What Does it Mean to Work Hard?

I don’t feel like I work very hard. These days I usually wake up when I want to. I take frequent breaks. I even take random days off to spend time with friends, to go hiking or to read a book.

This seems to be true even when I have a lot of work to do. For most of my friends who work online, launches tend to be frenetic times with missed sleep and crazy stress. During my recent course launch with Cal Newport, I was busier than normal, but for the most part my daily work life was the same.

Even stranger, I feel like it was also largely the same during the MIT Challenge. I would get more tired, putting in 40-60 hours studying every week. But there was no frantic activity. I would just wake up, open the textbook or start a new problem and keep going until I got tired. Then I’d go for a short walk or take a nap.

Somehow, both now and then, it never felt like I was working very hard.

Two Types of Effort

Sometimes the English language feels inadequate to describe certain concepts. That’s probably why specialized fields like philosophy or psychology use so much jargon that is barely comprehensible to outsiders. The reason is just that most English words don’t neatly describe things.

Effort seems like such a word. I suspect that it actually means two, distinctly related concepts, which is probably the reason for my peculiar subjective experience of my work.

One common meaning of effort is in intensity of mental or physical labor. If you’re sprinting the hardest you possibly can, then this is by this definition, quite effortful. Similarly, during my MIT Challenge much of the day had high mental intensity. I would get tired faster than normal and after a few months I felt burned out and had to switch to a slower pace.

Another meaning of effort is the act of forcing yourself to do something despite internal resistance. Going to the gym, for many people, requires a lot of this kind of effort. But strangely, it often requires this type of effort precisely when the intensity of physical activity is lowest—the effort expended in pushing yourself to actually go to the gym. Once you’re there, it often doesn’t require much willpower to have a workout, even a physically intense one.

How Hard Do You Work?

By the first definition of effort—intensity—my own work varies considerably. Some days it is light. Other days, I’ll write several thousand words or need to solve complex problems. Definitely the intensity was high during my learning challenges.

By the second definition of effort—willpower—my day-to-day work is usually quite easy. Most of the work I do, I enjoy doing. A lot of it I did for free, for years before it became my living. That means the willpower needed to work is generally rather low.

Strangely enough this second type of effort is highest on days I accomplish nothing. Days when I sit for hours trying to think of something to write about require far more willpower than days when the words flow onto the page.

So what does it mean to work hard? Is it having a high mental or physical intensity of activity? After all, if something is very relaxing, we rarely describe it as hard work. Is it based on the amount of willpower you need to exert in order to get things done? After all, if you do something naturally, it’s closer to a leisure activity than work.

Maybe the right definition is simply productivity? Working hard means creating a lot of value. But to the extent value is economic, I earn far more now than I did when I first started, but I wouldn’t be able to reasonably say I work much harder.

Perhaps the real truth is that concepts like working hard are multifaceted. Sometimes we use effort to indicate the relative mental or physical strain of a task. Other times we mean how much we force ourselves to do certain tasks.

Why Appear Hardworking?

Most of us want to be seen as hardworking. There’s a positive signal to that attribute we want to show to outsiders. But, split apart, it’s not clear which aspect of these two is what’s valuable to demonstrate. Do we want to show that we do a lot of intense activities? Or are we trying to show that we have conscious mastery over our selves by forcing actions we wouldn’t do naturally?

Maybe the entire concept of hard work as being socially desirable is implicitly dependent on its link to productivity. On average, people who work hard (either in intensity or willpower) eventually outproduce those who don’t. If work ethic predicts future productivity better than current productivity, it might be a useful attribute to showcase on its own.

I work from home, without a boss. So naturally the social value of appearing hardworking is much more limited for me than it is for employees (although, even I felt a bit sheepish writing the first few paragraphs of this article).

My question is, which aspect of hard work do you think your employers value? Intensity? Willpower? Productivity? Obviously productivity is the “correct” thing to value, in a capitalist enterprise. But I suspect that many work environments implicitly reward the other two independently as well. Which do you think matters? Share your thoughts in the comments.

  • jcmets4112

    In knowledge workplaces, “productivity” is hard to signal in realtime.

    Take an employee working on a complex, months-long project. There are multiple teams involved. Many iterations will occur before the project is complete. And the boss might not see any of the steps in between; just the completed result.

    On any given day, it might not look like the employee accomplished much. Indeed, until the “wave” of the project is collapsed, their individual contributions might be difficult or impossible to separate from those of their team members. And maybe not even then.

    But we still want to look/feel important at work…

    So I think we signal intensity *and* willpower as proxies. If we could signal productivity more clearly, it would eliminate the need to signal anything else. That’s the issue as I see it: an asymmetry between what’s most valuable (productivity) and what’s most easily signaled (intensity/willpower).

