Why You Need to Do Less, Not More, to Be Truly Productive

Can you try too hard to be productive?

There are plenty of books, articles, and blog posts full of tips to help you squeeze just a little bit more productivity into your day. Maybe you’re trying to cut out TV, or you’re listening to War and Peace on your commute, or you’ve started writing a novel in your lunch breaks…

Of course, all of those can be great ways to make the most of your time. But it’s easy to go too far. If you cram every minute of your day with “productive” activity, you may well end up less productive overall.

Here’s why.

You Risk Getting Sick

However important “being productive” is to you, your physical and mental health should come first. If you get sick because you’ve been working so hard (or end up suffering a breakdown) then you won’t be in a good position to meet any of your goals.

A healthy life is one which involves enough rest and play. That means getting seven – eight hours of sleep each night and enjoying some down-time (even if it feels “unproductive”). You’ll also want to make enough time to prepare and eat healthy meals.

You’ll Focus on the Wrong Things

If you’re constantly worrying about how productive you are, you’ll probably end up focusing on the wrong things. You might well prioritize easy tasks over important ones: after all, if you can check off 20 items on your list, that’s better than checking off 3 … right?

An obsession with productivity at all costs can also lead to short-term gains at the expense of the long-term. Sure, you might make a quick buck this month — but if you go about it the wrong way, you could cause yourself problems a year down the line.

You Won’t Work at Your Full Potential

If you’re racing through tasks in a bid to be more productive, you’ll start cutting corners. Of course, damping down any perfectionist tendencies is often a good thing — but lowering your standards and settling for second-best generally isn’t.

By focusing on one or two key projects, instead of half-a-dozen, you’ll be able to give each one the time, energy and attention it deserves. Sure, you might have to give up on your plan to write a best-selling novel and run a marathon and start your own business and redecorate your house all in one year — but you will have a much greater chance at actually succeeding in one or two of these goals.

How to Do Less, Starting Today

Perhaps you have a nagging sense that you’re trying to do too much — that productivity has become all about numbers and checklists, not about reaching goals that truly inspire and challenge you.

If you need to cut down your to-do list, here’s how to start:

  1. Look for any commitments that you can ditch (or at least get out of temporarily). Could someone else take over your role on a particular work project or in a local community group?
  2. Go through your current goals and decide which are your real priorities. Put all the others on hold for now. Once you complete a priority goal, you can add one of the others back in.
  3. Delegate more often. If there are tasks on your list that really need to be done — but not necessarily by you — then find someone else who can take them on. Depending on the task, that might be a co-worker, a family member, or someone you hire.

And most importantly, don’t feel pressured into being more “productive” by other people (or by books, articles, and blog posts). Yes, it’s good to do meaningful and useful things with your life — but that doesn’t mean you have to cram every single minute with activity. Sometimes, true productivity means taking a break when you need one, or investing time in quality relationships.

Have you got any tips or ideas to share about being more productive by doing less? If so, leave a comment below.


13 Responses to Why You Need to Do Less, Not More, to Be Truly Productive

  1. Mark Bowness says:

    Great post Ali. I completely agree, after spending so long trying to reach so many of my goals at once I have decided to focus on two that play a role in helping me to achieve my over all ambitions and goals. I think it’s also important to find time for ‘space’, instead of cramming our brains with podcasts on the commute and writing the book at lunch time it is vital to just get outside and run, fill your head with nothing and watch what that does to increased creativity and motivation! 

  2. Jason says:

    This is one of my favorite posts I have seen on this site. The first point about getting sick from over-doing it is actually something I was talking with someone about just earlier this week. Sometimes as soon as a person feels good they jump on too many tasks and overdo it until they crash; then they spend awhile being less productive to recover and end up getting in a sort of roller coaster.

  3. Dr. Mike says:

    Good work, Ali! This post reminded me how I try to focus on the right things. That means that I tackle the most important tasks of my day first. That might mean something that is time sensitive. If nothing is pressing in terms of time, “most important” means most difficult. I take on the most mentally challenging tasks first. Getting those done early leaves time later in the day to throw in some relaxing, even before the work day is done. Those breathers make me feel better by day’s end, not totally depleted.

  4. Filip Andrei Brindas says:

    Really GREAT article. It is a treasure in being more relaxed, doing what you like and not overworking yourself. Many people think that if they overwork themselves they will be more productive, that’s wrong: they will me more tired, they may get sick and they will be frustrated and unhappy. Also, I have a new post on my blog at http://www.developingmyself.blogspot.com It is about having the right mindset.

  5. Pingback: Why You Need to Do Less, Not More, to Be Truly Productive | Time Management Magazine

  6. Great advice and an interesting perspective on time management. I’ve often found that when I have a long list of things to get done, just thinking about it makes me feel overwhelmed and incapable. Prioritizing that long list and cutting out tasks that are less important has helped me to accomplish difficult tasks in a more timely and effective manner; great to hear that it works for other people too!

  7. Clay says:

    Brilliant advice, We should better focus on doing a few things right than a lot of things wrong!

  8. Justin says:

    So agree here Ali. I know how wonderful it can feel to be productive, but always being in “go mode” does cause imbalances and illness in us. I love setting time each day to do absolutely nothing and I love it. :)

  9. Dan Erickson says:

    Great points.  I suppose I should get back to doing those two things: writing my book, and practicing music, but then again, I need to blog, read blogs, comment on blogs, etc. to promote what I do.  It’s a catch-22.

    I agree with your post as I try to live minimally.  And although my comment above is tongue-in-cheek, there’s some truth to it.  We tend to make more for ourselves as we become more actively creative in the new electronic world of writing. http://www.danerickson.net

  10. Brokenbyfire says:

    There is a wealth of truth and wisdom here.  We have a song whose theme reflects these very same ideas –  it is called “Less Is More” and you can listen to it & download it for free here (it’s at the bottom of the page): 

    Broken By Fire

  11. Well said. Peter Drucker talks about an executive having only one key priority (in “The Effective Executive.”) It’s hard to go that far, but it’s clear that tight focus is key to success in almost any area. 

    Merlin Mann: “You eventually learn that true priorities are like arms; if you think you have more than a couple, you’re either lying or crazy.” (http://www.43folders.com/2009/04/28/priorities)

  12. Lllz says:

    I am stuck on the first advise. I just cannot ditch anything. All the projects I am on are very importnat for me and are very interesting. I might reduce the time of the sleep though to get more time devoted to each and keep my focus on each per devoted time period. 

  13. ellen Mongkey says:

    I was impress with this article, I’ve learn a lot thanks for sharing I do appreciate it.
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