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How to become more successful--by working less

Daily Ticker

Good news: There's a way to work fewer hours and be more productive. Take Denmark for instance. Its 5.6 million people work no more than 37 hours a week, have six weeks of paid vacation (plus an additional 12 paid national holidays) and new parents are given a year's paid leave to care for their newborn. The Nordic country also prides itself on equity in the workplace and even has a government bigwig called the Minister for Gender Equality.

A slacker nation? Hardly. Even though Danes work fewer hours than Americans and take more vacations, Denmark is one of the world's most productive nations. Its economy is one of the most competitive in the world, with little income inequality and a very low unemployment rate. Not surprisingly, Denmark ranks as the happiest nation in the world according to the United Nation's World Happiness Report.

Can Americans be more like Danes? Brigid Schulte, a staff writer at The Washington Post, traveled there to find out and research her new book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time. LIke many Americans, Schulte struggles to balance work, family, housecleaning, errands, exercise and sleep on a daily basis. Here's what Schulte learned:

1. Being busy doesn't make you more efficient

Schulte cites scientific research showing stress actually shrinks the brain and causes sensations of jet-lag and distraction. "Multitasking makes you as stupid as being stoned," she says. And a pile of work on one's desk is "not a badge of honor."

The U.S. even trails laid-back France in terms of production per hour. "Overwork is not a virtue," Schulte argues. "In many countries long work hours are seen as a sign of inefficiency."

To overcome that, she advises taking frequent breaks, working in short pulses -- no more than 90 minutes at a time -- and unplugging from technology after leaving the office. Such steps often lead to higher, not lower, productivity.

Related: How to get more out of your life by doing less

2. Overwork has personal and health consequences

Americans may think they're impressing the boss by working long hours and evenings -- sometimes even pulling all-nighters -- but they're doing more harm than good. Long hours often cause employees to become sick, depressed and disengaged -- a lose-lose situation for workers and companies alike. Healthier employees translate to lower health care and turnover costs for their employers, along with more innovation and higher profits.

Related: The right way to quit your job for a better one

3. Leisure and personal time make us happy

"Studies are finding that happiness actually is a precursor to achievement, not necessarily the other way around," notes Schulte. Leisure time, whether it's cooking dinner with the family, exercising in the park, or reading a new book on the couch, are important ways to relieve stress and clear the mind.

"We feel guilty if we aren’t productive at every moment," says Schulte, who characterizes that as flawed reasoning that undermines our free time and "human experience."

Learning how to work less, be smarter and free ourselves of daily distractions isn't easy, especially in America's workaholic culture. But stepping off the "gerbil wheel" and evaluating the mission of your job can lead to more time spent with people you like, and less time in a cubicle. 

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