7 Ways You Can Escape the Productivity Trap and Avoid Burnout

Are you working yourself ragged? Here's how you can find a better balance.
7 Ways You Can Escape the Productivity Trap and Avoid Burnout
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We create endless to-do lists and feel guilty if we don't spend every waking hour getting stuff done. Somewhere in-between, we're supposed to hit the gym, spend quality time with friends and family, learn a new skill, and attend to household chores.

Eventually, we burn ourselves out because we're stuck in an endless loop. The answer? Stop stressing about productivity and focus on what truly matters. And if that seems impossible, here are seven ways to accomplish this feat.

1. Admit that you don't need to do it all.

In Psychology Today, Michael Woodward gives us some common traits among entrepreneurs. To start, entrepreneurs pride themselves on wearing multiple hats, which makes sense: Your business is your baby, and you want to be instrumental in its growth and development. 

But consider this: If your child wants to play a sport, learn a musical instrument or join any other extracurricular activity, you might know the basics but lack the skills to teach them mastery. So, instead, you hire someone to coach them.

The same is true with your business. If you're not an accountant or coder, assign these tasks to someone else. Don't want to spend too much time on administrative tasks? Delegate them to an assistant. If you have the means and dread responsibilities like cleaning your home or doing yardwork, then outsource them to someone else.

Remember, not everything is a priority. You can still learn about all aspects of your business, but dedicate most of your time to the things that you enjoy and move you closer to achieving meaning goals.

Related: Let Go of These 10 Things and Start Making Better, Faster Decisions

2. Work less.

"Our culture is obsessed with productivity," writes Stanford researcher and author Emma Seppala. "But research shows that attempting to triumph over an ever-expanding to-do list actually works against us."

Workaholism doubles the risk of depression and anxiety. Research also shows that "depression and anxiety lower productivity and decreased work performance." As if that weren't bad enough, it "also leads to sleep problems and shortened attention spans." In short, that's not good for your performance or your company's bottom line. 

The solution seems to be to work less, but I'm not sure working less is the solution for all people — especially entrepreneurs. It's important to know yourself: Does it help you to have a bit more output to stay productive? If you handle stress by concentration in another area — like working — maybe that is best for you. Don't assume, and take the time to check out what's right for you.

You should also find something that helps you stop and take a breath. I found SGN — among many other similar things — can reduce stress.

"Sabine Sonnentag, a professor of organizational psychology at the University of Mannheim in Germany, found that people who do not know how to step away from work during their downtime — experienced increased exhaustion. Over one year, they became less resilient in the face of stressful work conditions," writes Seppala. "By contrast, gaining some emotional distance from highly demanding work tends to help people recover from stress faster and leads to increased productivity."

Prioritize your work and then deferring, delegating or deleting the rest. In addition, remember to schedule breaks throughout the day — as well as downtime for activities like exercise, hobbies and reflection. You need these breaks to rest, recharge and refocus.

3. Rethink your habits and routines.

Are you doing something because you always have? You may want to evaluate these activities to make sure that you're productive and just not busy. You can look at micro-roles and where you fit in with this process. You have many habits, routines and roles to fulfill in your life. Are you spinning your wheels with your practice and productivity?

Busy people typically focus on extras. Right now, you can take a little time and reorganize your thoughts about what you deem most essential. What does your to-do list look like now? What will you add or subtract? You can change these productivity pitfalls below.

  • Jumping at every new assignment and opportunity.
  • Juggling multiple assignments at once.
  • Giving in to distractions too quickly.
  • Working long hours, but asking where the day went.

Productive people line up quality habits and work on those. You can't do all things at once, but pick a couple of these value-productivity-hacks and make them your own.

  • Value quality over quantity.
  • Choose activities and projects wisely to ensure it's working toward meaningful goals and aligned with the bigger picture.
  • Focus on one task at a time.
  • Identify distractions and find ways to avoid them.
  • Set a schedule that's built around when you're the most productive.

Related: What is the Planning Fallacy and How Can You Avoid It

4. Know when and how to say "no."

When we say "yes" all the time, it creates friction because we double-book ourselves or overschedule tasks. We're also putting other people's priorities ahead of our own. As a result, we become more stressed and potentially unreliable if you begin to run late or miss deadlines.

Instead, be more selective with time requests. If that's a problem, follow this rule from Derek Sivers, "If you're not saying 'HELL YEAH!' about something, say 'no.'"

You can practice this by starting small, like declining opening up a store credit card when checking out. After that, just remember to be brief, direct and honest. And, if it's something that you are interested in, but don't have the availability at the moment, offer an alternative date.

5. Stop comparing yourselves to others.

Just because Tim Cook wakes-up at 3:45 am doesn't mean you should follow suit — especially if you're a night owl. But look at what can you take from Cook's workout to make yourself better. 

Take Elon Musk boasting about working 80-100 hours per week. I appreciate Musk's work ethic, and it takes his type of dedication to be where he is now. However, it's been found that working more than 50 hours per week makes you less productive. Just don't discount the very real productivity visualizations and helps you can gain from experts in these areas.

You can become significant and go far in your chosen profession without burning yourself out or going against everything else you need to be accomplishing. Push yourself to your limitations, but you don't have to go beyond everything.

Related: Comparing Your Entrepreneurial Journey to Anybody Else's Just Makes You Feel You're Getting Nowhere

6. Move on.

I'm all for starting what you finish. After all, you get that awesome dopamine rush when accomplishing your goals.

And, it combats the Zeigarnik Effect. For those unfamiliar, this is a phenomenon that states that we tend to remember unfinished tasks more than the ones we've finished. While it can be useful when avoiding procrastination, it can also cause tension. "Incomplete tasks and procrastinating often lead to frequent and unhelpful thought patterns," Hadassah Lipszyc CBT psychologist from The Blue Tree Clinic, told The Independent. "These thoughts can impact sleep, trigger anxiety symptoms, and further impact on a person's mental and emotional resources."

This can happen when working on tasks or projects that are more challenging. Instead of forcing yourself to continue working on this specific item because it's on your to-do list or calendar, you may want to push it aside for the moment. Go for a short walk to clear your head or work on another task that isn't as challenging to build up some momentum.

7. Practice the art of Lagom.

Lagom, the Swedish art of balanced living, translates loosely to "not too little, not too much, just right." But, what does this have to do with productivity?

"Lagom isn't perfection, but finding simple, attainable solutions to your everyday worries like stress, eating better, having downtime and achieving happiness," explains Amanda Pena. "It's a balance of work and life, so everything is in sustainable existence with each other."

How can you begin practicing Lagom? Here are a couple of places to start:

  • Minimize your wardrobe and prep your meals. It's better for the environment and reduces the number of decisions you have to make.
  • Declutter your life. A simple way to clear your mind, reduce stress and save time while also encouraging you to reduce your footprint.
  • Take mid-day breaks.
  • Don't work too hard. Consider working six-hour days or four-day workweeks, cut back on the OT and use your vacation time.

Remember that you don't have to follow anyone else's plan exactly. Find what works best for you — experiment, and you will know what's right and best for you. But, the key takeaway here is that work shouldn't always come before your home-life and other priorities. Balance your life and your priorities.

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