Why trying too hard can actually hurt your performance—and what to do instead

Many things can get in the way of doing your best at work, Srini Pillay writes for Harvard Business Review.

Pillay is an author, executive coach, and the CEO of NeuroBusiness Group. He is also an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and teaches in the executive education program at Harvard Business School.

Pillay writes that many leaders equate being focused with being accomplished. But, he argues, there is such a thing as trying too hard and having too much focus—and these issues can actually get in the way of producing your best work. He identifies four common signs that you might not be striking the right balance and suggests ways to resolve each situation.

1: You're exhausted all the time

Mental exertion takes just as much energy as physical exertion, according to researchers. If you're feeling drained, it could be that you've been focusing too hard, for too long, on a project.

To solve the problem, Pillay suggests working a few breaks into your day—or even a short nap. Blocking off 15-minute quiet time breaks is one of Melinda Gates' favorite strategies for avoiding burnout.

2: You're not fully engaged with at least one project

Pillay argues that you can only do your best work when you're fully engaged—that is, when working on a project satisfies several aspects of your personality, emotions, and ambitions.

He writes that the best leaders know they can't achieve this lofty goal on every task, so they prioritize. Tasks that are fully engaging get a bigger share of their energy, and tasks that are not get less. To be able to do this, Pillay points out that you're going to have to know yourself well enough to find projects that will engage you on that deep level. He recommends getting in touch with yourself by scheduling personal time, such as a walk, and thinking about what makes you unique from your colleagues.

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3: You aren't making progress on long-term goals

Worrying to much about immediate tasks can get in the way of achieving your long-term goals, Pillay writes. He argues that it's important to relax occasionally, which recharges the circuits in your brain that help you plan how to achieve goals. Pillay also recommends taking time to think creatively about your future, brainstorming solutions to problems and following each line of thought to determine what each potential solution might look like.

4: You're tensing up

We often feel overwhelmed when we multitask because our brain is switching constantly from one thing to another really quickly, Pillay writes. If you must multitask or switch between several back-to-back tasks, Pillay recommends practicing at it, though he warns that you'll probably make a few mistakes initially.

When practicing multitasking, Pillay writes that you might be tempted to tense up. But he argues that this is another case where trying too hard will get in your way. He compares it to juggling, which is easier to do if you keep your arms relaxed. To relax your brain in the same way, Pillay recommends stretching or doodling to get into the right frame of mind before practicing at multitasking (Pillay, Harvard Business Review, 8/30).

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