“I worked for 50 hours last week,” said someone.
“Actually, I worked a 60-hour week,” said another.
“Well, I haven’t taken a lunch break in a month and more often than not I am the last one to leave work,” said the last.
There was silence by the someone and the another, and in the end, the last was the self-proclaimed “winner.”
What is it about some countries’ cultures where long hours are praised, where marathon weeks are seen as a reason to brag?
There is so much more to it than that.
Let’s say that you work endless hours on completing a task… whose end product is never used. Or perhaps you toil away for ages on a creative solution… which was based on an incorrect assumption in the first place.
These may not be common experiences, but the point is the extremity of them: just because you work hard and long doesn’t mean those hours will automatically be worth it. The length of time you work does not scale proportionally with success.
Now, working hard is needed, 1000% worthwhile. I do and will always stand wholeheartedly by that. I would never be found espousing anything otherwise – that would be tantamount to dunking my values in years-old coffee before tossing them in the trash. In fact, this awesome article on “5 Benefits of Hard Work” by Jason Poquette and The Honest Apothecary provides a practical and yet motivational set of reasons for why hard work should be your sharpest tool.
What isn’t worthwhile, however, is working just for the sake of working. In a well-written and engaging article on “How To Be More Productive by Working Less,” Mark Manson persuasively describes how and why he wrote his book faster by giving himself fewer hours in the day to write it. Talk about counterintuitive, right? For many, I would argue that these “working longer is better” beliefs can be traced back to school, where at a young age, working hard is paired hand in hand with working long. At some point, you start to believe that working more, no matter the substance, means better payoff. It is a mantra that is both easy to internalize and easy to implement.
And yet… easy isn’t always right. Do all types of work truly fit under this seemingly universal model? Does work such as checking your email boast the same level of priority as putting the finishing touches on that amazing product of yours that will rock the world? What about the sneaky influence of Parkinson’s law, where you are bound to expand the time to complete a task to fill the time you have allocated for it? Put simply, what have you been too busy to think about because you have been working instead?
I do not believe that working long is inherently bad. It’s not. But working long without thinking about why you are working long is.
Keep in mind that all of this is coming from a girl who likes to get to meetings on time (or admittedly, sometimes a few minutes late) because she hates having wasted minutes from arriving early. This is also coming from a girl who, in school, learned how to manage her time so that she was always as productive as possible, which I talk about more in my post on Real World, New Rules.
Now, working hard and working smart do not have to be either-or, as Manny Bharwani reminds us in this LinkedIn article called “The Myth of Working Hard vs. Working Smart.” In fact, we should be doing both. For instance, “Smarter work affords us more time, but that saved time doesn’t mean anything unless we put it to optimal use.” Doing only one or the other will inevitably leave us in the dust of those who came before us.
This is true; however, we do need to take occasional breaks from work, at the least for our own sanity. A balance is called for in work, as with all areas in life. Any one of those breaks may be exactly what you need to realize that in some small (or big) way you can work smarter and thereby reach one of your goals faster.
On a different note, an unusual parallel takes the form of a suggestion that Charles Schwab shared in his easy-to-read and informative book Guide to Financial Independence: Simple Solutions for Busy People: “If the idea of investing in bonds and the money market [versus the stock market] gives you a nice secure feeling inside, step back and examine it for a moment, because you may be losing out.” In the same way, if you like working long just for the sake of working, give yourself some time to mull over that, and try to pinpoint why exactly that is.
Overall, I think that Barrie Davenport sums these points up nicely in the following excerpt from her article on simplifying your life to ultimately find your life passion, from the Becoming Minimalist website: “We’ve been conditioned to believe that the more we schedule our lives, the more we can multi-task, the longer and harder we work, the more valuable we are to society. Perhaps we are more valuable to those we accommodate with our adrenaline-fueled lifestyles. But we are diminishing ourselves in the process.”
If this could apply to you, the first step is to decide if it is important enough to you to change: see my post on No Excuses. From there, try imagining a world where you do the most effective work in the most efficient way possible. Pretty great, right? What can you do to take your first step in that direction, no matter how small?
Start by learning. For example, these two approaches (Workstation Popcorn and The 80/20 Principle by Joel Runyon of the IMPOSSIBLE website) are awesomely written and refreshingly innovative ways to get going.
It’ll be a hard road at first. Anything with change is. But it will get you there, at some point, no matter how winding or rocky it is. You just have to stick with it.
When in doubt, remember two points: Strive to do more with less. And, ask yourself repeatedly: What if there’s another way?