    EDIT: You can sort of backtest this theory by looking at professions in which productivity IS clearly signaled. Take a commissioned sales office. Top salespeople rarely engage in gratuitous intensity signaling. Why would they? Their constantly updated numbers speak for themselves.

  • jcmets4112

    In knowledge workplaces, “productivity” is hard to signal in realtime.

    Take an employee working on a complex, months-long project. There are multiple teams involved. Many iterations will occur before the project is complete. And the boss might not see any of the steps in between; just the completed result.

    On any given day, it might not look like the employee accomplished much. Indeed, until the “wave” of the project is collapsed, their individual contributions might be difficult or impossible to separate from those of their team members. And maybe not even then.

    But we still want to look/feel important at work…

    So I think we signal intensity *and* willpower as proxies. If we could signal productivity more clearly, it would eliminate the need to signal anything else. That’s the issue as I see it: an asymmetry between what’s most valuable (productivity) and what’s most easily signaled (intensity/willpower).

    EDIT: You can sort of backtest this theory by looking at professions in which productivity IS clearly signaled. Take a commissioned sales office. Top salespeople rarely engage in gratuitous intensity signaling. Why would they? Their constantly updated numbers speak for themselves.

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  • jk

    Nice post – I think it’s most insightful to take your multidimensional view. For example, I’ve worked with some some people who, when given a large budget-project, will sweat over the smallest purchases. Internally, for them, they certainly feel like they’re doing a lot of work, and yet externally it’s extremely unproductive.

    At the same time, when managing a project, you certainly need to sweat over some details. There’s no magic way to know which details/decisions you should be belabor, and which you should quickly settle on so you can proceed. I would chalk it up to judgement, experience, knowledge – which all hopefully improve in most of us over time, aided by a growth mindset and the ability to critically evaluate how you work.

    But I would emphasize that there can be a huge gap between what internally some people see as hard work, and what externally seems like the exact opposite. And that the gulf between the internal/external views can be very elusive – it changes over time, with different tasks, and sometimes it seems like someone’s sweating over a small detail when in fact it is a crucial point.

  • jk

    Nice post – I think it’s most insightful to take your multidimensional view. For example, I’ve worked with some some people who, when given a large budget-project, will sweat over the smallest purchases. Internally, for them, they certainly feel like they’re doing a lot of work, and yet externally it’s extremely unproductive.

    At the same time, when managing a project, you certainly need to sweat over some details. There’s no magic way to know which details/decisions you should be belabor, and which you should quickly settle on so you can proceed. I would chalk it up to judgement, experience, knowledge – which all hopefully improve in most of us over time, aided by a growth mindset and the ability to critically evaluate how you work.

    But I would emphasize that there can be a huge gap between what internally some people see as hard work, and what externally seems like the exact opposite. And that the gulf between the internal/external views can be very elusive – it changes over time, with different tasks, and sometimes it seems like someone’s sweating over a small detail when in fact it is a crucial point.

  • Gianni Cara

    Good food for thought, Scott.

    I work from home too, so I can relate to what you’re talking about. I believe that the speed and quality of the outcome is usually what matters the most.

    I spend a good chunk of my time on learning and optimizing things. That’s probably why for some work it takes me a few hours to get done, while for others it may take an entire day.

    I guess the fact that you take breaks and naps also help you to manage your energy better, which certainly contribute to your productivity.

    Gianni

  • Gianni Cara

    Good food for thought, Scott.

    I work from home too, so I can relate to what you’re talking about. I believe that the speed and quality of the outcome is usually what matters the most.

    I spend a good chunk of my time on learning and optimizing things. That’s probably why for some work it takes me a few hours to get done, while for others it may take an entire day.

    I guess the fact that you take breaks and naps also help you to manage your energy better, which certainly contribute to your productivity.

    Gianni

  • Gaurav

    What’s substantially more bothersome is ‘hard work’.

    I battle ideas – massless as they are – in a manner that affects my physiology; a hard integral, for instance, becomes something that bogs me down in a manner that running up a flight of stairs would. Not really – but it’s mental analog. As a result, going through all the steps of the integral assumes the same significance as climbing all the way to the roof.

    Lately, I am challenging that idea: I am trying to see ideas to be what they are – weightless, thin-as-air.

    Bottom line: Being physical creatures that we are, I suspect we translate, without transformation, our learnings from the physical world to our mental world – friction, load, force, work et al.

    We really need to learn to live more in our minds.

  • Gaurav

    What’s substantially more bothersome is ‘hard work’.

