How to avoid burnout by working less and doing more

Feeling burned out? Here's how to leverage priorities, positive constraints, and psychology to avoid a long-term funk.

Meet Bob.

How to avoid burnout by working less and doing more

Like you, Bob thinks his job is to juggle things.

He takes pride in being one of the best jugglers in the business: When someone asks him to throw an extra ball into his routine, he never says no.

If he doesn’t have time to get something done during the workday, Bob is always willing to do it at night, in between bites of dinner. His day often begins at 8am and doesn’t end until 10pm.

When he works late, he has the courtesy not to complain about it to his team (though he will occasionally hint at it).

Bob’s managers think he’s one of the best employees at the company. They celebrate his juggling skills, tout his willingness to take on new projects, and tell other employees they should follow his example. 

What they don’t realize is that Bob is putting himself, his team, and even his entire company at risk.

Because Bob is on the brink of burnout.

Medical professionals define burnout as “a psychological state of physical and emotional exhaustion” thought to be induced by work-related stress.

There are many theories as to what prompts burnout, but some of the more common job-related causes include:

  • A lack of social support at work (especially common among remote workers) 
  • Extremes of activity, or burning the candle at both ends
  • Unclear or undefined job expectations
  • Work-life imbalance

A Gallup survey found that 76% of employees have experienced some form of burnout. These employees are:

  • 63% more likely to take a sick day than a non-affected worker 
  • 23% more likely to visit the emergency room
  • 2.6x more likely to look fo a new job

Bob has been teetering on the edge of burnout for a while. If he continues grinding himself down, he won’t just end up being nonproductive: He’ll become anti-productive, making mistakes that the rest of his team must spend time fixing.

To make matters worse, Bob is now juggling all of his tasks from home, where it’s harder for his colleagues to gauge his stress levels.

Luckily, Bob has a little furry friend named Hamster Jack, who just so happens to be a burnout expert.

After years spent spinning around in the wheel of burnout, Hamster Jack knows just what it’s going to take to prevent Bob from fizzling out. 

And it all starts with defining what’s truly important.

Priority: When everything is important, nothing is

In Hamster Jack’s estimation, Bob’s first problem is that he thinks of his work in terms of priorities.

Bob juggles a lot of different tasks and considers them all to be critically important. But the very idea of multiple “priorit-ies” (in the plural sense) is relatively new.

A search through the world literature on Google N-Gram shows that the term “priorities” was practically nonexistent before the factory boom following World War II.

Before that, only the singular version of the word — priority — was widely used.

As Hamster Jack reminds Bob, the idea of multiple priorities is an illusion: Two things can be important, but they can’t both be the most important.

When people say they have multiple priorities, what they’re really saying is that they have a hard time prioritizing. They are unwilling to make difficult, potentially uncomfortable decisions about what should take precedence over everything else.

The first step to catching and reversing burnout before it does damage is learning to take time to figure out which proverbial balls are actually important — and which need to be dropped.

Hamster Jack implores Bob to look at the things he’s juggling each day, and ask himself the following questions:

  1. Is this task still important, or has the situation changed? Often we commit to tasks or projects that are important at the time, but become less important as situations evolve.
  1. Am I really the only person who can do this? Many top performers think that doing something on their own is easier than teaching someone else how to do it. Trust your colleagues, and give them the chance to surprise you.
  1. Is this the most important thing right now? Or am I using it to avoid something else? Deep down, you know when you’re doing this.
  1. If this was the only thing I completed today, would I be satisfied with my day’s work? Part of avoiding burnout is focusing on work that will give us a sense of accomplishment.

As Bob himself starts juggling fewer things, it clears space for him to focus.

Positive constraints: Doing less to accomplish more

On its own, prioritizing won’t prevent burnout.

For someone like Bob, who’s grown accustomed to working nights and weekends, it doesn’t matter how much tasks are minimized: He’ll find ways to fill his time with more work.

Hamster Jack senses that Bob is a victim of Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

The implication of this is simple, yet profound: To avoid working all the time — yet still get his work done — Bob needs to limit the amount of time he allots for work.

Some companies and institutions have been experimenting with this very idea and seen positive results:

  • A New Zealand firm tested a 4-day workweek and found that it actually boosted productivity, creativity, and job satisfaction.
  • In 2019, Microsoft Japan closed their offices every Friday, and saw a ~39% increase in YoY sales per employee.
  • A 23-month study in Sweden found that nurses who worked a 6-hour workday had higher productivity levels and lower absentee rates than those with a longer workday.

But a mere “commitment” not to overwork won’t lead to sustainable change.

In order for this constraint to work, Bob needs to face real, unmovable barriers that force him to finish his work and leave the office — like scheduling a long-overdue date with his love interest, Roberta.

Psychology: The foundation for change

Lastly, Hamster Jack knows that without the right psychological approach, Bob will quickly fall back onto the hamster wheel of burnout.

Part of the problem stems from the common misconception that being a great employee means working hard. Hard work is part of the equation — but to be truly effective, Bob actually needs to do 2 things:

  1. Perform at the highest level
  2. Protect his ability to perform at the highest level

Doing the first while neglecting the second is only setting Bob and his team up for more problems down the line.

Hamster Jack — ever the fuzzy fountain of wisdom — suggests 2 rules to help him navigate his workday:

1. The 80% Rule

As Hamster Jack is fond of saying, “There are two types of hamsters in this world: Those who give 110%, and those who understand math.”

The 80% rule suggests that a superb employee plans to devote 80% of their energy and focus for the day to their job. The remaining 20% should be reserved for hobbies, family time, and everything else that isn’t work-related.

By leaving some energy in the tank each day, Bob creates the space he needs to avoid toxic work-life imbalance. Still, Bob often feels guilty putting work away, which is why Hamster Jack shares another secret with him:

2. Diffuse Problem-Solving

The brain has 2 modes of problem-solving: focused and diffuse.

The focused mode, which is most familiar to us, is when we give our full attention to a problem and try to reason our way through it. It can be very effective — especially when the problem is relatively familiar.

But the diffuse mode is where the problem-solving magic happens. This is when we allow our mind to wander, allowing it to connect disparate ideas at a level the focused mode doesn’t allow for.

When Bob chose to step away from work and go live his life, he unlocked his mind’s ability to solve creative and complex problems.

And in the end, this did more for his career, his team, and his company than a few extra hours of juggling.

Graphics by: Sheoli Chaturvedi

Editor’s note: This story was inspired by a presentation on burnout that Ethan gave to The Hustle’s editorial team.

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