What's the first thing that people do when they have a mile-long list of things they need to do, whether it be at work, school, home, or a combination of all three? Oddly enough, people in this situation tend to get the urge to do even more things than they can handle. I've seen it happen so many times - the co-worker who is juggling three separate projects, the student who's cramming for their finals while trying to finish a 50-page report, and so on.
When you have too much to do, you would think that most would try to offload some of the work and eventually do less, which would be manageable. However, it's often the opposite. People seem to rather drown in a sea of tasks instead of keeping things simple. Most of us tend to overestimate how much we can honestly do, taking on more and more responsibility and failing to notice that it's too much. But I would say that more often than not we do realize that we're overworking ourselves - we have a desire to do it all.
Taking on too much work for extended periods of time is a recipe for disaster. It can backfire on you in many different ways, and studies have proven this over and over again:
- The more tasks you need to handle, the higher the possibility that you'll make critical mistakes. For example, a 2014 study shows that the mortality rate of patients in a hospital increased when the workload of the nursing staff increased.
- Despite doing more tasks, you'll get less done because your level of efficiency will plummet. In a paper titled The Productivity of Working Hours, a Stanford University professor determined that an employee's output decreases past working a certain number of hours in a week.
- Doing more than you're capable of leads to stress, which in turn can create a slew of health issues. One of the most well-known examples of this is the Japanese phenomenon known as Karōshi - literally translated as "overwork death."
Do more by doing less
When you have too many things to do, the best thing you can do for your well-being is to set constraints. Instead of trying to cram as many tasks as you can in a single day, start the day by choosing from one to three things that you can accomplish on that day - no more than that.
Even if you have 1,000 tasks on your list that you need to get done as soon as possible, don't go over three things you can do on any given day. The key here is to do enough work that will move you forward while not stressing you out. Setting limits on the amount of work you will do in a single day prevents you from getting overwhelmed with everything you need to do. That overwhelm is what leads to trying to do more, starting that cascading effect of mistakes, inefficiency, and stress-related health issues.
Having a much-shorter list to work off of will increase your focus in a big way. Having fewer things to juggle in your head will prevent your mind from straying too much into the future, which you can't control. You'll find yourself being more in the present, which is where you can perform your best work.
Your mind will also be clearer compared to when you have too many things going on at once. We've all experienced brain fog, where we can't seem to concentrate or do what we need to get done. While a variety of factors causes it, one of the leading causes is having too many things in your head. With fewer tasks taking your attention, you'll be allowed to give your all to the work in front of you.
A bonus with increased focus and mental clarity is that you'll begin to notice that a lot of the commitments you thought were essential are not that important after all. When your brain gets clogged with work, it's impossible to see what you need to do. As the saying goes, you can't see the forest for the trees. When you have fewer things on your plate, it will be easy to spot work that you can delegate to someone else, postponed to a much later date, or even scrapped altogether.
Common excuses given not to limit your work
Even with the knowledge that doing less work helps on a daily basis, there are a few excuses that are given by people to justify their over-work. Here are some of the more common reasons, along with ways to combat that reasoning:
"I have way too much to do, I'll never finish if I only do three things a day!"
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, most people try to squeeze in more work into their days when they find themselves with too much to do. If you're drowning in work, the best thing you can do is find ways to offload that work. There have been a couple of ways already discussed to do this.
Delegation is one of the better ways to do this. Find a trusted person to take on some tasks for you. It can be a co-worker, a family member, a close friend, or even a freelancer you can hire. You'll pass the work to someone else, and the job will still get done, so it'll be a win-win situation.
Another great way to handle this is to determine how important the work is. Many times, we over-estimate the importance of some tasks. Sometimes we think we need to do it now when in reality we can push it to another time when we're less busy, or even decide not to do it at all. Make sure to scan your list of tasks regularly to postpone or scrap items.
"Three tasks a day is too little, I can do that in less than an hour!"
When asked to limit your daily work to three tasks in a day, you might have thought that it's not enough work and you can accomplish much more in a day. These thoughts can mean one of two things.
