How to Stop Wearing Yourself Out

Adam Sanford
15 min readAug 4, 2018
“Drone view of messy desk with piles of sheet music and Mac desktop computer and keyboard” by Jesus Hilario H. on Unsplash

Hi, I’m Adam, and I’m a workaholic.

Hi, Adam!

Yeah, I see you. I used to be you.

(Sometimes, I still am you.)

I’ve only recently learned how to work intelligently without wearing myself out. Let me show you my history of past jobs where I overworked myself into nervous breakdowns, or constantly felt like I was behind the eight-ball. I went into academic work the same way: prepping classes well into the middle of the semester, late nights writing and grading, and no — no free time.

And I mean, like, zero free time.

And not much rest, either.

Part of this was that I have anxiety. If I stayed busy, I could drown out the anxiety voice in my head and its constant, never-ending spray of “what if? what if? WHAT IF?” That voice backed off when I was on a deadline, or had a pile of papers to grade, or needed to record three more video lectures before I went to bed (at 2 a.m.).

But part of it was that I am a perfectionist. When you are only praised for perfect, you get the message early on that perfect is the only acceptable standard. You also get the message that not done is not good enough.

And frankly, that wears you out.

Where My Perfectionism Came From

When you’re a gifted kid, you learn how to coast through and still get good grades. You also learn how to bullshit your way through school without really learning much.

What you don’t learn… is how to study.

What you don’t learn… is how to learn.

What you don’t learn is time management or organization.

What you don’t learn is how to take a big task and break it into small bits, so you can do it one bit at a time.

The veteran perfectionists among us will know what I mean when I talk about the Weekend 48 that happens right before a paper or project is due — the entire family gets in on the act and you don’t sleep for at least 36 of those 48. (Okay, maybe it’s more like 40 of those 48.)

I pulled several Weekend 48s every year in high school, and not a few in my first two semesters of college, before I dropped out for ten years. (I went back later.)

Beliefs That Hold You Back

I’ve only recently gotten the anxiety under control, and started looking at some of the beliefs that have held me back and kept me from progress. And this belief, right now, is the one that I’m fighting back against and have been through this entire summer:

Done only happens when the whole project is done. Until then, you have to keep working 18 hours a day until it’s done.

This is how I’ve approached so many big projects — from moving house to my dissertation. I used to be in a medieval reenactment group and I’d start sewing my costumes two nights before a camping event — and I’d still be on a “sew” 36 hours later, without sleep, and only stopping when I did something stupid like sew a sleeve into a collar opening.

I decided that I needed to challenge that belief. And for that, I had to do some research.

Research!

I got interested in sketchnoting last year, and found a great sketchnote artist who did a sample sketchnote on goal-setting:

The ideas in this video really blew my mind. In all my years of making to-do lists and detailed task outlines, I’d never thought of breaking a big project up into very small, doable-in-two hours pieces.

When I thought about trying to do that, I saw that there were three main things in my way.

First, planners never work for me. I tried your standard to-do list. I tried bullet journaling. I tried six or seven different kinds of planners. None of them worked. My to-do lists, no matter where I put them, all tried to cram 30 or 40 hours of work into one or two days, and after failing at it, I’d abandon the list and feel like a failure.

Second, I chafe at having to do something at a set time. Appointments that I don’t get to control the timing of tend to bug me. This may have something to do with me being, at least in part, a “Rebel” by Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies system. It’s also probably partly because I’m a night owl by nature, and everyone wants to do things in the morning, for some godawful reason.

And lastly, I was saddled with this stupid belief that I couldn’t celebrate getting ANYTHING done until I had EVERYTHING done. I only saw what I had left to do, not what I had already accomplished — because to my perfectionist brain, that didn’t feel like accomplishment. I couldn’t see how doing just one little task every day could possibly get me where I needed to go.

So I wasn’t sure I could do this “break up the task into small pieces” system.

(I was also fighting a related belief: Pain and illness are no excuse for not doing the work. You should push through and do what has to be done, regardless of how you’re feeling, and if you don’t, you’re lazy. As someone with the aforementioned anxiety problems, along with arthritis, I have regular bad days from pain and illness. So this belief is especially toxic for someone like me. But I’ll get to that one in a little bit.)