    I battle ideas – massless as they are – in a manner that affects my physiology; a hard integral, for instance, becomes something that bogs me down in a manner that running up a flight of stairs would. Not really – but it’s mental analog. As a result, going through all the steps of the integral assumes the same significance as climbing all the way to the roof.

    Lately, I am challenging that idea: I am trying to see ideas to be what they are – weightless, thin-as-air.

    Bottom line: Being physical creatures that we are, I suspect we translate, without transformation, our learnings from the physical world to our mental world – friction, load, force, work et al.

    We really need to learn to live more in our minds.

  • Genesis D

    Great article

    I think you made a great distinction between willpower and intensity. Some of the most intense work can be fun and gratifying but it seems that is often the willpower aspect paired with our own limited physical and mental capacities that limit us.

    I’m sure this has to do a lot with context. When we get home from a long day at work, getting to the gym or cooking a healthy meal can be two of the hardest things in the world.

    So how do we solve these issues?

    A lot of it probably has to come from more rigorous self-awareness and objectivity. A lot of us just want to be more productive just for the sake of feeling like we are doing a lot of things. Productivity for its own sake feels great for a while until some big hammer of stressful events breaks your system down. I think that a large majority of us can benefit from scheduling some consistent self-evaluation of our activities and performance. As I’m writing this, I’m realizing that we have to take the time to analyze when deviations from our systems are positively or negatively affecting us – much like our body tries to maintain homeostasis. Finally, I think that we need to be aware of the barriers that keep us from doing what we’d like. I really like Tim Ferriss’ 80/20 analysis. It focuses more on 20% of people and activities that are responsible for 80% of our positive emotions, 20% of people and activities that are responsible for 80 % our negative emotions, and 20% of people and activities that are responsible for 80 % of our time consumption and then couples it with a to-do list and a not-to-do list to constantly identify where we are wasting our efforts. This solves both problems by helping us funnel both types of efforts, our intensity and willpower, towards activities that we have self-identified as productive, fulfilling, and worthwhile.

    Thanks for the post

  • Genesis D

    Great article

    I think you made a great distinction between willpower and intensity. Some of the most intense work can be fun and gratifying but it seems that is often the willpower aspect paired with our own limited physical and mental capacities that limit us.

    I’m sure this has to do a lot with context. When we get home from a long day at work, getting to the gym or cooking a healthy meal can be two of the hardest things in the world.

    So how do we solve these issues?

    A lot of it probably has to come from more rigorous self-awareness and objectivity. A lot of us just want to be more productive just for the sake of feeling like we are doing a lot of things. Productivity for its own sake feels great for a while until some big hammer of stressful events breaks your system down. I think that a large majority of us can benefit from scheduling some consistent self-evaluation of our activities and performance. As I’m writing this, I’m realizing that we have to take the time to analyze when deviations from our systems are positively or negatively affecting us – much like our body tries to maintain homeostasis. Finally, I think that we need to be aware of the barriers that keep us from doing what we’d like. I really like Tim Ferriss’ 80/20 analysis. It focuses more on 20% of people and activities that are responsible for 80% of our positive emotions, 20% of people and activities that are responsible for 80 % our negative emotions, and 20% of people and activities that are responsible for 80 % of our time consumption and then couples it with a to-do list and a not-to-do list to constantly identify where we are wasting our efforts. This solves both problems by helping us funnel both types of efforts, our intensity and willpower, towards activities that we have self-identified as productive, fulfilling, and worthwhile.

    Thanks for the post

  • Gary Tse

    Great post Scott. One of the key points is that the definition of hard work is very multi-faceted. Most of the advice I hear from an older generation is that only hardworking people can become successful. If you take that at face value, it implies one must work long hours, exert themselves with high intensity, and also have high productivity. Except that all this hard work and productivity doesn’t necessarily equate to effectiveness, and some cultures, particularly Asian ones have this backwards.

    I also work from home at times, and find myself sheepish about not working hard in the conformist sort – taking frequent breaks and walks, sometimes even naps. Personally, reading this removed a bit of guilt!

  • Gary Tse

    Great post Scott. One of the key points is that the definition of hard work is very multi-faceted. Most of the advice I hear from an older generation is that only hardworking people can become successful. If you take that at face value, it implies one must work long hours, exert themselves with high intensity, and also have high productivity. Except that all this hard work and productivity doesn’t necessarily equate to effectiveness, and some cultures, particularly Asian ones have this backwards.

    I also work from home at times, and find myself sheepish about not working hard in the conformist sort – taking frequent breaks and walks, sometimes even naps. Personally, reading this removed a bit of guilt!

