Working more is counterproductive

Work smarter instead: Prioritize, focus, and then rest and recharge

Last year, I was working more and more without getting more done, and I felt increasingly exhausted. When I realized that Cal Newport (Deep Work) is highly productive but still leaves work no later than 530 PM and doesn’t work on weekends, he had my attention.

Reflecting on Newport’s book made me realize that I needed to address three issues:

  1. Have a plan and a set of priorities. If you’re like most of us, you have a to-do list. That’s a good start, but it’s not enough because our lists are usually too long; we can’t possibly do all that! And so, we need to prioritize: Which items on the list are most important, and which could be dropped? You’ll need to make some tough choices, working on some things while letting others go. Figuring this out will require spending some time planning and talking with supervisors and colleagues.

Once you articulate your priorities, write them down. Then use them and your to-do list to write a plan and rough schedule for the next day at the end of each day. Which tasks will you tackle when? Which will you postpone? Which will you delegate or skip altogether?

Consider tackling high-priority tasks first thing in the morning: That ensures that even if you don’t manage to accomplish all your tasks (I rarely do!), you’ll take care of the more important things. And you’ll get an early energy boost from your accomplishment.

2. Don’t jump around: Schedule blocks of time to work on challenging tasks and keep those blocks as free of interruptions as possible. This means staying off email and social media.

Avoiding interruptions is crucial because they hurt productivity. When we switch tasks, our attention lingers on the previous one. And so, if we take a two-minute break to check email for example, it takes both time and effort to get back into the original task, longer if the email reminded us of an unfinished task.

3. Most importantly, allow yourself enough time to unwind and to sleep. We aren’t productive if we are tired. Dealing with tiredness requires setting boundaries so that we can rest:

Schedule an end time for each day and stick to it as much as possible. If you notice that you won’t get everything done before that end time, don’t just keep working. Instead, pause and think. Look at what remains to be done. Write your plan for the next day. Can the remaining tasks wait until the next day? Often, they can. And if they can, staying late can be counterproductive. If I work late while I am tired, I waste time and get poor results. Even worse, since I don’t allow time to rest and unwind, I sleep badly at night and then arrive at work the next day tired and less effective, setting up a negative spiral.

Set and maintain clear boundaries between work and play. One of the worst side effects of smart phones is that they blur the boundaries between work and leisure. We check our work email on the beach and look for vacation rentals at work, and the quality of both our work and our vacations suffer. Make a decision: Am I working or recharging? You can’t do both well at the same time.

We aren’t perfect, so not all days will be productive. We don’t always plan well. And even when we do, unexpected events sometimes wreck our well-planned schedule, and time-sensitive tasks land on our desks at the end of the day. Still, good planning which allows for our need to rest and recharge increases the chances of having more productive days without jeopardizing our health and sanity.

More on what I’ve learned from Cal Newport about what interruptions do to our productivity here. Some of my thoughts on how to think through our priorities and what matters to us here. A Talkspace interview with Arianna Huffington which beautifully highlights how important rest is for our mental and physical health here.