How to Work Less

by heather

Did you know that Americans work 50% more than people in France, Italy and Germany?

We also get dramatically less vacation time; Western Europeans get, on average, 2 months of vacation time per year. Here in America, we’re lucky if we get 2 weeks.

What gives? Why are so many of us addicted to work?

I started asking myself this question a few days ago. After spending an enormous amount of time working during this past month, I’m taking some time off to relax and visit with family. And, two days of driving across the country is a great way to slow down enough to think about things.

You know what I’ve discovered?

That I want to work less.

I love what I do, but the fact is that I do it too much. I have a Dreams List that only has one thing (yes, one thing!) checked off. I have a great book idea that I’ve been sitting on for months because I’ve been too busy to start it.

Are you nodding your head in recognition? You’ve probably gone through the same thing at some point. Maybe you’ve got your own Dreams List, but no idea when you’ll be able to slow down enough to actually do some of the things on that list. Or maybe you want to work less so you can spend more time at home with your family.

But how? How in the heck can we possibly work less?

I asked myself that very same question yesterday. And that’s when I realized that if I wanted to work less, I was going to have to create a plan. Working less won’t just happen unless I make it happen. That means: strategy.

Strategy #1: Use the 80/20 Rule

The 80/20 (also called Pareto’s Principal) rule is fairly straightforward. It means that most of the time, a small portion of our efforts (the 20%) produces the greatest results (80%). Theoretically, if we devote focused time to that 20%, we’ll get the greatest results in less time.

The opposite also holds true. Often we spend 80% of our time and energy on tasks that will only give us 20% (or less) payback.

So how can we use this principal to work less?

Well, everyone’s situation is different. But we need to start by identifying those areas where we’re most productive, the 20%, and then cut out the distractions and time wasters.

I know, easier said than done, right?

Try these tips:

  • When you’re working and you don’t realize time is passing because you’re having so much fun, chances are you’re in your 20% zone. Try to do more of this type of work and less of something else.
  • If you catch yourself working on “urgent” tasks, or tasks you’re not good at doing, chances are you’re doing work that drains time and energy from you and gives back very little. These are the tasks that you should stop doing, or delegate to someone else.
  • When you work on something that makes you cranky or want to complain, you’re probably in your 80% zone. These tasks need to go unless you know, without a doubt, that they’re contributing to the bigger picture of following your dreams.
  • Any work that makes you smile and feel good is probably in your 20% zone. Do more of this and less of something else.

Strategy #2: Trim Expenses

Many people work a lot because they have wants and needs that must be met. But if we have fewer wants and needs, then we don’t need to earn as much to meet them. We can work less, earn less, and be even happier.

  • Start decluttering your life and home. The fewer possessions you have, the less complicated your life is going to be. You can also use the 80/20 Rule here too. Chances are 20% of your possessions give you 80% of your pleasure and satisfaction. Identify those things that really matter, and get rid of the rest.
  • Once you have fewer things you won’t need such a big home. Moving to a smaller home means you’ll have a smaller mortgage and lower monthly bills.
  • Do you really need cable TV? Many people have cancelled their cable lately; this can save hundreds of dollars (or more) per year. Look at every monthly expense you have and honestly assess whether it brings you joy. The fewer financial obligations you have, the less you’ll need to earn to maintain your standard of living.
  • Do you really need a nice car? Cars have become a serious status symbol in our country, but the fact is that they have one purpose: to get us where we need to go. Considering selling your car (with its huge monthly payment) and downsizing to an older model that you can own free and clear. Not having a car payment is awesome. You could also think about going to a car-free lifestyle. Tammy over at Rowdy Kittens has an awesome ebook that will teach you how to do this.

Strategy #3: Give Yourself Deadlines

When I have a ton of projects to do and very little time to do them all, it is amazing how much I can get accomplished in a short amount of time. But when I’m not under tight deadlines, it takes me forever sometimes to get my work done. And it’s not just me; many people report the same phenomenon.

We can recreate this all the time with a kitchen timer. Set a timer for 60-90 minutes to finish a project. When the timer goes off that’s it- you can’t keep working on it. You might be surprised at how fast you’ll get your work done using this method.

Strategy #4: Look at Your Time

Do you know how much time per day you spend checking email? Going back and forth between tasks? Running errands?

Most of us (myself included) have no idea how much time we spend doing regular things like checking email and making phone calls. But we can’t manage our time if we don’t have any idea what we’re doing with it.

Last Word…

I can tell already that I’m going to be using several of these strategies in my own life to work less.

For instance, I’m going to cut down to a 4-day work week. And I’m definitely going to use a timer to manage my daily projects.

What about you? Do you dream of working less? Any tips or suggestions on how to get there? If so, I’d love to hear them!


Matt August 12, 2010 at 7:53 am

This seems like it’s aimed mostly at people who freelance/work for themselves or otherwise have control over the number of hours they work (or the work they do during those hours). What about the rest of us? I’m not locked in to this job for life, but I think I’ll be here for at least a couple more years.

shona~LALA dex press August 12, 2010 at 8:05 am

Last fall I purged my life of many possessions + it was one of the most freeing things I’ve ever done. Nearly a year later I am still doing this, only it’s a lot slower because at this stage it’s about really questioning and examining the personal worth of items. As for the cable TV, we disconnected in February + I can only say that I wish we had done it sooner. Much happier w/o it.

heather August 12, 2010 at 8:39 am

@Matt- I know…it was difficult for me to write this article because my situation is exactly what you say: I do work for myself as a freelancer. Because I don’t know the reality of working in a corporate environment, I wasn’t sure what tips I could add for that situation that would be realistic. I didn’t want to put in a bunch of generic tips that would not be applicable in that particular situation.

Some of these I thought would still work, especially setting deadlines with a kitchen timer. But the reality is that yes, most companies DO expect you to stay until 5:00 (or whenever) and “put your time in”.

I did sound off a few friends who DO work in a corporate environment. They suggested that asking for flex time or telecommuting would help. As would going to a 4-day work week, even if you DID have to renegotiate your salary to earn less.

I was hoping readers would chime in here with their own suggestions!

Thanks so much for writing in!

heather August 12, 2010 at 8:41 am

@Shona- I know, I’m constantly purging my things to pare down.

Have you ever read Tammy Stroebal’s blog, RowdyKittens ( She pared her personal things down so much that now she has fewer than 100 things. I admire her so much for being able to do that! I’d like to get down that low, and I’m still working on it. Her blog is awesome for learning how to live a simple, clutter-free lifestyle.

lagatta December 24, 2010 at 4:52 am

Found your blog looking for “crockpot steel-cut oats”. I live in MontrĂ©al where the public transport system is far better than Detroit’s (remember that Henry Ford deliberately wanted car workers to have a car, to create a market for lower-priced cars) and have never owned or driven a car in my life. There are a lot of sites on building cities and towns without cars or with fewer of them.

One problem, though, is that it is not always easy to get rid of stuff. I have a charity shop I can take good discards to, but there are also places that accept broken cyberjunk etc to recycle, and often they are hard to reach. I have decluttered a lot (I live in a small apartment, but with plenty of room to work at home) but have more to do.

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