The Burnout Antidote: Why Less Is More

08/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Mar 19, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about why to do lists don't work. Last week, we pulled an apparent about face, and gave some ideas about how to use a to do list effectively.

As we keep alluding to, it's quite easy to spend an entire day getting things done and when you get to the end of the day, you still don't feel like much happened. As much as you may have gotten done, you still have a giant stack of stuff that needs your attention. That can lead to burnout or a sense of overwhelm.

Less Is More

The challenge isn't so much about getting things done, as getting the right things done. What if the key to getting more done is to actually do less? This has proven to be one of great lessons, one that has helped many move from tired and burned out to feeling fully utilized and engaged.

What I mean by this version of double speak is that you may not feel very productive if you spend all day doing tasks that don't lead to much value. Think about your Symbols vs. Experience list or your Wheel of Life.

If these are the areas that have greatest meaning to you, and you spend day after day doing relatively meaningless things, it's no wonder you don't feel very productive or even burned out.

Most jobs seem filled with small, even inconsequential tasks. (Not all small tasks are inconsequential and we will explore that difference in some detail next week.) For now, we will carry on with the-end-of-the-day-lots-of-things-done-and-no-sense-of-accomplishment phenomenon. What's that all about?

It could be that the work you are doing just doesn't seem to relate to anything that matters. Now just because you don't see the relevance doesn't mean there isn't any. It just means you don't know.

Just as you have your personal goals and objectives, so too does your job or business have meaningful goals. If you aren't clear about your personal goals, you are likely to feel somewhere between drained and lethargic. The same thing applies to work related goals.

That's going to leave you feeling pretty empty. And, sooner or later, it will begin to sap your energy. And the more your energy is sapped, the less enthusiasm you will have for what's next, whether or not it's important.

And here comes burnout!

The Burnout Antidote

By getting a real handle on what's important to you both personally and professionally, you will undoubtedly discover that much of what you have been doing each day doesn't make that much difference.

From there, if you can limit or even eliminate your focus and effort on the meaningless, you just might find more time and energy to focus on what really matters. And the more you focus on what matters most, you will then discover the great paradox of less is more.

The less time you spend on the meaningless, the more time you have for what matters. The more you focus on what matters, the less you will do in terms of "check the box" kinds of activities and the more you will accomplish on the meaningful side of the ledger. The relatively fewer number of "things" you get done each day will have more meaning, more impact, and more value.

Imagine a day where you finished working, looked back on what you had accomplished, and noticed that you made significant progress on what is important to you. That might be pretty rewarding and my bet is that you will discover that those kinds of days wind up producing energy.

At the end of one of these kinds of days you may feel like you do at the end of a vigorous exercise regime. You might be a bit tired for the moment, but with just a few minutes of recovery, you find that you are energized and ready for what's next.

Just as in exercise, when you burn energy in a fruitful direction, the body winds up producing more energy to keep you going, in good spirits, and ready for more. When you don't get much done that matters, just like sitting on your duff all day, the body doesn't find any particular need to produce much more energy and so you wind up feeling drained, even though not much of consequence happened.

The More You Accomplish, The Better You Will Feel

And now we are back to less is more. The less of the inconsequential you focus on, the less exhausted you will feel; the more you focus on what matters, the better you will feel, the more energy you will have, and the more you will feel like accomplishing even more.

However, if you work for someone else, and you don't know the relevance of what you are doing, then both you and your employer are in for some big time challenges. You are likely to wind up burned out over time - very few of us can stand producing meaningless work for very long before we just start to check out.

If that seems familiar, you know that the amount of energy you bring to your job gets less and less each day, the enthusiasm to show up stays at home, and pretty soon you just hate going to work. Maybe you wind up getting sick so you don't have to go. Or worse yet, you just unplug your brain and only part of you shows up.

Next week, we will look more closely at how to produce that sense of accomplishment from both the employer and employee perspective.

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)