What’s the difference between a laser beam and a light bulb?

No, this isn’t a science lesson, and heck no, I’ll never be mistaken for a physicist, but I do know the answer. Put simply, it’s focus. Light from a laser beam is emitted at a higher state, with all photons in line, polarized, and traveling in the same direction. Light from that ordinary bulb is diffused, scattered, random. The former has more impact and power, just as the latter lacks luster and the ability to illuminate as brightly.

So what about you? Feeling more like the dimmest bulb in the tanning bed lately? Join the club. If you’re anything like me (and if you’re reading this, don’t pretend you aren’t), you’re finding yourself putting in more and more hours at the office and, sadly, feeling like you’re getting less and less done. A Gallup survey confirms we’re not alone: The average number of hours worked each week by full-time employees was actually 47—almost one full extra day—and 18% of those polled reported working 60 hours or more.

Now I know what you’re thinking because I’ve thought it myself: “There’s no way I can get everything done in a 40-hour work week.” And that’s true. We won’t. Hear me loud and clear: We will never get everything done in a 40-hour work week. And that’s a good thing because we shouldn’t be trying to get everything done. Rather, we need to think more like the laser beam (and less like that bulb). Put simply, we need to focus on what actually matters. As I’m sure you know, the more tasks you complete, the more others seem to pile up.

Steve Jobs understood it best: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done.”

So how do we go from 60 to 40 overnight? How do we minimize potential burnout? How do we get our work-life balance, well, balanced? It may take some practice and it may take trying out a few different methods, but we can do it! Here are three ways to get on the path to feeling more focused and less frayed.

1. Prioritize

Yup, I know, easier said than done. But it’s true: If everything is important, then nothing is important. If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. The trick is realizing what among all those great ideas really matters.

A friend recently suggested a system he uses that involves index cards. Every evening, he spends the last five minutes of his workday writing out an ordered list of the top six to-dos he needs to get done. First thing the following morning, he takes out his cards and begins work on the top priority. To keep focused, he makes sure to look at that card and that priority every 15 minutes or so, until he can cross it off his list. He continues to tackle his deck throughout the day. If he hasn’t accomplished all six to-dos, it’s okay, he just reassesses and determines if they still belong among his new list of six things to do, or if whatever remains is really no longer a priority.

While at times he does have to remind himself to “work the system” and re-prioritize important assigments as they come in—overall, his notecards work. He consistently accomplishes more of what matters and therefore isn’t burning the midnight oil on a daily basis.

If that method doesn’t work for you, you can also read up on four more ways to help yourself focus and prioritize.

2. Know When You Work Best

We all have an internal clock. Some of us are more energized in the morning, while others come alive in the late afternoon or evening. You probably already know who you are—early bird or night owl. So why not use it to your advantage? If you’re an early riser, tackle your most complicated tasks first thing. Leave the easier, less important duties for when you haven’t got it all to give.

Likewise, set time boundaries. If you generally put your nose to the grindstone at sunrise, don’t set expectations that you’ll still be at your desk long after sunset—even if your colleague who strolled in closer to lunchtime is now ready to roll up his sleeves. Communicate to your team your peak productivity levels and your corresponding schedule, and then stick to it. The work will always be there, and it will get done, and it shouldn’t require 24/7 commitments.

3. Unplug and Play

We’ve all grown accustomed to being connected—constantly checking our many devices. God forbid we miss an email or phone call during off hours.

What we don’t seem to realize are the costs associated with always being plugged in and never really shutting down. Always being “on” actually diminishes our ability to think logically, or to come up with creative solutions, or to bring to the table the objective perspective needed to make the right decisions and get the job done.

Stuart Brown’s book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, brings to light just how important play is to recharging and to fueling, not only happiness, but also intelligence.

But how can we actually disconnect from our devices guilt-free? Here are just a few options:

  • Head for the hills or the beach or anywhere where reception just isn’t possible.
  • Go see a movie—in a real theater! (No, your TV does not count as a real theater.) It requires you to shut down at least for a couple of hours and immerse yourself in someone else’s story.
  • Make plans with someone. Go on a date night, call a friend you haven’t seen for awhile, or get tickets for a sporting event or a play. Then (brace yourself) leave your phone in the car.

Remember, even our electronic devices exhaust their batteries and require a charge. So make like a cell phone and recharge whenever needed. After all, we aren’t human doings—we’re human beings. We were not meant to spend every waking moment working.

Photo of relaxed woman courtesy of Shutterstock.