The Key To Preventing Burnout & Increasing Productivity Is Not What You Think

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getting more done by doing less

Hustle culture is a lie. This mentality believes being constantly busy is cool. Achieving all your goals by, like, yesterday is a must — otherwise, what are you even doing with your life? Praise is given to those that work themselves to the bone. However, this go-go-go mindset and incessant striving to be productive at all times because it's seemingly the only way to achieve your goals, according to experts, is not just overly hyped, but detrimental to one’s well being. It's also not true. As it happens, many therapists and psychologists believe doing less and prioritizing rest is the key to increased productivity and achieving one’s goals. Ahead, experts break down where the hustle mindset comes from, how slowing down can prove to be more effective, and tips on how to practice the less-is-more productivity principle.

According to Celeste Headlee, a journalist and author of Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving, this mindset of always working dates back hundreds of years to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, where people's value was measured by how much they worked and not how well they accomplished a task. "In the ensuing years, society leaned further and further into the myth that working long, hard hours made a person more deserving and virtuous," Headlee says.

Caroline Leaf, Ph.D., a neuroscientist, mental health expert, and host of the Cleaning Up The Mental Mess podcast, echoes this by saying, "we live in a culture that worships busyness as a sign of success." And consequently, "to rest, say no, or put up boundaries becomes an act of rebellion — of going against the grain." In other words, being busy is seen as a badge of honor, while needing to take a break is deemed as a badge of shame. Furthermore, Dr. Leaf adds, this toxic mindset of prioritizing productivity over our wellbeing can lead to mental and physical repercussions.

Like any mindset, this "hurry sickness," as Dr. Leaf calls it, is wired into our brains, and the more we succumb to it, the more significant impact it has on our health. Anxiety and depression can be warning signs of over productivity. "These are messengers telling us to change what we are doing because it's damaging our psychoneurobiology — the mind-brain-body connection," Dr. Leaf says. "A 'hurry sickness' lifestyle, if not managed over time, can eventually explode, volcanic style, in other areas of our life. We can already see this in our society with our increasing levels of burnout, toxic stress, and lifestyle-related diseases."


How Doing Less Helps You Accomplish More

All that said, what does this then mean for our productivity? If we're not meant to be doing constantly, how will we get things done and achieve our goals? The key is quality over quantity. "When we are always 'on,' we create a chaotic effect in our neural wiring and neurochemistry," Dr. Leaf says. "As a result, whatever we do takes more energy and time, and the quality of what we do suffers. When we adopt a 'hurry sickness' mindset, we are, in essence, putting the fuel we need to energize the conscious mind and brain to the wrong use, and it will drain rapidly, much like when we have multiple apps open on our phone, and the battery dies more quickly."

In short, Dr. Leaf says, "doing less is more" when it comes to our mind-brain-body functionality. Focusing on quality over quantity helps you get more done faster because you don't have numerous mental tabs open at once, slowing you down. Plus, Dr. Leaf adds that operating in this way also helps manage stress and prevent burnout.

Therefore, incorporating more rest into our lives is not just a nice thing to do; it's the key to increased productivity and wellbeing. "Rest should be part of one's lifestyle — it is not just for weekends or holidays," Dr. Leaf says.

How To Practice The "Doing Less Is More" Principle


Schedule Rest Into Every Day

To harness the power of the do-less-and-accomplish-more principle, Headlee advises scheduling unstructured rest time every day where you step away from digital devices and do something non-work related, even if it's just for 15 minutes. "Simply sit or stand at rest and allow your mind to wander until you decide that you want to take a walk, re-organize your bookshelf, call your aunt, or doodle on a sketchpad," Headlee says. "It's okay if you start to feel a little bored since boredom is actually a fertile state of mind that boosts your creativity and leads to deeper thought."

Set Hard Start & Stop Times For Work

Whether you're still WFH or back in the office, Headlee says it's important to decide what time you'll start and end work each day and resist the urge to work or check emails or Slack outside of those times. "Allowing yourself to keep your work in its place and focus on other things during your off hours gives your life more meaning because you can invest in yourself and people you love," Headlee says.

Start With Small Wins

Diving into the deep end of the unproductive pool can feel like too much of a stretch at first. For that reason, Headlee recommends starting small and celebrating small victories instead. For instance, instead of booking a week-long retreat in the mountains or trying to ditch your inbox cold turkey, simply incorporating more rest time into your schedule every day is a win in and of itself.

Set Up Accountability

Ditching the productivity hamster wheel is not easy, and recruiting some support can be super helpful. That's why Headlee suggests letting friends or family members know that you're trying to break your addiction to work and productivity so they can help hold you accountable and remind you to take breaks.

Remember, It's A Process

The need to always be productive is so hardwired into us, which is why Headlee reminds us that overcoming this mentality and getting to the point where you don’t feel guilty when you're doing something unproductive (i.e., watching a movie without checking email or social media) is a long-term endeavor. She says it can take weeks or even months before you feel comfortable just being and not doing. In other words, be patient and give yourself grace.