which means I need to focus on higher priority tasks.  So let's say I can work for just two hours today.  How will I spend my time?  And what happens to the rest of the things on my to-do list?

When I ask myself these questions, my priorities become clearer, and I might figure out that some of my jobs can be done more efficiently, done by someone else, or are unnecessary and can be eliminated.  Then I could focus on the one or two things I need and want to pay attention to.  At the end of the two hours, I could feel pleased and victorious, because I accomplished important things.

The "procrastinate too much" group

Many people fall into this group.  They're prone to distraction, and can spend a lot of time on what seem to be trivial tasks, even when there are more important jobs that need to be done.  Of course, as a workaholic, it's easy for me to judge people who fit this profile, yet I also realize that this group feels a lot of guilt about the time they waste.  Maybe they feel that the "work less" philosophy shouldn't apply to them, because they think they don't work enough as it is.

Guilt can be a time-waster too, because guilt keep you from accessing your abilities in order to do your best work.  Guilt won't make this situation better, so let's toss that and try to start fresh.

With that clean slate, what should someone who tends to procrastinate do with his day?  What would give him a feeling of victory and accomplishment?

If you fit into this group, "work less" means working fewer hours, but with more focus.  Rather than avoiding important tasks and wasting time, cut back on the number of hours you work, and be fully committed during that time.

A concept called Parkinson's Law (after the British historian who wrote about it) states that "Work expands to fill the time which is available for its completion."  In other words, the more time we allow for a task, the longer it takes to complete it, even if it could have been finished more quickly.  If you've ever hired a building contractor, you've probably seen Parkinson's Law in operation!  But it can be a problem for anyone.

So don't set deadlines that are too generous or too open-ended.  Ask the same question that the "work too hard" group asks:  If you could work just two hours today, how would you spend that time?  Which tasks are most important?

Once you've determined those jobs, set aside the time, block all distractions, and pour your attention and energy into the work.  If it helps, work in 25 minute chunks, with a five minute break (to make a cup of tea, perhaps, or to take a quick walk or do some stretching).  This gives you a chance to recommit and refocus several times during your work period.

The point of this is not to make yourself feel rushed, or to do shoddy work because you truly haven't allotted enough time.  Setting this artificial two-hour deadline is just a way to let you home in on your most crucial assignments.  When you work fewer but more focused hours, you accomplish more and do higher-quality work because you're bringing all of your talent and attention to bear.

Two extremes, one solution.

As with other aspects of minimalism, deciding what is essential and putting that in the spotlight is more effective, peaceful, and satisfying.  For both workaholics and procrastinators, working fewer hours not only lets us accomplish valuable tasks, but leaves us with more time for true rest and recreation and for meaningful connections with others.  That's a victory for everyone.

Updated April 2023


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