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Why less adds up to more at work

Every month, Oliver Burkeman invites you to improve your work life

by Psychologies

THE PROJECT:

If you’re one of the many people whose job feels increasingly frenzied then you probably won't take kindly to the notion of getting more done by working less.

Yet as you may have noticed, going into overdrive is actually bad for your work. You forget important tasks; never get time to think; and your anxiety stresses your colleagues. Slowing down, if you do it right, isn’t just a happier way to live – you’ll do your job better, too.

THE AIM:

Being overwhelmed is only part of the problem.

The other, argues psychologist Stephanie Brown, is that we’re addicted to urgency. We navigate our workdays not by doing what matters, but what makes us like we’re crossing things off.

Unfortunately, modern life is full of things that deliver this feeling, yet aren’t useful: checking email nine times an hour; doing endless web ‘research’; arranging a meeting, when what’s really called for is quiet thinking.

So by trying to feel useful, you end up missing important stuff – and depleting your energy. But because we’re addicted to speed, slowing down makes us anxious, edgy, and self-conscious about what others may think.

THE THEORY:

The key is to stop expecting that going slower will feel pleasant, because at first, it won’t. You'll be tempted to speed up again, to make the anxiety go away. Instead, accept the feelings; then try some specific techniques.

Take your full lunch break. Instead of powering through a list, decide how long you’ll give to an activity, set a timer, see how much you can do – then stop. Make firm after-work plans; you’re more likely to finish on schedule if someone’s expecting you.

And if your boss demands the impossible, be polite but firm: if she wants you to make some new task your top priority, it’s only fair to ask what you should de-prioritise, to make room.

NOW TRY IT OUT:

1. Start small: If your office runs on adrenaline, you can’t expect to become a Zen master overnight. Aim for just a small oasis of slowness. For example: could you book a meeting room for two hours per week, for quiet focus by yourself?

2. Stop and feel your feelings: We’re conditioned to respond to anxiety by springing into action. But next time you feel that tightness in the stomach, try to feel it without pushing it away. You might still decide to act – but you’ll be doing so less automatically.

3. Prioritise – then prune: List your tasks for the day. Label them by importance, As, Bs and Cs… then give up all hope of getting to the Bs or Cs. We chronically underestimate how long things take. You’ll work much more effectively when you honestly face that fact.

Oliver Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Canongate, £8.99)

Photograph: iStock

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