The paradox of hard work

01Jan09

As I look ahead at my plans for the new year, I keep coming back to a troubling observation: anecdotally, the things I work the “hardest” on tend to be the least satisfying in the long run. I’m not saying that pursuing a goal isn’t worthwhile, or that putting effort into something is a bad idea. Rather, I think there’s a connection between working “hard” on something and our later evaluation of how successful the project ends up.

At the core, this is an issue of perceptions. When you’re building a product or writing a blog or doing any other task because you believe in the value of that task, you’re doing the work on your own terms. You probably chip away it on a regular basis, upping the effort when the needs or goals dictate it, but it never feels like hard or grueling work.

On the other hand, there are times when you have to research a specific topic or write a proposal or finish a job because a customer or your boss told you to. This type of task comes out of nowhere, often with an idiotically short deadline. It requires a lot of your time and feels like hard work — because it makes you put aside the things that you would normally be doing. By interrupting your optimal workflow and taking you away from the tasks you enjoy, it’s a pain in the ass and carries an opportunity cost as well.

Everyone says you have to work hard to be successful. But this doesn’t mean that you should commit your discretionary time towards things that feel like hard work. In fact, the opposite approach may actually be the most productive. Focus on the projects that flow naturally from your interests and motivations. The less these feel like hard work, the more they’re probably doing for your long-term success.



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