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.

AS SEEN IN