True Productivity at Work Requires Pacing Yourself

“He who sows hurry reaps indigestion.” — Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish author.

“Have fun in your command. Don’t always run at a breakneck pace. Take leave when you’ve earned it, spend time with your families.” — Colin Powell, former American Secretary of State and retired four-star general.

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Henry David Thoreau, American philosopher.

Like most modern office workers, you probably find yourself constantly juggling multiple projects, driven by deadlines bearing down like freight trains. As a result, you may feel you have no choice but to keep pushing yourself in order to maximize your personal productivity. Oh, you might tell yourself you can slow down later, when the boss stops throwing so many projects your way…but how often does that happen?

This attitude can lead to burnout—and burnout stops productivity dead in its tracks. Rather than grind yourself into the ground, learn to pace yourself properly, so you have the staying power to get everything done. Even if you feel overwhelmed, you can’t lose sight of this principle.

Setting a Sustainable Pace

Long distance runners don’t accelerate to their fastest pace immediately and then keep pushing themselves forward at that rate. They know from experience that if they do, they’ll run out of energy well before the end of the race. Instead, they set a pace they can maintain indefinitely and save their energy for an extra burst right at the end.

I often have to remind clients they aren’t robots—and even machines break down eventually, if you don’t turn them off sometimes and do some preventative maintenance. Intellectually, we all know this; but we tend to ignore it in favor of getting just a little bit more done before we stop. Too often, the “little bit” turns into a lot, and we wind up wearing ourselves down to a frazzle on behalf of our employers.

Well, let me tell you: in almost every case, your employers would prefer you to keep producing healthily for years, rather than engage in a brief flurry of productivity before fizzling out. To put it bluntly, pacing yourself maximizes your value to them. They’d rather not have to go to the trouble of replacing you when you quit, or when they have to let you go because your workplace productivity has dropped to ridiculously low levels.

Throttling Back

Pacing yourself means more than just taking breaks here and there. Your entire workflow process may require tweaking, if not a major overhaul.

If necessary, start by reducing your schedule to a rational size. Prioritize your tasks and ruthlessly triage away the least important ones. Insofar as possible, don’t hesitate to say “no” whenever someone tries to add to your task load. In addition, eliminate time-wasting behaviors, from lingering on Facebook to chatting over the water cooler, and stop distractions in their tracks. Avoid self-defeating time-eaters like procrastination, negative self-talk, and perfectionism.

Schedule each workday in advance, leaving plenty of time to accomplish each task, with time buffers and breaks in between. Your experience with each type of task will guide you here. When you encounter an unfamiliar category, try to equate it with something you already have experience with. If it proves completely new, experiment with it until you discover the best time interval for getting it done without overstressing yourself.

Whenever a new deadline arises, carefully consider the project’s specifications and the number of days you have to accomplish it. Then break it down into daily segments of reasonable length, and insert those into your schedule. If the timeframe seems too short, try to negotiate a better deadline. That way, you won’t have to scramble to finish it. If you maintain a sensible pace, you’ll have extra energy at the end so that you can push it, if you really have to.

You may have to drop or postpone another task to make this work. Accept that. Don’t just shoehorn the new task into your schedule; something must give if you expect to maintain an even pace. If something new pops up unexpectedly, try not to cram it into that day’s schedule unless it represents a dire emergency. Instead, work it in per the guidelines I’ve outlined above.

If you’ve been overdoing it because you’ve fallen behind, don’t kill yourself trying to catch up. Stop long enough to lay out a plan for getting back on schedule in a way that doesn’t wear you down too much. Implement the plan immediately, and make sure you follow it tightly. Eventually, you will catch up; and at that point, you can ease back on the throttle a little.

Stopping to Smell the Roses

While you shouldn’t just get up and wander off at random, your body and mind do require breaks, so you can recharge mentally and physically. Schedule those breaks right along with your other tasks, and don’t blow them off, no matter how busy or behind schedule you may be. As long as you don’t overdo them, the positive effects of breaks will always trump the negative ones.

At the very least, get up and walk around for a few minutes every 60-90 minutes. Take your full lunch break, too, and try your best to stay away from the office on weekends. You need to keep some “life” in your work/life balance!

Incidentally, taking a brief break doesn’t necessarily mean sitting around resting or chatting. Active breaks, when you do something physically dynamic like take a walk, can also do you a world of good.

The Bottom Line

No matter what kind of job you have, you can’t just keep going and going and going like a machine until you drop. Pace yourself. Trim the fat from your task list, stop wasting time on things that don’t matter, and (if necessary) rebuild your schedule to reflect a reasonable tempo. Punctuate both your workday and workweek with regular breaks, so you can conserve your strength, rebuild your capacity, and make sure you can make it through. Otherwise, you can’t do a truly productive job for yourself or your employer in the long term.

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