What to Do When Work Intensity Is the Problem

Charlie Gilkey
6 min readJun 6, 2023

It’s hard to believe it’s already been more than a month since I launched a new publication on Substack called Better Team Habits. Now, as then, I’m equal parts excited and trepidatious about the announcement. As I mentioned in my first post there, the intent is to create a more focused and fresh space for content and conversations about teamwork, leadership, strategy execution, and organizational dynamics.

During the last year and a half I chose to be less active on Medium while writing the Team Habits book, which deals with how habits can change the outcomes for entire organizations.

In the future, you might see me publishing here topics that relate both to teams, leadership, and team habits topics that will live on Better Team Habits, as well as work related to productivity, planning, and self-care topics you’ve traditionally seen on Productive Flourishing.

And if you’re curious about identifying your team’s strength areas, growth areas, and challenge areas, take the Team Habits Quiz, which includes a free, customized report to help you understand how your team works together, and how together your team can do its best work.

A recent piece I wanted to share here is about a client who wanted to problem-solve for working four days a week.

When she started explaining the problem she was solving for, it wasn’t about the load of her days or how many days a week she worked. Deep down it was about work intensity, or how stressful it was for her to be working “at 100% efficiency” for 5–6 hours a day.

I pointed out that a really common pattern and a byproduct of efficiency crankers is they’re exhausted no matter how much actual work is on their plate. Even if/when we remove 25% of the work from their plate, the typical move among these folks is to then cut the amount of time they give themselves to do the work by 25%.

This has the net result of them being just as stressed about the work, no matter how much work is removed from their plate.

An additional part about this client’s scenario is that, partially because of the work we’ve done together, everything is great for her right now. Her business is working well, she’s getting the right clients, and she loves the work that she does. She has a new perfect-for-her romantic partner. Her health is great and far improved than when we started. She’s happy and doesn’t want much, which itself has become a challenge for her. (We’re working through the way her upper limit responses have gone guerrilla.)

So, in her circumstances, cutting an additional day of work wouldn’t make her better off and would create a lot of stress to get there. She’d work four days, just as intensely, and end up just as worn out.

Instead of cutting work, I asked her “what would you do if I asked you to be 15% slower?” We brainstormed a few “slow practices,” she might do in 5–10 minutes, like:

  1. Take a stretch break
  2. Drink water
  3. Walk around the block
  4. Read a selection from a book
  5. Snuggle with her cat
  6. Meditate
  7. Focus on breathing

She’s still exploring whether it’ll be best for her personally to set a timer to initiate her slow practices and self-care or to sense when she’s needing to do one of these practices between tasks. The latter is better for most people after they have been practicing slow productivity for a while, but when folks are addicted to checking off tasks, it’s typically better to start with timers.

On the subject of timers, I happen to know she uses timers for her work. I chose to remind her that if she could use her timers to work, she could use timers to not work.

The obvious difference is that, in the latter case, she’d have to give herself permission to stop working, and that, weirdly, is going to take more discipline for her to do (to use her slow practices) than to work. (I’ve had A LOT of practice coaching folks on this topic, as it turns out, not the least because Angela struggles with this, too.)

Subtraction Won’t Solve the Work Intensity Problem

This is one of those cases where the normal go-tos of subtraction do not work well. Adding some recovery practices to her day will create more vitality, joy, creativity, and richness in her work and life. Working an hour or day less at the same pace would not get her there.

We see many organizations who fumble this, too. Their response to burnt-out, overloaded workers is to switch to four days a week, but for many workers, that amounts to having to do the same amount of work in less time — it increases intensity without really addressing the workways and team habits creating more work than people can do in their compensated time. What really needs to be solved for is the load of work, not just the amount of days people work.

A 4-day work week boiled down to 10 hours of work a day can in some cases be a good solution for companies. For example, if someone commutes for an hour or ninety minutes per day, the additional day off makes a real difference.

These same companies would likely see a better result if they encouraged workers to do admin or remote work from home on Friday, or, better yet, to let teams decide when they need to work remotely and when they need to be co-located. No one wants to commute to do the same things they can do from home, and many people wouldn’t mind the commute as much if the work they were driving to do really got done better face-to-face or co-located.

What we really need to consider, though, is the mindset that causes people to work so intensely in the first place. Sometimes it’s what it takes to get the job done but other times there are more insidious things at play. The following are two more common reasons for the intensity, though:

  • Anxiety: When people have anxiety about open tasks, there’s pressure to close the tasks out, even if they’re harming themselves in the process. Checking off tasks becomes a dopamine hit and to get as many hits as they can, they crunch the amount of work down to as little time as possible, which has the effect of creating anxiety to relieve anxiety. Yes, it’s absurd when said out loud, but it’s a dynamic so many people face day in and day out in the workplace.
  • Hustle culture: We could also call this the “faster, better, stronger; growth for growth’s sake; more is better” mentality. The metaphor I use here is mucking a horse’s stall. Every day, society puts some mind crap in our stall, so after every few days, we’ll have to clean it out, only to do it again a few more days later. We can’t stop the mind crap and pressure accumulated really, we can only recognize that it’s not ours and have less drama about cleaning it out.

Here’s the takeaway: if no matter how much work you do throughout the day, you feel like you’re panting and rushed, perhaps it’s not the amount of work you’re doing, but the pace you’re working at.

Consider ways in which, rather than just subtracting or decreasing the amount of hours or days you’re working, you can slow yourself down in order to be more intentional and calm about the ways you’re moving forward on your workload. Chances are with less anxiety produced by the high work intensity and overload, you might be more productive anyway.

You can read the original version of this post and others, directly on the Productive Flourishing blog.



Charlie Gilkey

Author of Team Habits - http://www.productiveflourishing.com/team-habits/ - and the best-selling Start Finishing. Executive coach, investor, and philospher.