Most likely, you're underestimating the time it will take you to accomplish those tasks. It's common for us to think that we can tackle something in a certain amount of time, only to find that it can take significantly more effort to do. We might over-rate our abilities, or we don't consider possible setbacks into consideration. Be honest with yourself when figuring out what it takes to get the job done.
If you're confident that you're not underestimating the effort needed for three tasks and it's still not enough work for a day, chances are that your life is full of busy work. This kind of work can keep you busy for days or weeks, yet provide you with little to no value and won't move you forward in any significant way. You need to figure out if these small tasks do provide value and ruthlessly drop anything that doesn't give you any progress.
Sometimes, small tasks are essential and need to get done. If that's the case, group as many of these tasks into a more substantial chunk of related work. For example, let's say you're working on a website and have to write copy for different sections of the site. Instead of separating each segment as an individual task, group them and make one larger task to handle copywriting. Grouping similar work as a unit will give you enough to do and show more significant results than each piece and will keep you focused on a single type of job.
"I have a deadline that I need to meet and if I absolutely need to do it!
It's nice to think that we can always delegate, postpone, or abandon any tasks that we don't want or need to do. But the reality is that sometimes you will have a lot of things that need to be done by a specific date, no matter what. Work deadlines need to be met for your boss, or you'll be fired. School projects need to be handed in on time, or you'll fail the class. We'll eventually run into a situation where there's a cutoff time that needs to be handled.
Doing more work when it needs to get done can work on occasion. You can allow yourself to give a massive burst of effort onto a larger goal to get it done. However, you should try to limit yourself to working this way for a brief period. If you find yourself overworking for more than a week or two, or if you have to push yourself even couple of weeks to reach a deadline, you'll inevitably get all the adverse effects that have been discussed already in this article.
There's one important thing you should always do when you finish with a big rush of work: make sure that you take time to rest and recuperate. It would be ideal if you can take some time off from your work, but if that's not possible, you should severely limit how much work you do in the upcoming weeks. Everyone needs a break, especially after expending lots of energy and focus in short periods of time.
Limited work, limitless happiness
One of the best results of limiting your work is that you'll significantly increase your overall happiness. When we're stressed, it tends to permeate through other areas of our lives and cause severe unhappiness. Since limiting your work leads to less stress, it will show in everything you do. Your family and friends will notice a positive change in your mood, your co-workers will take notice of your demeanor, and you'll feel a lot better than when you piled on the work.
Increased happiness can also spread out in different ways. It can cause a domino effect of positive moments for you. You'll feel more confident with the work you do when you're happier. Confidence will help you make fewer mistakes in your job and increase your efficiency, leading to even more positive outcomes. For example, you'll get better grades at school, or you'll get a well-deserved raise or promotion at work.
In the long run, you'll notice that by doing less, you'll be doing a lot more. When you pile on the hours of work, your performance will slow down eventually. It will appear either in the form of inefficiency and re-doing your job or getting sick more frequently. When you limit your tasks, your consistency will let you progress further since you won't worry about any of that.
It's crazy to think that working fewer hours in a day will add up to more, but it will happen. Limit your work, and you'll find yourself reaching your goals quickly.
Small steps for your Practical Good
If you want to begin limiting the amount of work you do on a daily basis, here are the first steps you can take to enjoy the benefits of having less stress and more happiness:
- Make a list of all the work you need to do for this week. Write down everything that comes to mind related to the tasks you need to accomplish for this week. Preferably, write it down on paper, but a computer or cell phone will do the trick.
- For each of the next five days, choose up to three things from that list to do every day, starting with your most important work. Make a separate list for up to three things you can do for each day. Remember to choose enough work that is doable to accomplish in a single day. If one of your tasks is too large for a single day, split it up into smaller chunks until you can do part of it on a single day. If it's too little work, group them into larger pieces.
- At the end of the week, see how much you have done and assess how you're feeling. The goal at the end of the week is to gauge how you're feeling. Do you feel like you got a lot done? Did you feel stressed and overwhelmed, or did you feel calm and happy? Take some time to evaluate your well-being to see if this habit can work for you or you need to tweak things a bit.
- Repeat the same thing next week, adjusting as needed. If you still felt a bit of stress, try limiting your work further using any of the tactics discussed in this article. On the other hand, if you felt great, repeat the process and make it a habit.