Antidotes to Overwork
By Leo Babauta
Too many of us are overstressed, overbusy, overwhelmed, overloaded, overworked.
This leads to exhaustion, poor health, deteriorating habits, depression, burnout, unhappiness. Overloading ourselves and overworking ourselves is not a recipe for success or happiness.
There are a number of factors that lead to being overworked, but here are a few of the most common:
- You are working a job that demands you to work too much, and have little control over your schedule or workload.
- You have to work multiple jobs to pay the bills, and can’t seem to do much about it.
- You overcommit and overload yourself, and always seem to be working and yet never seem to be doing enough.
- You’re always connected, always responding to messages, always checking email, always doing a thousand tasks. Always stressed and overwhelmed.
The first two problems are difficult to solve, because you don’t always have a lot of control. We’ll talk about the antidote to those problems first.
The second two problems are obviously related with a lot of overlap. They actually tend to be more common than the first two, in my experience — though sometimes it’s a combination of the first two and the last two factors.
We’ll talk about the second two factors next.
Antidote 1: Make a Structural Change
If you have a job that overworks you, or you work two or more jobs … it’s not working out well. You’re overworked and leading to a disaster.
You need to make a structural change.
Some ideas for structural changes you can consider:
- Get more focused & effective, and get your workload done in less time. (See next section.) This lets you do the same workload but not spend as much time working.
- Reduce your workload — if you can control this, then find a way to cut out the less important tasks and focus on the higher priority tasks. (Again, see next section.) If you don’t control your workload, then you must talk to management. You can’t sustain this, and they don’t want to lose you, most likely. Tell them you’re going to be more effective working on high priority tasks, more focused — but that you need to work fewer hours. Ask them to help you cut less important tasks from your workload.
- If you’re working two or more jobs, find a side hustle that pays more per hour than your current jobs. Yes, I believe it’s possible (for most people). Do more of that and less of the other jobs, so that you can work fewer hours.
- Set boundaries for yourself — talk to your supervisor, talk to human resources, and tell them you cannot sustain the hours you’re working. Set a boundary of what hours you work, and another boundary of how much you’re expected to respond to messages (so that you can focus and get more done). This is a scary conversation for most people. It’s less scary than burnout, trust me.
- Cut your hours.
- Change jobs.
Which of these structural changes need to happen for you? Are there others you should consider?
Antidote 2: Get Focused While Letting Go of Doing Too Much
This one might seem contradictory at first, because I’m suggesting that you work harder but not work as hard.
But it’s not work harder — it’s work with more effectiveness and focus. With this kind of change, you can have a bigger impact while doing fewer tasks. My first book, the Power of Less (a new edition is out in the UK), was about this very idea.
Notice that I’m also not suggesting you work the same number of hours while being more effective, so that you can get more done. Nope. You’re going to work less by letting go of the extra stuff you do, and letting go of always working.
This allows you to replenish. The best performers realize that their rest and recovery periods are just as important as the work periods (either that, or they burn out).
To accomplish this antidote, it’s really two main steps:
- Get more focused & impactful.
- Do less by enforcing disconnected replenishment time.
Get More Focused & Impactful
I wrote a book (and training package) in 4-5 days by being more focused and focusing on my one high-impact task each day (writing). I’ve launched courses, run programs, run retreats and workshops, and more — all by being more focused and more impactful than I used to be. I believe the best performing people in the world do the same, for the most part.
So how does this work? It’s fairly simple:
- Zero in on the most impactful tasks. This is nothing new — I wrote about it more than a decade ago in the Power of Less, Tim Ferriss wrote about it in 4 Hour Work Week, and recently I read about it again in a book called the One Thing. It’s also often called the Pareto Principle: 20% of your tasks get 80% of the results (not exact figures – it’s more of a principle). So zoom in on those 20% high-impact tasks — and then do 20% of those, and 20% of those, until you’re down to just 1-3 tasks. Do that as soon as you’re done reading this post — what are the 1-3 most impactful tasks on your task list?
- Only focus on the single most impactful task. Even if you have 3 Most Important Tasks … only focus on the One Task. The one thing that will get you the most results today, have the biggest impact on your career, long-term goals, etc. Let the other important tasks go for now, and let this One Task be your entire universe. Be absolutely focused on this, blocking out everything else in your world. Especially the internet and your phone.
- Block off time for this, and block off time for the other things you need to get done. If the One Task is important enough to give your focus to, then it’s important enough to block off in your day. In your calendar, or simply on a sheet of paper, block off the hours of your day — and devote 3-4 hours to your One Task. Block off an hour for your other 2 Most Important Tasks. Then block off time for the other things you need to get done today, including administrative stuff like responding to email and messages.
If you can get more focused like this, and focus on the higher-impact tasks, you don’t need to work as much. You’ll have more than enough time for the things that are important.
Some of the less important stuff will pile up. That’s a part of it. You’re not going to get everything done. You’re going to get the things that matter done.
If you work like this, the idea of too little time to do too much gets turned on its head. You have enough time. You’re just going to use it more effectively, working with priority.
Do Less By Enforcing Replenishment Time
Enforcing time for rest and replenishment doesn’t come naturally to most of us, especially in our society. In our world, it’s always a matter of doing more and more. It’s always connected, always cram in more, always respond. All the time.
How often do you take an hour or two just to go for a walk and not read or listen to anything useful? To find silence and time to contemplate? To find space for yourself, to find room to breathe?
We don’t value that, but it’s so important. You can’t function at your best without it.
So we’re going to create the time and enforce it by doing the following:
- Carve out the time for replenishment. Just as you need to block off time for your high-impact tasks, you need to actually block off time for replenishment. What time will you shut down your devices? (Hint: at least an hour before bed.) What time will you sleep? Most people let themselves get too little sleep because they’re hooked on devices, but that affects their sleep and all of the next day. What time will you stop working and instead go for a walk, meditate, exercise, or just find some quiet space? Will you create time for quiet space in the mornings? Block it off and make it happen.
- Enforce it by letting go of the rest. When you get the urge to check messages, email, news, blogs, websites, social media … don’t do it. Block it all out. If you need to check messages and email, block it off in your schedule. If you need to check social media, create a space once a day to do that. You can’t have the habit of always being connected if you want to be focused and impactful, and also have rest time. It’s either the constant connection or the focused, impactful, restful schedule.
- Create a mantra: this space is a tremendous gift. The space you create for yourself will not feel great at first — you’ll want to check on things, you’ll want to get more done, you’ll feel guilty for not working, you won’t be present. That’s because your mind is trained to not value rest time, to not value space. It’s trained to do more and more, forever, because that’s what you’ve been doing. But that doesn’t work. So instead, create a mantra that values this space. That sees it as a gift. That emphasizes that this moment, just as it is, is enough.
Learn to find the deliciousness in the moments you create of disconnected time. Of not-work time. Of being present with your loved ones, present with yourself. Of moving, being outdoors, getting active.
Only when you can make these changes will you finally have the antidote to overwork. You can do this.