Unleash Breakthrough Productivity by Knowing When to Stop Working

Could you suddenly die from working too much or too hard? We already know that sitting is killing us slowly. And according to a recent survey by Ernst & Young, a third of full-time workers around the world revealed that they are working longer and harder than ever before. But is it possible that the demands and stresses of overclocking could result in a heart attack, cerebral hemorrhage, or other sudden fatality? Alarmingly, yes. And it’s already happening. In fact, the Japanese have a word for this phenomenon: “Karoshi” (which literally translates to “death by overwork”) Consider that in China, approximately 1600 people die each day from their Karoshi equivalent, “Guolaosi.”

“The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be out-worked, period.” – Will Smith

If you’re anything like me, then you’ve accepted that work is a massive part of your life. 60-hour work weeks are the baseline, as you try to squeeze every ounce of juice from the orange of opportunity. By choice, I’m the first one to arrive at the office, and the last one to leave. Inspired by the dogged work ethics of people like Kobe Bryant and Gary Vaynerchuk, I’ve become that annoying guy on your newsfeed tweeting out refrains of “Hustle Hard” and posting Instagram pics of quotes like “Good things come to those who work their asses off and never give up.” But my seemingly near-machine levels of output come with a steep price: I’m always teetering on the brink of burnout.

The Dash Method

As someone who has burned out in spectacular fashion multiple times in my career, I’ve had to learn the hard way the importance of slapping constraints on my productivity. Ironically, constraints allow me to achieve breakthrough levels of productivity time-and-again. Two experts in particular, Jullien Gordon and Merlin Mann, gave me the vocabulary to describe the workflow parameters which I had naturally established through years of trial-and-error. They validated my idea that productivity is heightened in “dashes” (or “waves”) defined as follows:

  • Time-Based Dash: I stop working when the clock stops. For instance, my workouts never exceed an hour. And so if I’m idly checking Facebook between sets, I risk my workout being incomplete. Similarly, I structure my work in 25-minute distraction-free waves (see: The Pomodoro Technique) with breaks between them. The countdown induces fierce focus.
  • Unit-Based Dash: If I complete my entire workout within the hour allotted for it, I leave the gym. Similarly, if I complete everything on my to-do list before the clock strikes 5 pm, I leave the office. By defining what “complete” looks like for any project, and by establishing clear milestones, you’ll become aware of your progress based on the units required to achieve a finished state.
  • Energy-Based Dash: Especially when I’m feeling sick or tired, I hang up my gloves when my body says so. There’s no point of pushing through work if you don’t have the energy for it, as you’ll be more susceptible to errors and illness (which will only produce a cascade effect of more work, fatigue and delays down the line). Don’t just manage your time – manage your energy as well.
  • Results-Based Dash: This dash is very similar to the unit-based dash, however I spin it by anchoring it in externally-defined results. Since I work in a agency setting, the results in question which I often pursue are typically defined by clients. While they may not always be perfect for me, they’re usually perfect for my clients. When confronted with a torrent of timelines for client projects, I’m switch on the “f*ck it, ship it” approach to getting things done.
  • Feeling-Based Dash: This isn’t for everyone, and doesn’t apply to most types of work. It’s especially risky in projects where there’s a lot at stake, or if there are multiple dependencies. Saying “I’m done” because you feel like it comes with either a lot of privilege and/or proportional consequences. Therefore I relegate this approach to my art and various solo projects.

Most days, I use a combination of dashes. The trick here is to stop working whenever the criteria for one of the dashes in the equation is met:

  • Unit-Time Dash: I use this for my workouts – either I’ll get my routine done within an hour, or I’m out.
  • Results-Energy Dash: I use this during crunch time – I’ll work until I physically can’t.
  • Feeling-Time Dash: I use this for my writing – I’ll hit publish if I feel good, or if I reach the deadline.
  • Time-Results Dash: I use this for all agency work – clients pay for my time, which I use to produce results.
  • Energy-Feelings Dash: I use this for social events – if my energy is high and I feel good, I’ll stay.

Embrace Constraints

According to Parkinson’s Law, work expands so as to fill the time allocated for its completion. If we’re not slapping constraints on our workday, we’ll burn out. At the same time, imposing timelines and clear parameters raises the difficulty level on our work just enough that we naturally end up working harder and smarter to get things done. Therefore, knowing when to stop working is a win-win approach to getting things done.

In one of my favourite books, Getting Real: The Smarter, Faster, Easier Way to Build a Web Application, the team at 37 Signals supports the idea of constraints:

“Instead of freaking out about these constraints, embrace them. Let them guide you. Constraints drive innovation and force focus. Instead of trying to remove them, use them to your advantage.”

Know when to tap out and return refreshed, recharged and ready for another wave.

This post was originally published on Medium.