In May 2014, Jason Lengstorf, a successful web designer and software engineer, noticed his beard was falling out. There wasn’t any mystery about why it was happening. He knew his addiction to work was sabotaging his social life, compromising his health and making him miserable. So he sold everything he owned, bought a one-way ticket to Milan, Italy and decided to live abroad for at least a year. “I realized I was trapped in a mindset of work, work, work and guilt if I wasn’t working,” he told me recently, speaking from Paris, France, where he was living for a month. “It was time to reassess. That led me to start to do the things that I would do when I would retire, but while I’m young enough to enjoy them.”
Once Lengstorf, 30, started his new life it wasn’t long before he got his beard back. He continues to run his own successful business from abroad, but now he puts in far fewer hours, thinks less about work and enjoys life. The experience has led Lengstorf to be more than just a “man-chucks-it-all-to-roam-the-globe” tale, though. After delving into the research about work addiction and productivity, he now offers free advice to anybody looking to break free from what he calls the “overkill cult” and work from anywhere. Here’s his five-part plan:
1. Work for Results, Not Time
If you think you’re proving your worth to a company by being the first one in and the last one out, you’re sorely mistaken, says Lengstorf. The notion that you’ll work indefatigably now and sleep when you’re dead actually diminishes your value. “Sleep deprivation makes you effectively ‘drunk’ and stops your subconscious from working on [more complex tasks],” he says. “What’s actually good for an employee and a company is results-based work, not time-based work.” So instead of measuring your worth and the quality of your work by the fact that you relentlessly log 50-hour workweeks, consider what achievements will really benefit your company, your career and your well-being.
2. Never Skip a Break
Lengstorf used to plow through 15-hour workdays without pause. Then he learned that the world’s best violinists practiced just a few hours a day and took long breaks during their practice sessions. That’s when he knew something was wrong with his endless days of sitting and staring at a computer screen. After doing some research, he learned that the natural rhythm of human beings only allows for 90 minutes of sustained concentration before stress hormones kick in. A Japanese study found that a short break between work intervals calms the central nervous system, which helps maintain performance and ward off physiological breakdown. So now Lengstorf breaks the day into 90-minute work intervals with a strict break of no less than 20 minutes between intervals. During each break, he’s not allowed to even look at work. His insistence piggybacks off a 2009 study; it found that when people leave work for a bit to attend to completely unrelated tasks they return with more ideas. “When you’re overworked, you feel guilty taking that break,” says Lengstorf. “So you don’t. And you suffer. And your work suffers.” After a decade of seven-day workweeks, Lengstorf now completely shuts off from work for at least one day each week. “That’s when ideas percolate and problems get solved. Your subconscious does amazing things when you stop working and engage in life,” he explains.
3. Realize You’re Not Special
Maybe you already know that you’re more effective if you take breaks, that you should skip that fifth cup of coffee and that you really ought to get more sleep. Yes, that’s what the science says, but none of it applies to you, right? “It takes a lot of humility to realize that you’re not the exception to the rule,” Lengstorf says. “Once you accept that you’re not above average, that you’re the same as the [people in the] large sample in the research, then you can actually use the research to optimize your work.” For example, a recent study of over 18,000 participants found greater productivity among employees who’d slept more than seven hours, ate well and didn’t smoke. The truth is, the mistaken notion that you’re capable of Herculean efforts for years on end is probably making you miserable and your work subpar. When you take breaks, move your body, ignore Twitter and Facebook and get enough sleep, you get more done in less time and feel better.
4. Build Your Own Space
Part of getting better results (#1 above), Lengstorf adds, is figuring out what type of environment works best for you. For some workers, it’s a cubicle or a formal office; for others, it’s a coffee shop or at home. “It’s not easy to advocate for a change in a working environment,” he concedes. “But once you do and prove yourself to management, it’ll make you much happier at work.” No matter where you are, your surroundings should feel comfortable — that will maximize your productivity. “Only you know what you need,” Lengstorf says. “If you need a comfortable chair and loud music, then make sure that’s what you have. If you need silence, a standing desk and newly sharpened pencils, then throw on noise-cancelling headphones and stack boxes to build your own standing desk.” When you create a space that has all you need for work, you feel safe, your mind relaxes and you’re able to focus deeply on what needs to get done. In a 2010 study, London office workers who arranged plants and pictures to their liking were 32% more productive than those who didn’t have control of their workspace.
5. Start Now
This is the hardest part, acknowledges Lengstorf. “It’s not easy to escape from the cult of overkill,” he says. “But try just one action to treat yourself.” He’s not suggesting that you quit your job, sell your earthly belongings and head to a beach in Fiji. Instead, if you think you’re addicted to work simply start with one small change, like taking one break during the workday if you’re currently taking none. Then do something else for yourself tomorrow. Once you get the ball rolling, your habits change for the better and you will escape the cult, he says.