It’s everywhere. If you follow entrepreneurs on social media, you get a lot of posts about “crushing it today”, doing hard work, and how hard work is what’s going to make you an expert. You hear that you have to put in constant, demanding hours, and sacrifice work-life balance to make it big.
At the same time, this is generally not consistent with the research, which suggests that while deliberate practice (what we consider “putting in the hours”) is a necessity for success (no one succeeds without putting in the work to practice) it only accounts for a small percent of the variance between the most successful performers.
One study found that deliberate practice only accounted for 18% of the variance in sports performance, and that number shrinks to 1% when you only look at the elite performers (the best of the best). In short, genetics and other factors like good coaching play a much bigger role, particularly at the highest levels of performance.
One shorthand for effort has been the 10,000 hours rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. This rule suggests that mastery of any skill requires about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, which can take a decade or longer. It's a good theory.
This is an attractive idea - it pitches the idea that a lot of work is necessary (which fits with the US culture of hard work), and 10,000 hours is such a large figure that testing it deliberately would be essentially impossible. Ain't nobody is going to put 10,000 hours into anything for a study. While it may have been based on a lot of observational research, it’s also unverifiable - excellent since it means Gladwell doesn’t really have to cover his own ass.
More recent research also suggests that simply logging the hours isn’t enough. This study found that deliberate practice accounted for:
• In games, a 26% difference
• In music, a 21% difference
• In sports, an 18% difference
• In education, a 4% difference
• In professions, a 1% difference
Again, much lower than we’d hope, and in some cases so small as to be only barely important. One suggestion is that this is due to differences in the types of skills being studied - skills which have stable rulesets that don’t change (for example, beating a video game, or mastering the piano) can be more easily mastered through practice.
However, skills that are based more on underlying genetic factors (sports, intelligence) or where the rules are subject to change more frequently (education and professions) may not be something that you can “master” via practice. In education and professions, it may rely more on some combination of talent and luck than simple practice.
The Problem With Hard Work
So if hard work (defined as putting in a lot of hours) isn’t that useful, why do we advocate so much of it? After all, in many businesses, people are expected to work hard and put in lots of extra hours to prove that they’re dedicated to the company. The recent firestorm around the sexist google memo implied that women tend to value work/life balance - and further that this was a bad thing, since tech workers shouldn’t hesitate to put in long hours.
Productivity of workers in the US has been steadily increasing since 1945 - but real wages relative to our productivity have been stagnant since about 1975. In short, we’re working harder - but we’re not really being paid for it. I'd call that a shitty deal.
Not to mention the fact that working long hours tends to backfire. It would seem that many people lie about how many hours they actually work in order to make themselves seem more valued - and managers can’t really tell the difference. Working long hours causes health issues and drives up the cost of health insurance. Long work hours can compromise sleep, which is one of the absolute most important foundations of long term health. In fact, research suggests that when work hours are artificially limited, overall productivity increases.
Some have experimented with limited work weeks - the 6 hour work day has been tested to mixed results in a Swedish retirement home. What the Swedish test found was that workers were indeed happier and more productive, but they still had to hire additional workers, resulting in greater overall cost.
Ultimately the problem was that this was an industry which did require long hours (patient care is a round-the-clock job that you can’t simply “complete” within 6 hours per day), which suggests that other industries may be able to implement a similar plan without needing to hire more workers. It may just be the case that some jobs are more capable of being reduced, time wise, than others.
In Asian countries, the situation can be worse, where there’s a great deal of social pressure for workers to put in long (100+ per week) hours. This situation is so stressful that there’s a japanese word (karōshi) for death by overwork - and similar ones in China and Korea. Long hours can lead to malnutrition due to lack of meal times, stress related issues, or even suicide. Companies have tried to put a stop to this by creating maximum overtime rules, but are not always able to enforce them when there’s great social pressure to continue working - some continue to work off the clock.
A friend of mine lives and works in Japan. Recently, she paid a visit to us here in nice, cold Denmark. She told us horror stories about the work situation at her job, where she was often shamed for going home after “only” putting in 10-12 hours a day. Meanwhile, she said, many coworkers who did put in their time would waste hours a day doing unnecessary work that they would scrap later during the day when they realized that it wouldn’t be useful. In short - they were terribly unproductive, but thought that they were doing good work.
So Why Do We Still Advocate Hard Work?
