We all feel overworked. We all feel overwhelmed, at least some of the time. The feeling--and resulting symptoms--is so rampant that burnout is now an official medical condition.

Maybe you feel burned out because it seems like someone always wants something from you. (Call that "success tax.")  

Maybe you feel burned out because you struggle with work-life balance. (After all, there's only one work-life balance formula that actually works.)

Or maybe you feel burned out because no matter how much you got done today...it feels like there are 10 other things you needed to get done, but couldn't.


The Problem Is Your To-Do List

A to-do list with 20 or 30 items is not only daunting, it's also depressing.

Why start...when there's no way you can finish?

That's why many people don't: They go reactive instead of intentional, doing whatever pops up next next instead of what really should be next. 

Or they take the opposite approach: They decide everything on their to-do list is important (if it wasn't, it wouldn't be on the list) and get started on every item.

You start 10 tasks. Or 20.

Which means none of them actually get done. Which leaves you feeling overworked, overwhelmed, defeated...effort without results is incredibly depressing.

And leaves you feeling burned out.

WIP to the Rescue

Decreasing work-in-progress (WIP) is a basic tenet of lean manufacturing. The goal is to move materials, parts, etc. through the production process as quickly and efficiently as possible. 

But if you don't work in manufacturing, which is very likely since less than 9 percent of U.S. jobs are in manufacturing, you probably think continuous improvement has nothing to do with you.

And you would be wrong.

Ultimately every job, even a "creative" job, is inherently a production job. Speed, quality, efficiency, cost control...the best performers in any role work faster and do better work.

Productivity always matters. 

That's why the best performers, whether knowingly or not, adopt continuous improvement techniques to streamline their tasks and de-clutter their workdays. 

So here's one you should definitely use: Personal Kanban.

Personal Kanban means limiting the number of tasks you will work on at any one time to no more than three. Even if your master to-do list includes 20 items, you still only work on three.

Call that your "Doing" list.

Then, when you've completed a task on your "Doing" list, move the most important task from your master to-do list to your "Doing" list.

Or pick an item from your to-do list that is easiest to accomplish. Or will provide the greatest return for the least amount of work. Or will eliminate the most pain. 

How you decide what goes on your "Doing" list is up to you. Just make sure there are no more than three items on that list. 

And then get them done.

And Don't Say, "But I Have So Much to Do..."

Maybe you really do have 50 things on your plate. Most people do.

But still: You can't get 50 things done at once. You can't work on 50 things. 

Plenty of research says multitasking doesn't work. (Some research even shows that multitasking makes you stupid.)

Trying to do two things at once means you'll do both them half-assed. Trying to work on 10 things, even serially, is a recipe for inefficiency: The time you waste switching from task to task, remembering where you were, trying to find a flow....

That's why the most productive people focus on doing one thing at a time. They do that one thing incredibly well...and then they move on to whatever is next.

And they do that incredibly well.

And most importantly, they finish.

And then move on to whatever is next.

Progress Is the Best Cure for Burnout

Almost every incredibly successful person is a grinder: They keep their heads down and do the work.

They care about what they need to do today...and when they accomplish that, they feel good about today.

And they feel good about themselves, because they've accomplished what they set out to do.

That sense of accomplishment gives them all the motivation they need to do what they need to do when tomorrow comes--because success, even tiny, incremental success, is the best motivation of all.

That's why limiting WIP works: By intentionally deciding what to do--and what should wait--you take control over your workday.

And, more importantly, your life.

And then you get to savor the small victories. You get to feel good about yourself every day. You didn't just make a little progress on a lot of tasks. You finished some. You started on others. You made real progress.

You did at least a few things that truly matter.

Which leaves you feeling a lot less burned out--and a lot more excited about tackling tomorrow.