  • Hari Krishnan

    From a neuroscience point of view, making new connections and changing or expanding your paradigms require mental effort or ‘pain’. This may or may not be what will lead you to success (your definition of it). Whereas the physical effort will, I believe, make you better at what you are which again may or may not give you success.

  • Hari Krishnan

    From a neuroscience point of view, making new connections and changing or expanding your paradigms require mental effort or ‘pain’. This may or may not be what will lead you to success (your definition of it). Whereas the physical effort will, I believe, make you better at what you are which again may or may not give you success.

  • That was such an insightful post.

    Same story here. Apart from the fact that I consider prioritizing an important element of my day to day work, I don’t really think that I work hard with the conventional meaning of the term. I think that hard work is kind of a misleading concept. Working hard has nothing to do with working long hours and doing a monotonous task. The best way to describe hard work is by using the term “deep work” as Cal puts it. The type of work that requires a lot of creativity and immense focus in order to produce a great outcome.

    However, I wanted to ask you something arbitrary. Since I started blogging I have noticed that although I feel fulfilled because I don’t have a boss and I can generate income by sharing my thoughts, this lifestyle has affected my social well being. In my previous job, which was in the corporate world, although I wasn’t satisfied by the nature of the job, I could at least fulfill some basic social needs. Now, especially during the day I feel that isolation affects my mood. I do spend time in coffee shops but it doesn’t really help.

    What is your view on this? How do you deal with that element of your job?

  • The Quintessential Man

    That was such an insightful post.

    Same story here. Apart from the fact that I consider prioritizing an important element of my day to day work, I don’t really think that I work hard with the conventional meaning of the term. I think that hard work is kind of a misleading concept. Working hard has nothing to do with working long hours and doing a monotonous task. The best way to describe hard work is by using the term “deep work” as Cal puts it. The type of work that requires a lot of creativity and immense focus in order to produce a great outcome.

    However, I wanted to ask you something arbitrary. Since I started blogging I have noticed that although I feel fulfilled because I don’t have a boss and I can generate income by sharing my thoughts, this lifestyle has affected my social well being. In my previous job, which was in the corporate world, although I wasn’t satisfied by the nature of the job, I could at least fulfill some basic social needs. Now, especially during the day I feel that isolation affects my mood. I do spend time in coffee shops but it doesn’t really help.

    What is your view on this? How do you deal with that element of your job?

  • Yoni Binstock

    I have the same issue with the word “work”. I’m often “working” till 10:30pm, but if it’s on my own projects and I like to do it, is there another word to use?

  • Yoni Binstock

    I have the same issue with the word “work”. I’m often “working” till 10:30pm, but if it’s on my own projects and I like to do it, is there another word to use?

  • Jeff

    I’d say the sexy thing nowadays is to “work hard.” For you, Scott, it seems as though your “working smarter” not harder. And I think that’s what we all should strive for. If we can work smarter, finish our work early and do it well, it’ll ultimately allow us to have more time to do the things we want outside of work.

  • Jeff

    I’d say the sexy thing nowadays is to “work hard.” For you, Scott, it seems as though your “working smarter” not harder. And I think that’s what we all should strive for. If we can work smarter, finish our work early and do it well, it’ll ultimately allow us to have more time to do the things we want outside of work.

  • Just anyone.

    For me, to work hard means to do things as they are done bit by bit, in the order.

  • Just anyone.

    For me, to work hard means to do things as they are done bit by bit, in the order.

  • dominican power

    Whats the difference between working smarter and harder? I think is the same thing.

  • dominican power

    Whats the difference between working smarter and harder? I think is the same thing.

  • Saptarshi Pyne

    My take away from this insightful article is the following: if one is ready to so something for free, then he/she may take it up as profession.

  • Saptarshi Pyne

    My take away from this insightful article is the following: if one is ready to so something for free, then he/she may take it up as profession.

  • Scott Young

    When you work at home, alone, you need to invest more time to socialize. I think the social environment is an important, and often neglected, part of the working experience many people ignore when making career decisions.

    My work has moved somewhat past it, as I have a few employees with which I work on a daily basis, along with numerous colleagues I interact with less frequently, I don’t feel too isolated by my work these days.

  • Scott Young

    When you work at home, alone, you need to invest more time to socialize. I think the social environment is an important, and often neglected, part of the working experience many people ignore when making career decisions.

    My work has moved somewhat past it, as I have a few employees with which I work on a daily basis, along with numerous colleagues I interact with less frequently, I don’t feel too isolated by my work these days.

  • Scott Young

    Interesting. I also suspect the analogy between mental and physical tire is imperfect, but there is also something to it as well. The current state of psychological research on this phenomenon seems to open more questions than answer them, unfortunately.

