Most of us want to work smarter, not harder. We want to spend less time working without compromising the quality of our work. We want to hit more targets and accomplish more goals, without wasting time on low-value “shallow” tasks like email, meetings and admin. It’s an idea captured by one seemingly paradoxical work hack: deliberately do less to do more. But what does this actually mean? How does it work in practice? And what strategies can you use to work this theory into your workday?
The problem with busyness
Most of us work in a constant state of busyness. We jump from task to task, switching context and multitasking, feeling like we’re getting lots done. But this busyness culture is largely performative. It renders complex, creative problem solving virtually impossible (our brains simply can’t attend to several things at once). It leaves us with an empty feeling at the end of each day: even though we know we worked hard, we have little to show for our efforts.
Even if you find yourself with a “free” half hour towards the end of the day, you might decide to catch up with email or Slack. But that can pull you into a new conversation or spark a new task, and before you know it your half hour has grown into an hour and you’re still not done. The funny thing is, much of this communication is probably not even necessary in the first place. The problem with these shallow tasks is that they might feel urgent... but they almost never advance your important goals.
Working in this busyness culture, you don’t have time to pause. You become so used to running from one thing to another that you don’t have space to question why you’re actually working on something. You can’t see the bigger picture, reflect on your efforts or prioritize. Your task backlog baloons and you rarely ever get through your daily to-do list. In a rush to burn through it, you end up developing small task addiction; prioritizing quick wins over the complex tasks that actually help you progress.
Just because working eight hours a day is the norm, that doesn’t mean we should all do it. Countless studies show that putting in more hours doesn’t always secure more output. Brits, for example, work two hours more each day than their European neighbors, but are significantly less productive. One study even found that the average employee is actually only productive for around 2.5 hours a day; while they accomplished something meaningful in that time, their remaining five hours were filled with low-value, inconsequential tasks.
Being productive isn’t about freeing up more time to do more work. It’s about doing less work – so we can spend more effort on the right work. Many of the most successful people in the world only worked for a few hours each day – Einstein, Darwin and Nietzsche famously only worked for two hours. And allotting too much time to something can actually foster unproductivity, according to Parkinson’s law.
So, if we know that overloading our schedule, sitting at our desk for long hours, and trying to rush through as many tasks as we can is counterproductive, what’s the solution? Since we can’t all switch to a 4-day week overnight, what practically can we do now to achieve more with less?
“Work less, do more” strategies
1. Know how you spend effort
Before you can begin to work smarter, you first need to become aware of how you actually use your time. That means understanding: how you distribute effort across your tasks, how long specific tasks take, which apps sink your time, where you get distracted or switch context, and how much time you lose to meetings, email and chat. where you get distracted. An automatic time tracker can take the sting out of this collecting these insights by capturing all your work activity in the background for you. Once you have that data, you can then begin to address and improve the ways you work.
2. Find your 20%
Next, you should emulate Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto and use his 80/20 rule. The theory is simple: find the 20% of tasks that generate the most value, then prioritize them. Once you find your 20%, you’ll understand where the majority of your effort should be focused. By prioritizing tasks that are genuinely important and valuable, and limiting the rest, you’re not only making it easier for your brain to focus on the job; you’re also reducing the number of responsibilities you face, which makes it infinitely easier and more enjoyable to put everything you have into your work.
3. Own your schedule
Having found your 20%, you then need to organize your schedule to stay focused on it. Time blocking your week can help you commit to just a few important tasks, and ensure unruly low-value tasks like email are contained. Your plan should be built around regular deep work sessions with one clear goal – providing uninterrupted space for deep thinking. The idea is to concentrate fully on one or two things each day, instead of trying to juggle all your tasks at once. As Leo Babauta, the creator of Zen Habits, explains: "We're most effective when we're picking only a few really important tasks to do each day, and focusing on one task at a time rather than constantly switching between everything."
Finally, to understand what you’ve achieved, measure the time you spend doing focused work. Deep work expert Cal Newport recommends using lead measures over lag measures for this. Lag measures describe what you want to achieve (e.g. finish a book by the end of the month), but you only know you’ve achieved it once that date has already passed; there’s no room to rectify your behavior to meet it. Conversely, lead measures are the small steps you can control which allow you to reach your bigger goal (e.g. read 1,000 words a day). Because you’re able to keep on top of these actions, you’re able to increase your lead measure, which in turn increases your lag measure.
Sometimes the easiest way to become more productive is to reframe what productivity actually means, and how it looks. It isn’t about doing more – and it isn’t really about doing less. It’s about focusing more on the few things that truly matter; the old adage “always quality, never quantity.”