Work Hard, Not Long


Going through some old files, I found a bookmark to this fantastic article from Fast Company.

These days, 35% of the American workforce sits at a desk. Yes, we sit there a lot of hours, but the only heavy lifting that we're likely to do is restricted to putting a new water bottle on the cooler. So do you still think that you work hard?

You could argue, "Hey, I work weekends and pull all-nighters. I start early and stay late. I'm always on, always connected with a BlackBerry. The FedEx guy knows which hotel to visit when I'm on vacation." Sorry. Even if you're a workaholic, you're not working very hard at all.

Sure, you're working long, but "long" and "hard" are now two different things. In the old days, we could measure how much grain someone harvested or how many pieces of steel he made. Hard work meant more work. But the past doesn't lead to the future. The future is not about time at all. The future is about work that's really and truly hard, not time-consuming. It's about the kind of work that requires us to push ourselves, not just punch the clock. Hard work is where our job security, our financial profit, and our future joy lie.

I'm not against working long hours. In fact, I like it. If I don't have enough to do at work to stay late, then I usually go home and work on something. What I am against though, is people that work long hours just for the sake of working long hours. You know the kind. These people are seriously inefficient with their time, but they don't think they are. They expand work to fill the time allotted and then some, because they take pride in working long hours. They don't realize that behind the scenes the rest of us are thinking "what the hell is wrong with them that they have to work 55 hours a week to do what everyone else does in 20?"

Or maybe not. Sometimes they have a boss that only sees the 55 hours a week and labels them a superstar. (If you work in a place that rewards such incompetence, find a new job before it rubs off on you.)

So what does it mean to work hard?

It's hard work to make difficult emotional decisions, such as quitting a job and setting out on your own. It's hard work to invent a new system, service, or process that's remarkable. It's hard work to tell your boss that he's being intellectually and emotionally lazy. It's easier to stand by and watch the company fade into oblivion. It's hard work to tell senior management to abandon something that it has been doing for a long time in favor of a new and apparently risky alternative. It's hard work to make good decisions with less than all of the data.

We work long because we are trying to avoid working hard. We procrastinate on the tough decisions, then justify our failure by assuming that it couldn't be done. After all, if 60 hours a week can't make it happen, what can?

We praise multitasking when really we should praise focus, because focus is hard and multitasking gives us an excuse (sorry for the mistake, I was on the phone while I did the report and read email on the blackberry…). We praise going through 100 emails to "stay in the loop" when really we should praise the ability to discern what is important and what isn't.

We all have the same amount of time available each day. It's how you use it that is important, not how much you use.

Richard Branson doesn't work more hours than you do. Neither does Steve Ballmer or Carly Fiorina. Robyn Waters, the woman who revolutionized what Target sells — and helped the company trounce Kmart — probably worked fewer hours than you do in an average week.

None of the people who are racking up amazing success stories and creating cool stuff are doing it just by working more hours than you are. And I hate to say it, but they're not smarter than you either. They're succeeding by doing hard work.

Life is too short and too precious to drag it out by working long. Work hard instead.

  • I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I look at the numbers of hours that someone in my department works as a sign of lacking capabilities rather than a sign of dedication. Using the number of hours worked as a measurement for success shows a distinct lack of forethought as to the loss of productivities of others, as well as the eventual burn out factor which equates to turn over, or much worse, a lack of actual caring that the organization is moving forward.

    Nice article!

  • Good article, particularly the hard work of making emotional decisions. Long hours, though, are sometimes the name of the game. I don’t think you’ll find a successful startup (or internal corporate new venture) in which 70-hour weeks are not sometimes required. The key word, though, is “sometimes”…heavy work schedules should be done when necessary, not as a matter of competitive macho…

  • Also…Rob, since the redesign, I find this site very difficult to use. As soon as the page comes up, a very irritating (flashing) ad strip appears right in the middle of the text.

  • TJ


    I’m CEO of CReative Weblogging – teh company that now hosts Businesspundit for Rob.

    The issue stems from a bug in Mozilla’s Iframe implementation. If you upgrade to the newest version of Firefox the problem should be gone.

    If not please let me know.

  • Boy, I was a ‘long hour worker’ early in my career and was very fortunate to meet a person that truly was a ‘hard worker’, Dominic. He would come in at 9 AM, run 4-8 miles at lunch, THEN eat in the cafe, and leave at around 4:30 PM.

    After a grueling week (I was an accountant back then), I asked him point blank, “just who do you think you are slacking off like this?”

    His reply has stuck in my head ever since:
    “Cory, you work for a living – meaning, you sit in front of your computer and those hours define output for your job. I get paid for my thoughts which are not bound by the number of hours I’m at my desk. Just yesterday, I thought up a new process that I implemented today saving the company $650k annually. What did you do?”

    Changed my perspective and helped me prioritize grealy going forward.