The Toxic Effect of Glorifying Hard Work

how to work smarter not harder

In his 2016 letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos wrote,

Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing… The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right.

Bezos was talking about organizations. But replace process with hard work and outcomes with goals and you get something most people can relate to today.

Hard work serves you so that you can achieve goals. But if you’re not watchful, hard work can become the thing… Hard work becomes the proxy for the goal you want to achieve. You stop looking at goals and just make sure you’re working hard.

Hard Work: A Proxy for Goals

We’ve been conditioned to believe that hard work is the key to a good life. Study hard, get good grades, get a good job, and work hard.

Such an approach worked during the industrial era when our forefathers used their bare hands to work on machines.

But we live in a different era now, one where decisions about what we work on matters more than how hard we work, where productivity is no longer about how many tasks we do but about how we use our energy and time to achieve meaningful rewards while wasting the least effort.

Yet, we continue to live by the archaic “hard work is the key to success” philosophy. We attend pointless meetings, send pointless emails, and do pointless tasks. We work hard for the sake of it, making it a proxy for the goals we want to achieve.

In the process, we don’t know why we’re working hard or what the outcome should look like, and end up loathing every minute.

funny comic on hard work

Kapil Sharma and Naval Ravikant discussed the reasons for such futile hard:

1. Anxiety and fear: If someone works longer hours than us, we assume they’ll win and we’ll lose. If we’re not connected 24/7, we fear that we might miss out on critical information in real-time. This causes anxiety and makes us compete in the “game” of spending long hours at work and staying online 24/7.

But long hours cause mental fatigue and make us take decisions which we end up regretting. Whatever we achieve doesn’t feel worth it because we sacrifice a lot of what we care about along the way.

2. An excuse to give up: When we don’t work on what we enjoy, giving up feels easy. We also justify it by saying, “I worked hard at it.” In other words, we use hard work as an alibi to give up after an apparent failure. (And each time we give up, we have to start from scratch all over again.)

But we don’t give up after we fail. We fail when we give up. The random setbacks we face while working on a task are not failures but important lessons on our way to our goal.

3. The status quo: Society has demonized efficiency. It calls people who don’t work hard “lazy.” Being social creatures, we covet pleasing society more than personal growth. That’s why we abandon the pursuit of efficiency and instead, work hard even if it means staying stuck at the same level.

But pursuing efficiency doesn’t make us lazy. In fact, it makes us succeed with less stress and struggle.

Hard Work Versus Smart Work

Hard work is important. But hard work for the sake of it is counterproductive. What matters is what we choose to work on and how we achieve maximum results for minimum effort.

That’s smart work.

how to work smarter not harder

Here are three blocks that Ravikant and Sharma suggested to build our ability to work smart.

1. Find What Feels Like Play

Watch Virat Kohli, Elon Musk, or Laura Vitale do what they do. It feels like hard work to us but like play to them.

When you do what you enjoy, you don’t have to be told to work hard, nor does it feel like a punishment. When the day ends, you feel fulfilled and look forward to sunrise so you can start again. You learn from setbacks and become resilient.

You also build multiple skills whose intersection turns into your unique superpower. The attempt to discover your superpower and find avenues to apply it makes your life meaningful.

For instance, if you love coding and know how to apply first principles thinking, you’ll become an excellent programmer. If you enjoy writing and can understand human psychology, you’ll develop excellent marketing skills. If you love to play the guitar and can sing well, you’ll turn into a better musician.

Find what feels like play and you won’t have to work a day for the rest of your life.

2. Focus on Efficiency

How long someone’s been doing it is overrated. What matters is how well they’ve been doing it. — Jason Fried

Imagine two people at the gym. One takes two hours to complete an hour-long regime. The other completes it in 45 minutes.

It would appear like the first person is working harder and will become fitter. But as months pass, the second person doesn’t just become fitter but also stronger.

The pursuit of efficiency is integral to smart work. Without it, you’ll run like a hamster on a wheel, doing the same things over and over again. Even when you run harder, you’ll stay at the same place.

Get hands-on at the beginning of a task to understand how it functions. Then work to simplify it and speed it up by leveraging options like automation and people (virtual assistants, freelancers, etc.).

Efficiency helps you make consistent progress in the form of results and learning from experiments. You can sustain the activity for longer durations and gets you closer to the goalpost.

Never be satisfied with what you know. Keep wanting to grow. And you can grow only when you become efficient at what you do.

3. Stop Chasing Perfection

Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without. — Confucious

People spend a lot of time perfecting their work, like book manuscripts, paintings, songs, products, and presentations. They agonize over refining tiny aspects that don’t need to be done in the first place.

Eventually, they run out steam and their creations never see the light of day.

It’s tempting to pursue perfection in what you do. Romantic even. (Imagine people applauding and fawning over you!)

But this pursuit gets in your way. In fact, it stops you dead in your tracks. It frightens you. It pressures you into aborting your unborn babies and killing your new ones. And when you see someone else doing what you wanted to, the thought of “If only I had…” haunts you forever.

Perfection is a twenty-ton shield we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing really preventing us from taking flight. — Shreya Dalela

Don’t aim for perfection. Make something good enough and put it out there. Experience the nervousness and excitement that follows. Collect feedback, keep tweaking, engage with people who’ve achieved what you want to. You’ll learn how to turn good enough into awesome, and to ignore the crabs in the bucket who secretly envy your guts.

how to stay motivated and keep making progress

Treat perfection as an enemy and good enough as your best friend. Keep moving. Only when you stay in motion will you stumble across something amazing.

Summing Up

We live in an era where the conventional definition of hard work is as outdated as landline phones.

You don’t have to follow society’s rules to be happy anymore. You can write your own. You can discover what makes you unique. You can do what you love rather than living a life where you hate every minute.

All you have to do is choose what you work on. The power to build a meaningful life lies in your hands. Use it wisely.

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