You might read the above and think that hard work is always bad, and that’s not the case: when there’s a specific goal in mind (for example, a launch date for a project, or a competition to prepare for) then a temporary period of seriously hard work can be a good idea. Sometimes there are due dates, your time management isn’t what you would have hoped, and you absolutely have to put in long hours to get something done in time. This is fine, since it’s a temporary sprint - but chronic hard work isn’t, and you should try to avoid it as much as possible both for your health and the success of your company.
It’s also true that some people will be fine with, or even like hard work. Yesterday's article on the video game industry concept of "crunch time" - temporary periods of long hours enforced to launch important video game titles on schedule - portrayed it contrary to popular opinion, as a good thing. The author of the article claims that crunch is his favorite thing. That's all fine and well for him, but it's also true that you shouldn't be forced to crunch if, unlike him, you aren't the kind of person who likes to put in those long hours.
If you like the work you do and it’s not stressful to put in a lot of hours, consistently doing a lot of it may not be as much of an issue. For most people that isn’t the case - they may like their job well enough and get along with their coworkers pretty well, but wouldn’t appreciate having to do a lot more of it. This needs to be considered. It's simply not a good idea to force hard work on people who aren't really into it.
Some types of jobs are also more naturally stressful than others. I used to have a job installing fitness equipment in people’s houses. I could never tell ahead of time what the next day’s workload would be like - some days it would mostly be lighter personal treadmills (a couple hundred pounds), but some days you might be forced to carry heavier industrial treadmills (500+ lbs) up and down rich peoples’ stairs multiple times in a single day.
This was terribly stressful on my back and ended up giving me a leg injury that took a couple years to fully recover from. Logging overtime on that job was incredibly stressful because the challenge level of the work, as well as the number of hours I had to put in, was unpredictable, not to mention very physically taxing. Overtime on that job was the most stressful period of my life - though sometimes I've put in more hours managing my own business, without as much stress.
I don’t think we should be focusing on doing hard work - we should be focusing on doing good work - and the two aren’t always the same. This applies everywhere: with our jobs, with our exercise, with our efforts at self improvement. Humans simply need balance, rest, and relaxation to recover and improve.
For example, the entire point of Tim Ferriss' entrepreneurial classic The 4 Hour Work Week is to learn methods to minimize the amount of work that you have to do by automating and outsourcing your job. Despite the popularity of the book, its rules aren’t always applicable to everyone - and many people probably don’t take its central thesis (that you should be looking to find ways to work less) to heart.
Likewise, exercise science shows us that people who try to take on too great a workload (exercise volume), too quickly, tend not to improve - instead, their bodies struggle to adapt to the high workload, and they experience a great deal of stress and risk injury. Instead, by finding an appropriate volume and then steadily increasing your level of work from there, building up over time, you can continue to improve without shocking the body.
The effects of poor sleep or high stress can significantly impact your results as well. Just like with any other skill - you shouldn’t be looking to put in long and taxing hours, but instead looking to find quality practice in less time.
This is the take of some of the researchers examining excellence - that the 10,000 hours alone aren’t sufficient. What may also matter is that you spread those hours out effectively, get help, and learn how to practice deliberately with methods that are challenging and beneficial to your current level of ability (without being too much, too soon). Usually, this means having a coach to guide you in the right direction.
My take is that it should be healthy and expected to have solid work-life balance. You should have time to pursue a variety of activities (productively) rather than putting in endless hours with just one (unproductively). Focus on quality over quantity to maximize your life satisfaction. Pick a few skills or goals, practice them regularly and deliberately, and maximize your sleep while minimizing your stress.
If all it took was hard work - hell, I can name plenty of minimum wage workers who have always been poor, always will be, and work much harder and more demanding jobs each week than I do.
- Hard work - putting in long and difficult hours - isn't as effective at increasing your results as we tend to think. It matters, but in some cases the benefit is smaller than we'd expect.
- In addition, hard work causes a host of issues, increases stress, compromises sleep and diet quality, and even leads to less overall productivity.
- Some people may thrive in hard work environments, but they shouldn't be the standard by which everyone is judged.
- Instead, we should be looking to put in high quality work, developing a good work/life balance, and practicing a lot of skills over the course of our lifetimes. This is better both for ourselves and for our employers.
- The Pareto Principle and Fitness
- Motivation Isn't a Willpower Stat
- It's OK To Be Lazy!
- The "Easy" Way To Master Any Skill
- Winners Always Quit, and Quitters Always Win
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