If you’re like me, you’ve probably read up on just what it is that makes people successful.
You see people who seem to be able to do it all, and wonder what makes them so special. The first person that comes to my mind is Richard Feynman. Feynman was a Nobel prize winning physicist, who worked on the Manhattan project, investigated the Challenger crash, and invented (link) Feynman diagrams to facilitate calculations in his co-discovered theory of quantum electrodynamics. In his spare time, he travelled the world, wrote six popular novels, and put together what many still consider to be the definitive set of textbooks for undergraduate physicists. He was also an exceptional teacher and masterful orator. He was funny and charismatic, though known to be a bit of a womanizer (I don’t endorse this last trait).
Whether you like Richard Feynman as a person isn’t the point. The point is, he got a ton of shit done over his 69 years on the planet. What exactly made him so prolific? The easy solution is to dismiss him as an anomaly. Of course he was able to do so much— he was a genius, after all. The rest of us mere mortals could never hope to reach that level. Sure, maybe Feynman was a genius. But even among the supremely gifted, there’s a wide spread of accomplishment. Having a 170 IQ is no guarantee that you will use it well. Surely we can learn something about the work ethic of prolific geniuses (genii?), even if we can never attain their level of intelligence.
Angela Duckworth has written a book on this very subject, called Grit, detailing her research that indicates grit is a better determiner of performance than intelligence. The concept of grit is hard to pin down, but is similar to work ethic, sticktoitiveness, and positivity in the face of failure. Gritty people get up and dust themselves off after a setback, and continue to pursue their goals.
With this in mind, I would like to argue that work ethic, or grit, is not the same thing as a drive to work hard. In fact, the most important aspect of a good work ethic is the ability to work consistently. Ideally, you’d like to work consistently hard, but that won’t always work. It’s also a fast track to burnout for most people, which means that quality and consistency of work will drop in the long term.
I’m a philosophy student, so I’ll start by defining my terms. Someone who “works hard” is someone who feels the pressure of work, and continues to work away despite it. These hard workers are the ones you’ll see spending the night in the office finishing off a paper or report that’s due the next day.
Someone who “works consistently,” in contrast, is someone you see at their desk everyday, rain or shine, sticking to a schedule and working within those confines. They may not spend 12 hours a day at the office— hell, some of them may only spend 4-5 hours there— but you can depend on them being there no matter what.
So, here’s why working consistently will always win out over working hard.
1. Hard workers don’t always work as hard as you think
People that have to pull all-nighters and 16 hour workdays are often making up for lost productive time elsewhere. Maybe they went to the bar on Sunday and had to write Monday off, or maybe they’ve been taking 3 hours lunches all week. Whatever it is, there’s usually a reason for falling behind.
Even if you didn’t fall behind via some big chunk of wasted day, the longer you sit at your desk telling yourself you’re working, the less likely you are to be productive. Just because you’re at your desk all day, doesn’t mean you haven’t spent the bulk of your time browsing Reddit. Even just extended coffee breaks or conversations with colleagues can chip away at your total time spent working. These breaks are probably necessary for your sanity, especially for those of you pulling all-nighters as research has shown that optimal productivity comes at about 6 hours of work per day.
2. Hard workers are likely more stressed
Working hard requires a strong bout of motivation— which we all know is fleeting at best. That’s why people tend to work hardest when up against a deadline: the external motivation of not getting fired or failing is pretty persuasive. As effective as those “motivators” can be, they start to take a toll on your mental health.
Pushing up against deadlines like that will mean that valuable time for self care will be lost. It’s pretty hard to take a lunchtime walk in the forest, or do some after-work yoga, when the threat of a deadline looms over you. Any personal development will be the first thing jettisoned during crunch time. Trust me, this will come back to bite you in the future. The people most likely to get promotions, raises, or improved relationships with their peers are the ones who have time to work on their so-called soft skills. These skills aren’t just useful for climbing the corporate ladder; they are genuinely necessary for increased insight and productivity at work.
3. All that matters is the total amount of work you do
Let’s imagine two hypothetical scenarios. Your boss (or professor, client, etc.) gives you a project to complete in two weeks’ time. You know it will take you roughly 30 hours to complete. In the first scenario, you work at it for an hour or so per day on the job until there are two days left. The rest of your day is spent on menial tasks, taking breaks, and browsing the web. If you work 5 days a week, that means you’ve put in 8 total hours so far. That means there’s roughly 24 hours of work left to do in two days! Wow, you’re really going to have to work your ass off to get the project done on time!
Scenario two. When you get the project, you see that you’ll have 10 days to finish 30 hours of work. So you schedule your time such that you work 4 hours per day the first week, and allow for 3 hours per day the second week. This gives you 5 hours of wiggle room in case something goes wrong, and you’ll be likely to finish the project early! No stress, and the job is done.
Scenario two seems way more preferable. All it requires is the ability to work consistently, and to break your tasks down into smaller, manageable bits. You’ll have plenty of time for other work, time to relax, and the feeling of accomplishment at the end of each day will make you feel good. With all that extra time, maybe you can be like Feynman. Write a book, learn a new language, maybe win a Nobel prize?
You know the saying about water’s persistence allowing it to wear down rock, right? Well, by working consistently, you get to be the water, and the intimidating realm of greatness is your rock. Put your mark on greatness!
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And now I want to know: how do you work best? Let us know in the comments any tricks and tips you have for getting the most out of your time.
by Adam Koberinski
Adam is a PhD student studying the philosophy of physics. He is also an avid reader and weightlifter. He wants to help people organize and gain control over their personal and financial lives. He's also my husband.