Success Requires Hard Work (But Not All in One Day)

image by WWarby

image by WWarby

Becoming good at anything takes hard work. A lot of it. The people who are willing to sweat out their craft for years will win. The people who want quick money and fame after six months will not.

However, while success may require a lot of hard work, that doesn’t necessarily mean that work is hard to do. A book may contain 80,000 words of carefully edited content, that’s a lot of hard work. But writing 800 words almost every day for four months isn’t hard to do.

Lots of hard work, but on a daily level it isn’t too difficult.

Disclaimer: The distinction between hard work and hard to do work isn’t mine. I stole it ruthlessly from fantastic writer and friend Cal Newport. But, I simply love the idea so much that I had to spread the word.

The Marathon Myth

Some people believe mastery and self-improvement require marathons of work. Huge, epic sessions of writing, studying and learning. Massive goals that push their endurance and sanity to the breaking point.

After a few weeks of such grueling effort, they give up. The marathon can’t last forever, and they are too exhausted to run the next day.

This problem arises because the people confused hard work with hard to do work. They confused the thousands of hours of practice mastery requires over years and decades, with the dozens of hours of concentrated practice that exhausts most people. They had the right motivation, just the wrong timescale.

Patience and Showing Up

I believe patience in any self-improvement pursuit is worth more than motivation. Yes, you do need motivation to get your ass out of the couch. But, getting up is only the first step. There are a thousand more that follow it.

Patience allows you to show up every day. Patience allows you to ignore temporary setbacks, not because setbacks aren’t disappointing, but because you aren’t operating on a daily timescale. You’re thinking about the big picture of how your investment is going to pay itself back in 10 years, not 10 weeks.

Creating Skyscrapers Means Digging Down Before Building Up

Erecting a massive building requires creating a huge foundation first. Without the foundation, any added height will be unstable. I think this metaphor applies to any pursuit.

If a friend told me they were going to start exercising three hours daily, I would only look at one factor to estimate their chance of success: how much they exercise now. If the person doesn’t have the exercise habit at all, they are trying to build a skyscraper on quicksand.

However, if I know the person has exercised seriously for years and keeps a consistent schedule, the odds of success go way up. There is concrete under the new plan. Habits and attitude are the foundation, and if you don’t put any thought into how these will fit, you may collapse.

How to Channel Enthusiasm

Many people get very enthusiastic when starting something new. The idea of putting in a minimal, but still respectable, amount of effort in every day is boring. When I started blogging, I wrote at least once per day, and I probably spent another hour or two every day reading everything I could on how to be successful as a blogger. I wanted to do everything, not the minimum.

The problem with a blind enthusiasm approach is that you fail to build that foundation. As a result, when the enthusiasm goes from a raging boil down to a simmer, you don’t have anything to fall back on.

I’ve found there are two ways you can channel that early enthusiasm so it doesn’t scald you later:

First, invest some of your enthusiasm in forming habits. When you start exercising, for example, commit to doing some minimum daily amount. If you feel like doing a bit more, investing time in research or buying fancy equipment, go ahead. Just make sure you get your 30 minutes of running or 100 sit-ups in every day.

Second, start with a long-term attitude. When I started blogging, I set my sights on my first steps of success in two years. With a long-term attitude it is easier to stick to the pursuit after the honeymoon phase is over.

Work Hard. Not All at Once.

One hour of writing, every day, is hard work. Eight hours of writing, in one day, is hard, even grueling, to do. But if you repeat one hour of writing, every day, for a month, you have over 30 hours of writing. Five years and you have almost 2000 hours. The power of the one hour per day is that it can be multiplied. Try repeating the eight hour day beyond even a week or more and it fizzles out.

Work hard at levels that multiply. Other people may have more talent, connections or outwit you. But don’t let them outlast you.

  • Gordie Rogers

    Hi Scott,
    what do you think of the idea that to become really proficient or master an area, you need about 10,000 hours. I seem to remember Seth Godin as well as some other bloggers in 2008 talking about this a lot. The Beatles was used as an example, where the played in Hamburg 12-14 hours a nights for months on end and as a result got really good in a short period of time.

    BTW, I’ve really been enjoying reading your blog in the short time I’ve known about it.

  • Armen Shirvanian

    Hey Scott.

    You bring up a valuable point here about how it isn’t too difficult if it is made routine. Hard work to one is not hard work to another when the 2nd person has it as a part of their routine. They could still tell others they are doing “hard work” though, and still get the same benefits as someone else who struggles more and doesn’t have it in their routine.

    This focus on habits is very good for keeping folks from trying things they wouldn’t be interested in during the long-term. Habits and insta-success plans are basically the opposites of each other, so guiding folks toward building a habit negates any possibility of them still wanting some very quick results and accolades.

    Showing up is a bigger one that I am glad I understand better now, as I didn’t realize before that showing up was really about 80% of the whole deal as I had read about. Folks who show up consistently make the hard look easy.

    Great to read this.

  • Basu

    Complementary to your post, the hardest of forming a habit or doing any non-trivial task is to just get started. Once you actually get started, its often much easier to keep going and start hitting milestones. This is particularly true of smaller, one day tasks (writing a single article for example) and less so of more prolonged tasks.

  • Scott Young


    That’s a number quoted by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. It’s arbitrary, but the point is clear–you can’t become great in one week.


  • Jeff Hossler

    Scott– Great post. One of the things that I am finding as I work with people is that they want to be great in one week. They don’t want to put in the time and effort for more than a short period of time. We live in a society that wants to reach the destination without making the journey. I know that I sometimes struggle with it as well. Thanks for the reminder to put in the consistent effort.

  • Dave Shepherd

    @ Gordie —

    10 000 is an arbitrary number… also — it’s not all about the time spent, but about what you do during that time. It’s not practice, it’s deliberate practice.

    The best analogy is golfing (I believe there’s an article that uses Tiger Woods as an example). If you go to the driving range and hit 300 balls every day your improvement will be minimal.

    If you go to the driving range and hit 300 balls with an 8 iron with the intention of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin, keeping track of your progress and making adjustments — that’s when you improve. It’s not enough to make use of the time, you have to use it the right way.

    Most of us can drive cars, and by the time we’re 30 or 40 I suspect most of us have crossed the 10 000 hours mark — but that doesn’t mean we can race in NASCAR.

  • jim

    how does this fit in with your batching concept?…where you try to finish assignments, projects, etc. in a single sitting. this article suggests to spread work out, where as batching sort of suggests to get it done with one shot; as concentration level is maintained and you remain in rhythm.

  • Scott Young


    Batching is about taking microtasks (answering emails, making calls, etc.) and doing them at one point during a day or week, rather than spreading them out in small 5-10 minute increments. Batching is focused on the micro elements of work, this is focused on the macro. You can still batch and not try to force 10 hour days in a new pursuit.