  • Scott Young

    Interesting. I also suspect the analogy between mental and physical tire is imperfect, but there is also something to it as well. The current state of psychological research on this phenomenon seems to open more questions than answer them, unfortunately.

  • Scott Young

    That’s an interesting theory–perceived drudgery as a direct consequence of unreliable productivity signaling. I wonder if anyone has done any research on this more directly.

  • Scott Young

    That’s an interesting theory–perceived drudgery as a direct consequence of unreliable productivity signaling. I wonder if anyone has done any research on this more directly.

  • “It is wonderful how much may be done, if we are always doing.” (Thomas Jefferson)

    I find that when I waste time on the internet, then rush quickly to finish all my work, and repeat, I put in more effort than if I had simply worked at a consistent pace throughout the day and taken my tasks easily and logically.

  • Blixiris

    “It is wonderful how much may be done, if we are always doing.” (Thomas Jefferson)

    I find that when I waste time on the internet, then rush quickly to finish all my work, and repeat, I put in more effort than if I had simply worked at a consistent pace throughout the day and taken my tasks easily and logically.

  • I think “working hard” is what a robot might do – simply tape themselves down to their desk and force themselves to keep working until they finish something. However, and I think Scott wrote a few posts about this before, your tasks have a tendency to fill the time you give them. By simply saying you’ll sit and work until you finish something, you’re giving that task an endless supply of time. You are unconsciously making yourself work harder. So you need to manage your time and your priorities if you’re to work smart.

    Working smarter means taking a high-level approach to your work. It means prioritizing your tasks, doing what is necessary (no busy-work just for the sake of “doing work”), and learning to understand, not to memorize. If you understand why you are doing something, you’ll probably enjoy doing it better and you’ll be motivated to do it. Doing two problems but really understanding them step-by-step is better than doing 50 but not enjoying them and doing them just to get it over with. Be careful how you manage your time but also your energy, as you use more energy doing things you don’t enjoy than things you do.

    I think it’s also important where you put your brain power. Use it for logic, not for weight-lifting. If you give yourself 3 hours to do math problems because that’s what the teacher assigned, you’ll not only likely end up using the entire time, but you’ll be less productive (in the sense of actually learning the material) than if you had given yourself 1 hours to do most of said math homework and 2 hours to actually learn the material and understand things you were confused about. It’s critical that you learn, not just mindlessly do.

  • Blixiris

    I think “working hard” is what a robot might do – simply tape themselves down to their desk and force themselves to keep working until they finish something. However, and I think Scott wrote a few posts about this before, your tasks have a tendency to fill the time you give them. By simply saying you’ll sit and work until you finish something, you’re giving that task an endless supply of time. You are unconsciously making yourself work harder. So you need to manage your time and your priorities if you’re to work smart.

    Working smarter means taking a high-level approach to your work. It means prioritizing your tasks, doing what is necessary (no busy-work just for the sake of “doing work”), and learning to understand, not to memorize. If you understand why you are doing something, you’ll probably enjoy doing it better and you’ll be motivated to do it. Doing two problems but really understanding them step-by-step is better than doing 50 but not enjoying them and doing them just to get it over with. Be careful how you manage your time but also your energy, as you use more energy doing things you don’t enjoy than things you do.

    I think it’s also important where you put your brain power. Use it for logic, not for weight-lifting. If you give yourself 3 hours to do math problems because that’s what the teacher assigned, you’ll not only likely end up using the entire time, but you’ll be less productive (in the sense of actually learning the material) than if you had given yourself 1 hours to do most of said math homework and 2 hours to actually learn the material and understand things you were confused about. It’s critical that you learn, not just mindlessly do.

  • Sam VanHoogstraat

    There is another type of effort: perseverance. This means disregarding both positive and negative feelings and working with both will power and intensity, disregarding the imagined “end” to one’s projects. “Continuous effort, not strength or intelligence, is the key to unlocking our potential.” “A work of art is never finished, only abandoned.”

  • Sam VanHoogstraat

    There is another type of effort: perseverance. This means disregarding both positive and negative feelings and working with both will power and intensity, disregarding the imagined “end” to one’s projects. “Continuous effort, not strength or intelligence, is the key to unlocking our potential.” “A work of art is never finished, only abandoned.”

  • Alexey

    Can I ask you, Scott, what do you do for living besides the blog? I just always thought for some reason you were a full time blogger.

  • Scott Young

    I am a full-time blogger. The employees work for my company. (We’re 3 full-time, 5+ on contract)

  • Alexey

    Cool. Congratulations on building an impressive business from scratch.

    Your learning projects and blog are really nice.

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