Strategic Half-Assing

About four weeks ago, as I was getting ready to start my prep work for the fall semester, it hit me: Maybe I didn’t have to plan the pieces beyond “I’m going to do this small piece on this day.” I could choose when I wanted to do it on that day. I didn’t have to be a go-getting six-in-the-morning tightly-organized workaholic. I could, in fact, give myself more flexibility.

But I worried if I did that, I’d be lazy (see that second belief). I couldn’t see how I could possibly be productive if I allowed myself time off, or time to be ill, or time to be tired. So I did more research, and found this page about how to challenge ingrained beliefs — by doing the opposite of the belief and seeing what the results were. (Eric at Barking Up The Wrong Tree calls this “strategic half-assing.”)

So I decided to try that, too.

The opposites of my beliefs were:

  1. Done can be measured in pieces. You can finish one piece and treat that as an achievement. Done is a series of small “done” parts, not just the whole enchilada.
  2. Pain is a warning that you need rest and recuperation. If you are in pain, it’s okay to wait until tomorrow to get the work done.

The idea is that you act as if these “opposite statements” are true, and then check to see what happens to your productivity in a month. If your productivity is better, then the beliefs were false, and it’s time to adopt the opposite statements as new, better, more supportive (and supported) beliefs.

Armed with those two hypotheses (the opposite of my workaholic beliefs) and the tool of strategic half-assing, I set to work.

Making Work Manageable

Here’s how I hacked my brain to make breaking a big project down into little pieces possible for me. I share in the hopes it might work for you, too.

You’ve got a big project that’s going to take maybe a few weeks to a few months? Me too. For me, it was prepping five classes that I’ll be teaching in the fall. In the terminology used in the sketchnoting video above, that’s my Stretch Goal.

Always before, I would make a list that looked like an outline:

  1. Create Syllabi
    a. For class 1
    b. For class 2
    c. For class 3
    d. For class 4
    e. For class 5
  2. Create course schedules
    a. For class 1
    b. For class 2
    c. For class 3
    d. For class 4
    e. For class 5

…. etc. And in some cases, I’d even drill down farther:

9. Create in-class exercises
a. For class 1
1. For Lecture 1, do this
2. For Lecture 2, do that
3. For Lecture 3, do this and that
4….

It was a nice, detailed, complete to-do list. I made sure not to leave anything off. But it was also usually 9 to 14 pages long (in 10 point font, half-inch margins). Looking at it would overwhelm me, so I wouldn’t know when to stop (or that I could stop). I’d be working on the third syllabus of the day and then look up to realize it was four in the morning (and I’d been working since 10 the previous morning, with no breaks). I still wasn’t done — I still had 90 more items on my to-do list — so obviously I still hadn’t done enough.

But then I’d look at what I was working on and see gobbledygook. Or be unable to read it, because I was so tired that my eyes were crossing.

So I’d go to bed, feeling like a failure, and drag myself out of bed the next day to do the same thing over again.

Obviously, this was unsustainable. It was wearing me out.

So here’s how I do it now.

First, Identify the Sprint Goals

For me that included: creating syllabi, creating course schedules and due date lists; writing lectures; recording them as lecture videos; creating associated homework assignments, quiz question banks, and a couple of other things before creating the online learning system’s course shell. It’s a lot of work.

Those are the big tasks. They’re not the Overall Goal — the Stretch Goal — but they’re all the big parts.

Second, Break the Sprint Goals into Big Step Goals

Then I break each Sprint Goal into Big Step Goals: Create syllabus for each class. Write lectures for each class. Create homework assignments for each class.

But — and here’s the important point — that’s as far as I go with it on the main to-do list. I use the Big Step Goals not as the daily thing I have to do, but the next big task to get done. It might take a week, it might take two weeks. It depends on how involved it is.

So I add in a type of goal between Step Goals and Sprint Goals. A Sprint Goal is “Create syllabi with course schedules and due date lists for all classes.” A Big Step Goal is “Create the Syllabus, Course Schedule, and Due Date list for Class 1.” That contains three two-hour (or so) Step goals: the syllabus, the course schedule, and the due date list.

Ideally, a Big Step Goal is about four to six hours’ worth of work, made up of tasks that take two hours or fewer. But it might have six or eight Step Goals in it, if each step goal is (for example) a lecture that takes half an hour to write.

