Why Working Less Might Make You More Productive

Updated to Habits, Productivity on December 27, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

Today was a good day. I did very little work.

But don’t get me wrong…it was a really productive day.

Let me explain.

Recent research has looked at how many hours we are actually productive at work. And how much time is spent being distracted.

The results are sort of scary.

Think about your typical day – how often are you pulled away from what you intended to work on and let yourself go down some rabbit hole?

It happens without you knowing it.

Leave Facebook alerts on, check your email every 5 minutes or plan your day with sticky-notes and you’ve cooked up a recipe for distractions.

All your flitting from distraction to distraction can give you a false sense of productivity. Even when you’re not.

Stanford professor and best-selling author Kelly McGonigal writes about the false-positive dopamine rush we can get from checking email or chasing after distractions.

“We all have the capacity to do harder things, we also have the desire to do exactly the opposite.” Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct

Shuffling paper, checking email, searching for that Excel chart, “Oh!” a Facebook update, back to email, now searching for the file mentioned in the email, back to shuffling paper.

It’s the Parkinson Principle at it’s worse.

Maybe you should stop working so much in order to be more productive.

Why do we work 8 hours a day?

It might surprise you to know the 8-hour work day was never designed around optimal human productivity. In fact, it’s origins lie in the Industrial Revolution, not the Information Age.

In the late 18th century 12 to 16 hour work days were common. Factories needed to run 24/7 and workers were committed to brutally long shifts. People fought back. This is where the idea of “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” became popular.

Wholesale change didn’t start until around 1914 when the Ford Motor Company made the surprise announcement they were reducing work shifts to 8-hours and increasing wages. Employees were more productive up and soon other companies were on board.

Fast forward to today and work looks a lot different. We don’t move widgets on a factory floor. Instead, we have hundreds of choices every day on how to spend our time. And how to be distracted.

We still budget for an 8-hour work day, but our productivity, according to at least one study, has plummeted to about 3 hours!

According to one study, we are productive for about 3 hours a day!

These results suggest less time at work, but spent more focussed on doing real work could be a better formula. Maybe a 6-hour work day with bigger breaks makes sense to make you more productive.

Here’s where to start

Start with Boundaries

As you know, I work from my Flight Plan – a very short list of priorities for the current week. It’s always hard to get that list down to a dozen (or less) high-priority jobs—the 20 minutes, or so, I spend forcing prioritization on my list always pays off in less anxiety and better results. As someone (smarter than me) once said: “Those who don’t plan will become victims of those who do.”

“Those who don’t plan will become victims of those who do.”

Once you have your Flight Plan, the two most effective tools to keep you on track are Boundaries and Batching. There are lots of other neat tricks that will make you more productive, but let’s just look at those two.

A Boundary is when you’re strategically unavailable. I use these for writing this blog, wrapping up proposals, planning and making sales. No email, no Internet, no distractions – just cranking through one job. Typically, my Boundaries of time are 30 to 60 minutes.

Here’s an example of a Boundary…

Yesterday I needed to hire another editor for my BlogWorks company. After two weeks of talking about it (procrastination), I locked myself away, got to work and by the end of just one hour had 2 interviews set up with 4 more to follow.

For you it could be a coaching session, staff scheduling, creating a new SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), or returning sales calls.

Now that you have Boundaries, it’s time to start batching.

Batch everything

By now I think you know multitasking is a failed game. It isn’t more productive. We delude ourselves into thinking we can jump from task to task (worse yet is to do two at once), but that’s not how we’re wired.

“We delude ourselves into thinking we can jump from task to task (worse yet is to do two at once), but that’s not how we’re wired.”

In one study, subjects who multitasked experienced a drop in IQ equivalent to missing a night of sleep.


Batching is when you complete similar tasks together. This may seem obvious – my experience is people don’t batch.

An obvious example is email – constantly checking your InBox takes you out of the game, raises your anxiety and actually reduces your productivity.

Not convinced? Tally up how many times you check email in one day. I think you’ll be surprised.

There’s also an effect called “attention residue” that happens when you’re still thinking about one task (like that email you read but didn’t reply to) when supposedly you’ve moved onto a new task (like the person who just walked into your office).

Attention residue happens when you’re still thinking about one task when supposedly you’ve moved onto a new task (like the person you’re with).

Tasks you can batch include:

  • returning phone calls
  • paying bills
  • filing
  • checking email
  • Internet research
  • running errands
  • checking and updating social media
  • writing (proposals, speeches, SOP’s, blogs, staff memos…)
  • planning your week and your day
  • sex (just seeing if you’re still here)
  • clearing the clutter out of your workspace
  • outsourcing jobs (graphic design, editing, writing, research…)

One practice I’ve developed is to be extra specific when planning the tasks I’m batching together.

For example, it could look like:

“10:00: post job for an editor on Upwork, invite 10 freelancers (60 min)”

That’s a lot better than…

“10:00 find a new editor”

What you can do to be more productive

Maybe you still clock in for an 8-hour workday, or maybe you experiment with a shorter day.

The point is to be effective when you need to be and slack off for the rest. I know I’m at my best when I have a clear Flight Plan matched with a sense of positive urgency.

Start with removing distractions, then create Boundaries and practice Batching similar tasks. You might be surprised how quickly you fly through your list. You might even discover free time to catch up with a friend, creative noodling, or reading a book in your local coffee shop.

Urgency and clear direction will always trump good intentions.