How Working Less Allows You to Accomplish More

Why keeping some gas is crucial to productivity

Adrian Drew
May 21 · 5 min read

We’ve always been taught to hit the ground running; to go hard or go home. This is a bad idea.

Yet this all-or-nothing attitude is exactly what dictates most of our lives. We want to get everything done. Right now. We want to give every task maximum effort, and often we do.

It seems great at the time, to give all we’ve got and drain all of the energy we have — but before long we find ourselves exhausted, burnt-out and unable to face the thought of another day’s work.

I do it all the time. Sometimes when I’m running, I catch myself sprinting as fast and far as I physically can, eager to push myself to the absolute limit and further in an attempt to make maximum progress.

And I do make progress, in the short-term. I run long and hard and it feels great — at the time. But then I wake up the next morning, my muscles sore, joints stiff, and I’m unable to run again for another week.

Or when taking on a large project, I’ll work myself to the bone to try and stay ahead of the game, writing all day and night until I just can’t take any more.

Indeed, I finish the work — an achievement in the short-term — but at the expense of all the energy I have. The next day I wake up late, feeling drained and unable to focus on the next piece of work.

I don’t think I’m alone. I think we all fall into this kind of behavior from time to time.

Whether drawing up a business plan or working towards a promotion or training to run 5K, we just can’t wait. We’re eager to get everything done as soon as possible. And, as a result, we exert all of our energies in the beginning and quit early because we’re exhausted.

We go full throttle right from the start and run out of gas before we actually make it to where we need to go.

The solution? To leave yourself wanting more.

The Art of Restraint

In the words of The Minimalists,

‘Constraints breed creativity.’

Time is a finite resource. When motivation arises, it’s only natural that we want to make the most of it by cramming as much activity into the pockets of time that we have.

The issue, however, is that this behavior is often counter-productive.

Maximal short-term exertion leads to minimal long-term progress. We push ourselves too hard today, leaving ourselves with no energy to carry on tomorrow.

Consider two common examples.

A beginner weightlifter signs up to join his local gym. He begins by lifting light weights, gradually increasing his load by small increments every week. After one month, he’s thrilled with his progress and decides that we wants to see more. And faster.

He heads to the gym again, this time lifting heavier weights and pushing himself far beyond his capabilities, exhausting his muscles entirely. He wakes up the next morning in agony, discovers a tear in his pectoral muscle, and is unable to return to the gym for another month.

Or how about the school student studying for her upcoming exams.

She wakes up at the crack of dawn and spends eight hours working solidly every day for a week, studying as much as she possibly can. Once the week is over, she’s exhausted.

She spends the weekend drinking with friends, indulging in junk food and trying to cope with the stress of the previous five days. She wakes up on Monday morning with no energy, unable to focus and fails to get any work done.

In both of these situations, it probably seems obvious to you that the people involved would benefit far more if they just took things a little slower and spread their efforts more thinly over a longer period of time.

Yet, as obvious as such a work ethic might seem, we’re all prone to the same kinds of behavior.

Leave Yourself Wanting More

  • When you last had a deadline to meet, did you break your workload into small and manageable chunks, or did you cram everything in at the last moment?
  • When tackling your to-do list, do you attend to one task at a time, or do you flitter around frantically, trying to do everything all at once?
  • When exercising, do you exert yourself only as much as you can handle, or do you push yourself too far beyond your limits?

By asking these questions, it becomes easy to relate to the people in the passages above. We all do it.

And it always seems like such a great idea, too. But it’s often these very tendencies that cause us to quit early.

Sure, we can work as hard as humanly possible right now, but is that any use to us if it means we’re unable to work again tomorrow? Or the next day? Is that really a sustainable way to achieve our long term goals?

One day we’re breaking records, and the next, we can’t even get out of bed.

Would we not be much more productive, happier and far less stressed if we spread our energy more thinly, over longer periods of time? The answer is yes. Absolutely.

Restraint is difficult. But it’s essential. Without constraining ourselves, we leave ourselves with no energy to carry on.

As Leo Babauta puts it,

Let’s do less, and leave some in reserve. And enjoy the less that we do even more.

The Takeaway

Instead of running as fast and hard as I can, today, I’m going to run at 70%. I’m going to leave myself with some gas in the tank — enough for me to run again tomorrow. And the day after.

And when I receive a new project have a deadline to meet, I’m not going to wait until I have a couple of days left and work into the early hours of each morning to meet it. I’m going break it down into smaller chunks over a longer period of time.

And the next time you head to the gym or read a book or attempt to cram all of your studying into a twenty-four-hour window — remember to leave yourself wanting more.

When you do less, you conserve more. You allow yourself to reap greater rewards in the long-term than you would by exhausting yourself in the short-term.

Don’t give everything you have right from the outset, because then you’ll have nothing left to keep you going in the future. Do a little less. Leave yourself wanting more.

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Adrian Drew

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Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.