Each day, I plan to do one Big Step Goal, whatever the next one is. But what I don’t do is look at the complete Sprint Goals to-do list, or have it open where I’ll see it all the time. I keep that hidden. I look at it once per day, at most, and take the next Big Step Goal and make a small to-do list out of that one Big Step Goal — with the items on the small to-do list being the Step Goals that make up the Big Step Goal.

Third, commit to one — and only one! — Big Step Goal per day.

So on the day I started this, July 1st, my Big Step Goal was this:

“Write syllabus, course schedule, and due date list for Class 1.”

When I finished those tasks, I stopped. It was hard, but I did stop, and didn’t go back to the Sprint Goals list until the next day I had decided to work.

Why? Why not do the next Big Step Goal? I had only spent four and a half hours — surely I could do more productive stuff that day, right?

No.

I know from experience that a Big Step Goal is about four to six hours’ worth of work. I also know from experience that I am the kind of person who, if I finish a task, will automatically look for the next one instead of giving myself a break. But in the interest of doing the strategic half-ass test of the opposite of my two beliefs, I made a commitment that I would only do one Big Step Goal per day.

This is called “monotasking.” It’s the opposite of multitasking. Although doing one task right after another isn’t quite the same thing as multitasking, it does drag your attention away from the task at hand, if you’ve planned to do three or four two- to three-hour tasks in a single day’s work. I don’t know about other folks, but I know that when I would be working on Syllabus 1, I knew that I also had to work on Syllabus 2 right afterwards, and then Syllabus 3 was looming after that… and there was just no end in sight.

It split my concentration. It ruined my focus. And it made me feel like I was drowning.

So, monotasking. I’d heard about it but never tried it — but what better way to challenge a belief like “only completely done with everything is actually done”?

Finally, track your goals.

I made a commitment to check in at the end of July and see if strategic half-assing was working — and if those beliefs, as a result, were demonstrably false.

Results of Strategic Half-Assing

So how’d it work out, now that we’re a few days into August?

I started this process on July 2nd. I finished five syllabi, with their course schedules and due date lists, by July 7th.

Then I moved on to writing lectures, which I finished by July 19th (writing somewhere between 6 and 8 lectures each day).

Then I spent about a week and a half recording the lecture videos I use with my classes, and got those done by July 31st, recording about six videos per day.

I am now working on making lists of terms in each lecture and writing their homework assignments, using a format I’ve already pre-determined, and those will be done by Monday, August 6th.

I have three or four more, smaller “Sprint Goals” that will probably take three or four days apiece, if that, before I can assemble the online learning system for my students and launch the classes.

And I’ve worked about five to seven hours per day, depending on the task.

There’s the data.

Results of Strategic Half-Assing: Analysis

First Opposite Statement

The first opposite statement/hypothesis was this: Done can be measured in pieces. You can finish one piece and treat that as an achievement. Done is a series of small “done” parts, not just the whole enchilada.

Finding: Celebration Makes a Difference

I’ve made a point of celebrating every time I’ve finished with a Step Goal (if nothing else, I get up and dance around the room for a couple of minutes). I’ve also put up what I’ve done each day on Facebook to keep myself accountable.

It feels good to celebrate being done with a syllabus, or having all the lectures in that day’s Big Step Goal written, or having finished my lecture recordings. And I never used to celebrate any of that. I would just note that I still had a ton of work to do.

I also made a point of celebrating when I finished a Sprint Goal. When I finished all my syllabi, my husband and I went to the bookstore. When I finished the written lectures, we played World of Warcraft for three hours (I leveled my Night Elf hunter to 20 that day). When I finished the recordings, we went out for a steak dinner. And when I’m done with the homework assignments, we’re going to do something else fun, but not very expensive.

The point is that every time I finish a Step Goal, I give myself, at minimum, a pat on the back and let myself exult in having gotten it done. When I finish a Big Step Goal, I make a point of doing something fun as a slightly larger reward — like playing World of Warcraft, or watching a TV show. When I finish a Sprint Goal, I do a mini-celebration, like going out for a good dinner with my husband. And it does make a difference in cementing it for me that yes, I have actually Gotten Something Done Today.

