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8 Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder

I used to get burnt out by work, but now I found a joyful balance.

The following article was originally published here. It was also featured in a collection promoting the upcoming book, American Dreamers, a compilation of dreams from inventors, optimists, and mavericks with ideas for a brighter future .

Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day, they just use it up. The real hero is already home because she figured out a faster way to get things done. – Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson, Rework

In March of 2011, I was in the depths of burnout. I had been working 80+ hour weeks at least twice a month since the previous fall. We had an ongoing project that grew beyond all reckoning, swallowed the majority of our billable time, and crippled our ability to pursue new work.

I developed vision trouble. Distant objects refused to snap into focus and reading became difficult. Stress-induced bald spots cropped up in my beard. My relentless schedule created tension on the home front. Something had to give.

I bought a better monitor. I delegated more (I hired Jason around this time – poor guy didn’t know what he was in for). I made a half-hearted attempt at afternoon power naps. My eyesight improved, but the stress and exhaustion persisted. These efforts were really just Band-Aids on a gaping wound. As soon as time opened up and things slowed down, the hours were magically filled with other things. My motivation for working long hours wasn’t creative exuberance. I was driven by a superhero complex – a burden of responsibility that we shouldn’t have shouldered. I had said yes so often that I’d developed a warped sense of what I was truly responsible for. I was driven by fear of failure and an addiction to work.

Let’s say you work in a high-level management position for a monthly or weekly publication. You’ve been with the company for years and have lived through several waves of growing pains. Over time, you said yes to more and more responsibilities, even if it seemed many of them weren’t sustainable. You became responsible for the output of one or two additional departments. You add more content, more platforms, more offices. Granted, in the world of time-sensitive content and late-breaking news, the occasional frenetic day is unavoidable. But for years, this has been your norm. And when you finally break down and scale back, a host of new tasks floods in the gap. Family ties weaken and friendships fall by the wayside. The weight of the world is on your shoulders, and if you don’t stand under it the entire operation might collapse. You’re in crisis mode even on a good day.

Does this situation sound familiar? When a friend asks how you’re doing, is your default answer some version of “busy”? Do you feel a touch of pride when “complaining” about the busyness of your schedule to a friend? Do you dream about an easier life, but feel victimized by a slave-driving boss or company culture? (Here’s a hint: You’re not a victim. You’ve merely said yes to the wrong things). In the U.S., we’re trained to think that successful people are busy. If our schedules aren’t chock-full, we’re unimportant. We run around like chickens with their heads cut off, as my great-grandmother used to say. People who take long vacations or even long lunch breaks are viewed as lazy or untrustworthy. We’ve all heard about the inevitable burnout that occurs when people work too much. But we quickly forget these cautionary tales and rationalize our habits, because we’re afraid of what our lives will look like if we slow down and pay attention. Deep down, many of us wonder if we’re wasting our time on things of little consequence. So we keep skittering along the surface at a feverish pace, avoiding the mirror of introspection.

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