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Can You Succeed At Work Without Working Hard? (Newsletter 020)

You will always outcompete someone who is not willing to put in the same time as you. I refer not just to hours spent working, but in learning how not to waste time, and how productively to use the time you have focused on the right priorities.
Can You Succeed At Work Without Working Hard? (Newsletter 020)

Greetings friends.

You're busy, so here is the answer right up front: yes, but don't count on it. Safer for you to learn how to work hard if you want to be successful at work.

I do know people who achieved success without appearing to work hard. They are in a tiny minority. But I will also tell you that hard work is no guarantee of success. "Yikes! Are you telling us that hard work is likely necessary for success, but that working hard does not mean we'll be successful?" Don't despair. Stay with me for a few minutes, and I will tell you what I learned about working hard in over 80,000 hours of working. You may be able to avoid some of my mistakes.

If you've been paying attention, you know that I am a big believer in the power of continuous improvement and habits. You don't need to take giant steps to achieve big progress. Small steps taken consistently over time will add up to large results. One way to take actions consistently is to make them into a habit.

Of course not all habits are good for you. We call harmful habits "vices," which otherwise means moral faults or weaknesses, and include in this category things like drinking alcohol, smoking, or eating too much chocolate. Where does working hard fall on the spectrum of virtue and vices?

For a long time, I considered hard work to be a clear virtue. Not only that, being able to work intensely for long periods of time is a great competitive advantage at work. Particularly with a steady stream of new workers coming along who have chronically short attention spans, a person who is able to stay focused on a task and work on it until they have made progress or completed it is well-equipped to succeed.

I am aware there is a strong counter-current to this work hard ethos. Browse the self-help aisle (which you know I do not recommend – see Moral Letters 029 On Easy Lessons), and you will find best-selling books advising you to learn "How Not to Give a F*ck" and the like. Similar articles in mainstream publications explain the danger of associating too much with your work, and the harm this can have on your happiness and health. Being a workaholic is not a good thing.

It is not just young employees who have realized that working too much is perhaps harmful to your long-term happiness. I met up with a former colleague not long ago who read my article describing how many hours I worked during my career (How Not To Get Rich). He asked, with some incredulity, whether I really worked 100-hour weeks when I started out, and then at least 60-hour weeks for the rest of my career. He said he personally tried never to work more than 40-45 hours a week at any point, even in senior management. (He also acknowledged that it was probably correct that he ultimately left his management position.)

Now with some time and distance from my last senior management role, I have come to two realizations that I will share with you:

  1. Working hard is a key factor contributing to your success at almost any endeavor.
  2. Working hard is itself habit-forming, even as it crosses the line from virtue over into harmful vice.

What happened to me in working so many hours all those years is that my ability to work long hours became part of who I was and what I did. I was able to do it because I learned how to do it by practicing a lot. Not only that, I learned how to make each of those hours count more than most people's by focusing relentlessly on effectiveness and productivity, not just hours at my desk.

Do you know how much time most people waste in unproductive activities each day? Simply by avoiding wasted time, you can become massively more productive than the average employee. Add to that focusing on carefully-chosen strategic targets, and then working harder than your colleagues, and you become highly effective. Unstoppable, really.

You will always outcompete someone who is not willing to put in the same time as you. I refer not just to hours spent working, but in learning how not to waste time, and how productively to use the time you have focused on the right priorities.

The reason people do not succeed on the basis of hard work alone is partly due to luck (right place, right time and all that), but also partly due to misplaced priorities. You can be extremely busy putting out fires and responding to urgent tasks. To make your hard work pay off, it needs to be directed to your own priorities. If you work in a larger organization, your priorities must align with your company's. But that still leaves a lot of room for you to work on more and less helpful topics. For more on work-related success factors, see Are You Globally Competitive In Your Career?

Working hard will not necessarily make you happy. As noted, more people are realizing that, done unthinkingly, hard work will rather make you miserable. I have lots of thoughts elsewhere on this blog about how to achieve happiness and satisfaction in your life. Success at work is one path, but you must not assume that hard work by itself will bring you fulfillment. See The Stoic Career Path.

But remember, we're talking here about success at work.

It has taken me a long time, years actually, to break my habit of working long hours. After all, it was a key factor to my success, so why should I lose the habit? As with any habit, after a certain point it becomes easier to just continue it than to question why you are doing it. This is because if you question your long-held habits, you also question the foundation of your choices. "Was I a fool to work so hard for so long? What did it bring me?"

I myself fell prey to surrendering to my vice, or as I put it in this week's Moral Letter 039 On Drinking Deeply:

Know that what you consume daily will become your habit, and left unobserved your habit will become your vice. Many take pleasure not only in the vice itself, but in surrendering to the vice. For surrendering means you have made your decision and no longer need to think about what you want, but only to pursue it. And because thinking for oneself is the hardest thing, it is no surprise that so many wish to be done with it as soon as possible.
039 - On Drinking Deeply - Moral Letters for Modern Times
Think of a summary as but a sip, nourishing if it comes after a full meal, but leaving you empty if you have consumed nothing before it.

The reason for me to ultimately seek a different balance, if not lose the habit of work entirely, was because I decided that success at work was not the only yardstick I would use to measure my progress. I did want happiness and satisfaction in life. Even if breaking a habit would cause you to question the validity of your earlier choices, is that really worse than continuing on a path that leads to a place you don't want to go?

The other failure I will acknowledge here is something discussed in Moral Letter 040 On Composure. That is, in my productivity journey I learned how to be a persuasive speaker. This is of course quite helpful for lawyers, although some would say I simply fell in love with the sound my own voice. In any event, I paid attention to good speakers, I gave priority to learning how to do it myself, and I practiced. I learned how to persuade with style, even when substance may have been lacking.

040 - On Composure - Moral Letters for Modern Times
Just as the glib speaker fools the lazy listener, so we mistake fervor in argument for conviction, and conviction for correctness.

Reflecting on this letter, I recognize and appreciate the true strength of a shorter argument that is itself the result of deep thought. So now I try to follow my own advice: think long and speak short. Does this post qualify as short?

Be well.