Finding: I Understand My Own “Work Rhythm” Better Now

From this past month of strategic half-assing, I’ve figured out what my circadian rhythms really demand. For example, I found that I do better with tasks requiring creative thought or speaking in the evening, and I do better with tasks requiring calculation (like figuring out due dates) or ticky work (like video editing) in the morning.

So when I was writing syllabi, I wrote them in the evening, and put the due date lists together the next morning. I didn’t treat that as a failure; the block of time I’d allocated for that task was (for example) “July 5–6.”

When I was turning the written lectures into PowerPoints so I could record them for video lectures, I did the PowerPoint creation in the late afternoon, the recordings late at night, and then the editing, uploading, and captioning the following morning.

The point wasn’t to stick to someone else’s idea of the “ideal schedule.” The point was to find what worked for me.

Finding: Small Successes Lead to Big Successes

Luckily for me, each Sprint Goal is a little less taxing than the previous Sprint Goal. Writing syllabi had to come before anything else, and writing syllabi that work is hard work. (You try it sometime.)

But armed with the syllabi, I could list all of my lecture topics, and then divide that Sprint Goal of “write all the lectures” into reasonable Big Step Goals of six to eight per day. Once I had lectures, I had all the material I’d need for any further task, whether it was recording them, creating term-and-concept lists, creating homework assignments, creating quiz questions… so it won’t take me as much time to do those final few Sprint Goals as it did to do the first few.

As it stands, I am on track to be done with my fall preps, probably by August 20th or earlier — more than a week before my courses start.

And I did it one small step at a time.

So it appears that the first opposite statement/hypothesis is correct. It is possible to treat each small step as an achievement.

Second Opposite Statement

The other opposite statement/hypothesis was this: Pain is a warning that you need rest and recuperation. If you are in pain, it’s okay to wait until tomorrow to get the work done.

Testing this opposite statement was a little tougher, because my workaholic nature was twitchy at the thought of not doing work when it was sitting there waiting to be done, but I did the best I could to trust the process.

Finding: Time to Rest Produces Better Physical Health

Because I’ve required myself to stop after one Big Step Goal, I’ve had two to three hours per day to spend on relaxation, whether that’s watching a show with my husband or playing World of Warcraft.

I’ve had time to care for my home, my cat, my hubby, and my self.

I’ve been sleeping better and longer, and getting more restful sleep.

We’ve had a heat wave recently, which has played merry hell with my blood sugars, but I’ve managed that issue a lot better than I used to.

Finding: Time to Rest Makes Work Less Stressful and More Productive

When I’m working on a task now, I have been able to stay focused and on-task, which was always hard for me before.

My stress levels about work have gone down significantly. I am able to look at the log I’m keeping of tasks done and say, “See all those dates? That’s work done. That’s lines through items on the to-do list.”

And there have been several times I’ve taken the day off because of pain, or feeling ill, or having a rough emotional day (such as after a tough therapy session).

As this data shows, I am doing just fine, even though I took time off when things hurt (in whatever way we want to interpret “hurt”).

This blew my mind. But it also blew that belief into smithereens. I am able to make progress, even if pain means I have to take some time off.

Summary: The Steps

To sum up the steps:

  • Identify the stretch goal
  • Identify the sprint goals that make up the stretch goal
  • Identify the big step goals that make up the sprint goals
  • Identify the step goals that make up the big step goals
  • Commit to one big step goal per day and to stopping after you’ve finished it for the day
  • Commit to tracking the results of your monotasking to see if you are more or less productive
  • Commit to celebrating every time you finish a goal of any kind

And if you have a belief you need to challenge, do this too:

  • Identify the belief
  • State the opposite of the belief
  • Spend the next 30 days tracking the results when you act as if the opposite of the belief is true instead
  • Evaluate the belief at the end of those thirty days

Takeaway: Monotasking Works

If you had told me a year ago that I’d be further through my fall preps, with less stress, by monotasking on one Big Step Goal per day, I’d have shaken my head in disbelief. I always thought you had to wear yourself out to get work done.

I am so glad I was wrong.

Like what you read? Feel free to hit that clap button! And thanks for reading.

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Adam Sanford

Teacher, life coach, writer, thinker. Learner of life lessons at the School of Hard Knocks. I write about things that bother me and things that interest me.