The ROI on Working Harder Sucks

Planes are amazing. They’re these enormous metal objects flying through the air at hundreds of miles an hour. Every time I get on a plane, it’s still an almost surreal experience. I got half way around the world in 24 hours last weekend.

That same trip 500 years ago took 2 years and killed Magellan and half his crew.

There’s no doubt planes work hard. They consume an absurd amount of energy. However, they operate by being constantly off course. At any given moment, a plane is headed in the wrong direction. Only slightly though. Every so often it recalculates it’s course and redirects where it’s going.

It has a clear vision of where it needs to get to even though it’s not ever exactly on it at any given point.

It seems that the same to be generally true in life. If I have a clear vision of where I’m going, I seem to get much better results from deliberately and consistently constantly re-evaluating the path. If I just my head down and plow, I’m more likely to get off course, waste a lot of energy, and probably sabotage the result I’m going after.

At least for me, the ROI of going from working ay 50-60 hours a week to 70-80 hours a week is horrible and at some point I think it becomes negative. For me, I notice this especially once I get tired. Where i used to just say, “I’ll have a coffee and push through,” I almost always take a nap or go to bed now. The quality of work that I did wasn’t just poor, it usually created more work or work debt in the future.

I just finished reading Seeking Wisdom by Peter Bevelin and was reading through Derek Sivers’ summary of the book. I think his summation of the book is poignant, largely obvious, yet oft ignored advice:

“if you can just avoid mistakes, you’re doing better than most.”

20 years of small incremental gains can be wiped out by a single Black Swan event. One stupid or careless email to a client or customer written while tired or frustrated can wipe out hours of good work.

If I had to chart it out, I suspect it would look something like this.

Screen Shot 2013-12-15 at 12.34.06 PM

Imagine a plane going 25% faster but evaluating it’s course far less often. Despite working harder, it would consume far more energy and take far longer to get where it was going despite working that much harder.

The real returns ROI aren’t on working harder or being busier once you’re already working hard. It’s on being strategic, doing the hard, emotional work, and making the difficult decisions.

It’s easy, for me at least, to work harder because it provides a perverse sense of self satisfaction from masochistic martyrdom.

“Look at me, I’m working so much harder than you.”

I think that’s a very middle class mindset that I still have wired in my head.

A friend commented to me recently that “all it takes to be successful is to make one uncomfortable decision everyday.”

If you look at the daily schedules of people who have done profound things in their lives, that seems to be true. They all work hard, but none of them are busy bodies.

Albert Einstein and Darwin were known for working a few hours in the mornings and spending the afternoons taking long walks.

However, they both committed to and advanced theories that were heavily resisted by the established powers of their respective fields. They made some very uncomfortable decisions.

They scheduled time for deep work. For doing the quality and level of work necessary to actually move their chosen fields forward in meaningful and profound ways.

The other aspect of this is avoiding costly

Paul Graham pointed out in an essay in 2010 that we’re a generation that is largely going to be defined by what we say no to. As more and more noise enters our lives, the challenge is not finding more productivity hacks to make incremental gains. That’s easy.

What’s hard (and valuable) is eliminating the noise and focusing time on energy on what actually matters.


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  • Nils Root

    great post. thanks!

    • Taylor Pearson

      Cheers. Thanks Nils.

  • tillcarlos

    Yep, working harder (=being more miserable) is often seen as good. The opposite is true: it’s only about the results. Great Post, Taylor. I’d love to see that more in Germany…