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How to allow yourself to work less and achieve more

The three mantras to change your mindset about your work

If you are a knowledge worker, overworking does not only harm your health and quality of life. It also hurts your overall output and bottom line, according to Alex Pang’s research from Stanford.

When Ford reduced the hours of his factory workers to eight, he realized unexpectedly that output improved. Reading Pang’s research, I suspect that the same would happen if we cut the hours of the knowledge workers today. Trying to do brain work for more than 4 hours a day, Pang argues, is counterproductive.

This sounds counterintuitive in a culture that rewards hard work and wears busyness as a badge of honor. After all, you need to work your 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. What is interesting is that even the study that popularized the 10,000-hour rule agrees with Pang’s findings.

The most successful performers in the study practiced deliberately for about four hours a day. Working a limited amount every day allowed them to have the focus to be deliberate in their practice. Also helped them not to get burnt out before they reached their 10,000 hours.

Working less is easier said than done, you say. Usually your boss or your employer does not get the concept of deep work and the value of rest. But, often it is you that does not allow yourself to let go of overworking. Fear of missing out. Fear of failure. Fear of being judged. How can you give yourself permission to have a more balanced life and increase your output in the process?

Throughout my career, I used several mantras to give myself permission to take it easy. I am sharing three of them here, hoping that one or more might be helpful to you.

Mantra #1: I am not being paid for my time, I am being paid for my ideas

When I joined sales at Google, I thought I would need to work long hours. The expectations were high, the clients senior and my peers incredibly talented.

But, soon I realized that my success was not directly correlated with the time I put in. In one productive meeting with a client, I could achieve a lot more than I would in ten less productive ones. What made a difference was the quality of the ideas I would bring.

Your best ideas do not come when you are glued to your computer. They occur during your walk to work. In the shower. When you expose yourself to new people and experiences. It is no coincidence that Google and other big tech companies have restaurants, gyms and massage therapists in the office.

If you have a job that demands strategy or creativity, taking time away from your desk is imperative. Go to conferences and read books. Have a lunch break, preferably with colleagues. Leave the office on time and pursue interests outside of work.

Mantra #2: I am not being paid for my time, I am being paid for my results

When you start a new job, there is more learning and less doing. A lot of us try to ride the learning curve as quickly as we can, and we put in extra hours. It takes longer for us to bring the results that our more experienced peers do. Investing in training and mentorship can be an effective way to learn quicker and save a massive amount of work-hours in the process.

After some time in a job, you will become experienced and even masterful at it. Your intuition is powerful, trained with experience. Your network of relationships is strong. You achieve excellent results with a lot less effort or time than you used to.

A lot of people will still feel guilty to reduce their hours. Even if they can. Even if they need to in order to take better care of their health or relationships. Overworking is a hard habit to break. In this case, it might be helpful to look at the results you bring to your employer and clients. If these are great and you can deliver them in fewer hours than what you used to, embrace it. You are being paid for your results after all.

Mantra #3: Taking care of myself is part of my job.

As an executive coach, I only spend a handful of hours each month with my clients. And their expectation is usually no less than a career or life transformation.

Having such a finite time to offer my service, made me adamant about doing less but better. If I only spend little time with my clients, I need to be at my absolute best during this time.

I need to be fully present not to miss something important. My mind needs to be clear to spot patterns. I need to have the strength to hold space for my clients’ most difficult emotions.

I prepare by practicing radical self-care. I sleep. I exercise. I have reflective conversations myself. I read. I continue studying. I do not book more than two coaching sessions a day. I block full days for self-care or reflection. I outsource anything that can drain my energy like my website or accounting.

Think about the times in your job that you are required to be at your best. Presentations, pitches, sales conversations. Getting an extra hour of sleep is likely more crucial to your success than spending another hour fine-tuning your slides.

If your livelihood depended on a machine, you would make sure you maintain it. If you had a goose that was laying golden eggs, you would do your best to keep the goose healthy and happy. Taking care of yourself is the best investment you can make for your career for the long term.

Final thoughts

How can you work less without reducing your overall output?

The secret is to do deep, focused work. No multitasking. No distractions. Start by scheduling two or three 90-minute chunks for deep work in your day. Or use the Pomodoro technique if it works for you.

Here are some questions to consider on your journey towards less but deeper work:

  • What is your top priority at work?
  • What are the things that only you can do?
  • What can you drop?
  • What can you outsource?
  • How can you be at your best?
  • How can you schedule more creative pauses?

Many of the world’s highest achievers worked a lot less than what we do today. Charles Darwin only worked about four hours a day, Ernest Hemingway worked six, Gabriel Garcia Marquez hewed closer to five, Stephen King says anything over four is “strenuous,” and Alice Munro, who won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature, sticks to three.

The scientific evidence keeps piling up. As a knowledge worker, you will benefit from using smaller bursts of focused work per day. Your output will be better in the course of the year. The question is how you can give yourself permission to embrace a 4-hour workday? I shared my mantras. I would love to hear yours in the comments.

Caterina Kostoula is an Executive Coach and Founder of The Leaderpath. Before, she was a Global Business Leader at Google.

You can download Caterina’s free balance and self-care toolkit and follow her on LinkedIn, Medium or Facebook.

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