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Why Working Too Much Can Hurt Your Performance

A recent poll of 1,000 Americans by Good Technology found that 80% worked, on average, an extra seven to eight hours a week outside the office each week. Sure, the company behind the study, a provider of technology that makes our mobile devices work, found the silver lining: These busy bees have more control of their schedules and where they work. But don’t mistake this as a good thing—especially as we examine the effects of our modern, “crazy busy” lives.

In fact, it turns out that exerting less effort may actually improve your performance and your state of mind. Read on for five sneaky ways your Type-A tendencies can thwart your output, and how you can turn them around to increase your productivity and decrease your stress levels.

1. You’re Devoting Too Much Time to Work

Berlin researchers explored the practice habits of violin players and found some interesting results. When comparing the schedules of the exceptional violinists to those who were serious (but less exceptional) players, the most talented actually practiced less throughout the day, and slept more, than the average players.

By analyzing the diaries of their subjects, the German scientists found this: The exceptional violinists only spent two chunks of time a day specifically honing their weakest areas. Meanwhile, the average players would spread their work out throughout the day and didn’t just focus on their weakest areas. And the fallout of devoting too much time in the quest to improve your skills? The average players just felt more stress and slept less than the exceptional ones.

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Block out just one or two chunks of time a day to work on your most challenging projects. The rest can be spaced out.

2. Multitasking is Your Middle Name

Multitasking is so tempting when your to-do list is impossibly long. Who hasn’t started a bunch of tasks at once with the plan to switch back and forth between them to try to make some progress? But study after study shows that this technique is not all it’s cracked up to be. One Stanford study of 262 subjects, for example, found that chronic multitaskers habitually underperformed in comparison to those who devoted time to one project at a time. (Related: Good Habits That Can Actually Make Us Feel Worse)

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The study author recommends dedicating at least 20 minutes to one assignment before turning to another item.

3. You’re All Work and No Play

When you’re trying so hard to meet your goals that you think any distraction will be a subtraction, think again. Research shows quite the opposite: Taking time to explore activities that you find interesting will actually reboot your focus and energy so you can do the tasks at hand even better than before. Letting your mind wander to areas of genuine interest actually jumpstarts the positive areas of the brain related to motivation, attention, persistence, and effort, say study authors from University of North Carolina, especially when the task is complex and requires your undivided attention.

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Schedule small breaks when you’re in the throes of an intense project. Arrange for a quick coffee date with a colleague or just take a walk around the block to clear your head. Blocking out time for breaks on your calendar can help you to stick to them.

4. You’re Always Too “Busy”

Spreading yourself too thin? Studies show that chronic “busyness” and the constant state of “not having enough time” isn’t good for your state of mind or your productivity. Research, for example, has shown that working long hours can cause major depression. It’s also not great for your work output, often resulting in burnout that can lead to conflicts at home, at work, you name it, found USC experts.

In fact, in another California study, scientists examined the brains of subjects in default mode (DM), fancy words for a mind at rest. The doctors found quite the opposite when measuring brain waves. These minds were working even when it might not feel like it. “DM brain systems activated during rest are also important for active, internally focused psychosocial mental processing [such as] recalling personal memories, imagining the future, and feeling social emotions with moral connotations,” said study authors.

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Set your limit to working on just two projects at a time, say French neuroscientists. That’s your brain’s natural limit, anyway. It appears we’re naturally set up to handle two things at once max. Three or more? Not so much. And always give yourself more time than you think you need to complete a project or get from one meeting to the next. (We have a tendency to do the opposite.) That way you won’t be rushing from one commitment to the next or scrambling to finish a project, and you can stay on schedule.

5. You’re Trying Too Hard

It’s time to embrace the ancient Chinese Daoist practice of wu-wei, translated roughly to “effortless action” or “no trying,” according to Edward Slingerland, author of Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity and professor of Asian studies at University of British Columbia. Slingerland argues that when we’re fully relaxed and not trying too hard, we’re actually more successful at tasks.

Turns out, calming our bodies actually helps to improve the mind’s engagement. Again, examining musicians at work, Johns Hopkins scientists found results to back this up. When the best jazz musicians improvise and basically let go mentally, the parts of the brain that rule inhibition turn off while the sections that relate to creativity and self-expression turn on.

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Embrace the restorative power of rest. Use the mantra “it’s quality not quantity.” Even when we’re not applying this principle to violins, that can be music to our ears.

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