We live in a society that encourages hard work, fast results, and an always-on mentality that, if we’re not careful, can leave little room for rest or recovery. We talk a lot about the rise of hustle culture and the effects it has on our mental well-being — but oftentimes, the line between being busy and being productive can get blurry. When you’re told that ticking as many boxes as possible equates to a successful day at work, you risk falling prey to what Tony Schwartz and Emily Pines call the “box-ticker” mentality in a new op-ed for Forbes, which can eventually lead to mounting stress and burnout.

“The word ‘productive’ has become synonymous with busyness,” Elana Feldman, Ph.D., an assistant professor of management at the University of Massachusetts Lowell Manning School of Business, tells Thrive. “But it doesn’t make sense to measure productivity based on how busily you’re working.” Feldman explains that this box-ticker mentality is promoted by those around us, but efficient work isn’t actually about the amount of hours you put in. “We know from research on creativity that you need time to step away,” she adds. “People get burned out when they continuously stretch themselves too thin.”

It’s easy to give into box-ticking because it’s likely how you’ve been taught to achieve success — but there are smarter ways to work efficiently without putting in extra hours that take away from your life and relationships outside of the office. If you’re using to working with a box-ticking mindset, here are a few ways to break free.

Let go of the “everything is urgent” notion

When you look at your to-do list and feel the pressure to tick every box by the end of the day, you end up losing site of what actually needs to get done, and what can wait. Feldman notes that this cycle leads to unnecessary stress. “We think that if we have something on our plate, we have to do it right away, and cross it off our to-do list as fast as possible,” she says. “But it’s important to think about what is actually urgent versus what can be left until later.” Feldman suggests pacing your workflow in order of priority — what we here at Thrive call “relentless prioritization.” Not everything will get done in one day, but that’s the point. “Saying no is an important strategy,” Feldman adds. “You shouldn’t be thinking about everything on your to-do list at the same time.”

Establish new email habits

What often gets in the way of focused work is the amount of interruptions that interrupt your workflow, and Feldman says it’s important to minimize those distractions by making intentional changes to your habits — starting with your inbox. “Try turning off notifications, or refraining from checking your email every time you’re online,” she suggests. “A lot of people open their email and it becomes its own to-do list, even though they had the intention to do something else.” The key to changing habits is becoming aware when you’ve been distracted, and then redirecting your attention.

Consider the broader team

It’s normal to get trapped in the box-ticking mindset when you feel like you have to get through your to-do list alone, but it’s important to think about your other colleagues that play a part in your everyday workload. For instance, Feldman suggests considering if a task can be passed onto someone else if you have too much on your plate. “Ask yourself if this request really falls in the bounds of your job responsibilities,” she says, “Or if it’s something that would make sense for someone else to do.” She also urges you to try to work with people who don’t expect all team members to have a box-ticker mentality. “There are systemic changes that need to be made, especially in terms of moving away from equating working more with greater productivity,” she notes. “But it’s possible to find pockets within an organization where managers or teams are more hands-off in terms of caring how and when you get your work done.”

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  • Rebecca Muller Feintuch

    Senior Editor and Community Manager


    Rebecca Muller Feintuch is the Senior Editor and Community Manager at Thrive. Her previous work experience includes roles in editorial and digital journalism. Rebecca is passionate about storytelling, creating meaningful connections, and prioritizing mental health and self-care. She is a graduate of New York University, where she studied Media, Culture and Communications with a minor in Creative Writing. For her undergraduate thesis, she researched the relationship between women and fitness media consumerism.