The True Meaning of Hard Work

What is a “hard worker”?

It’s someone who spends most of their time working. They work “long”, more than hard. Their work might be brainlessly easy, but it becomes hard at the 10th hour.

The work itself doesn’t need to be hard, it seems, when having the willpower to keep doing it is a challenge.

The Problem: We praise (and incentivise) time-in-seats more than value produced. Your work might be almost pointless — a net zero from mankind’s point of view. Yet you are still a hard worker if you clock overtime, and thus given respect and encouraged to do even more.

We focus on the “time metric” when assessing how hard we work because overachievers make time look like the thing that matters. Usually, it’s not.

The currencies of hard work

Doing things that are hard is valuable.

So, difficulty itself points to value, like money does. And just as different currencies have different value, so do different types of “difficult”.

Long Work

When I was working for a startup, there was an unspoken culture of glorifying long hours. It’s very common and has its place. It is indeed noble to sacrifice an evening or a weekend every now and then for the good of the team. The danger is when we start expecting such sacrifice. What happens when working for the full workday is seen as doing the bare minimum?

The truth is, you might be “active” from dawn ’til dusk and still produce the bare minimum of true value for your team.

Working too long also steals from your future performance. If you don’t recover properly, it’ll catch up with you. The detriment to your work will be invisible at first, long before you have a traditional “burnout”. But the detriment to company profits and your own success will be very real indeed.

Wouldn’t it be better to expect each other to work hard in ways that create more value and build our capacity to create even more later?

Focused Work

In The ONE Thing, Gary Keller presents a purifying question:

Given the goal you are aiming towards, what is the ONE thing you can do that will make everything else easier or unnecessary?

Imagine you and everyone in your team were crystal-clear on your collective goal, and regularly asked yourselves and each other, “What’s the one thing I can do to help us reach our goal that would make everything else on our plate easier or unnecessary?” or, “Given this quarter’s targets, what’s the one thing we could accomplish this month / this week / today, that would make our targets easier to hit?”

  • Identify your “one things”.
  • Narrow down to the one thing to do right now.
  • Crush that one task as the first order of the day.

While you’re figuring out what the most effective use of your time is, the frantic “long worker” will be judging your inactivity as he runs around juggling all the things you’re about to make unnecessary.

Courageous Work

Fear makes you ineffective.

A team is not fearful due to outside danger. How much easier is it to volunteer to go up on stage if your best friend goes up with you?

What makes a team fearful is danger from each other.

You need to know the guy standing next to you has got your back. This is only possible when you know he would be crushed by the others or by the leader if he stabbed it instead.

In a culture of genuine trust, a tremendous amount of mental energy (which was once spent on self-protection), can now be spent on doing valuable things. It’s the switch from a defensive to an offensive posture.

People also become more willing to risk personal failure or embarrassment because they know their bravery and selfless attitude will earn them slaps on the back. They know that no one will try to use their misfortune as an opportunity to “get one up on them”.

This won’t make people careless with the future of the company, mind you. There will be no slaps on the back if someone takes a risk and embarrasses the entire company. But to risk personal embarrassment is no risk at all when you know your bravery will add to your standing in the group.

Deep Work

Any distraction you experience costs your company money.

This is especially true when you’ve used the focusing question and are working on the most valuable thing you could possibly be doing.

Cal Newport’s Deep Work speaks more on the cost of distraction, and on the incredible power of the alternative — long periods of singular focus.

The idealistic concept of “openness” in the workplace, the demonisation of the cubicle, and expectation of instant reply to any message, have all lead to the most distractible workplace environments you could hope to design.

The money left on the cumulative table is staggering.

Deep work leads to more work being done and to a higher quality too.


Focus, courage, and deepness are all difficult. Adding them to your work is harder than merely adding hours. They also make the work much more valuable, without risking your performance later through burnout.

The problem is this sort of hard work is hard to measure. The companies of the future will need to step up.

Time-in-seat is the easiest thing to measure, yet it adds the least to the success of a company. The only explanation for why it is used as the standard metric of hard work must be that it’s so easy to measure. That’s a little hypocritical, don’t you think?

If leaders expect their teams to do truly hard work, they will need to measure truly hard metrics. That way, they’ll know what to reward and how to incentivise.

How to measure hard metrics is a big subject. I’ll come back to it later.

A good place to start is the lead-indicator scorecard concept from The 12 Week Year.


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