When Hard Work Isn’t the Answer

January 4, 2024
Reading time: 4 minutes
Happiness, Perfectionism

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Here we are in a brand new year! The haze of the holidays has once again come to a close, and we are looking outward and forward, imagining all the ways we’d like 2024 to unfold. Whether you make New Year’s resolutions, a list of goals, or set intentions, it’s safe to say that we all have something we’re working toward and that a solid action plan is probably already in place. But what if an action plan isn’t exactly the best way to achieve your goals? What if hard work is the opposite of what you’ll need for success?

In a world that glorifies hard work and perseverance, it might seem counterintuitive to suggest that hard work could be anything other than a virtue. However, relentless hard work in pursuit of goals—especially when it is without strategic thinking or balanced approaches—can lead to burnout, lackluster results, and very adverse effects on our well-being. Hard work is more nuanced than you think, and it doesn’t have to involve all-nighters, hours-long work days, or the deprioritization of rest, family time, or fun.

Now, I am certainly not advocating that we lounge around and dial our ambition all the way down. Working consistently toward our goals and dedicating ourselves to positive change is not only something I personally believe in, it’s also the path to our most fulfilling lives. But when hard work begins to deteriorate our overall experience of joy and happiness, it’s a sign we need to pivot. So, let’s explore a few other ways to achieve success and fulfillment that don’t include burning the midnight oil.

One unscheduled work day per week

This one has been really powerful for me personally, and I can attest to its life-changing potential! Burnout would usually come on Tuesday night. I would exhaust Monday and Tuesday completely—my work week would sometimes begin on a Saturday night and even parts of Sunday. By Wednesday, I felt like I had lost desire for most things…. Cue the game changer: an entirely unplanned Wednesday.

A friend of mine shared with me that after she had gotten a big promotion that added even more to her plate, her mentor told her to start planning nothing on [insert day] every week. No meetings, no appointments, zip. That way, she could fill the day with anything she felt compelled to do. She handed this sage advice over to me when I myself had gotten more responsibilities. So if on a Wednesday (my chosen day) I was in a chatty mood, I could make or take calls I needed to; if I felt introspective, I could write or study; if my kids were needing me, I could give some more time to them on that day.

Do the hardest tasks first

Mark Twain once said, “Eat a live frog in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” I think what he meant with this cheeky quote is that we should do the hardest task first. Our brains are at their most functional in the morning after a good night’s rest. If there are tasks that require more focus from you, set aside time in the morning to tackle them. This includes tasks that you’re avoiding or that are generally just harder to complete—like reorganizing your closet, restructuring your budget, or exercising.

Break tasks into bite-sized chunks

Instead of finishing an entire chapter of your novel in one sitting, commit to just writing two paragraphs. Instead of reorganizing your child’s toy bins, commit to just selecting the toys that are giveaways. Instead of jumping into a restrictive diet overnight, commit to a full day without eating processed foods or sugar. Release the idea of “finishing” or “perfecting” and embrace consistency and slow progress. Here is a helpful tip: spend no longer than one hour on a task a day. If you already struggle with focus, shoot for 30 minutes. The idea here is that progress beats perfection—and you’ll likely find that the goals are met faster than you think!

Schedule time to do nothing—every day

I can almost hear my fellow parents shouting, “Do nothing?! Impossible!” Trust me, it is possible, especially when you think of it as another part of your daily routine. Doing nothing, or “purposeful leisure time” as Aristotle referred to it, is any amount of time where we aren’t resting or working. It could mean taking a 15-minute walk without your phone. It could mean drinking your morning coffee with as much mindfulness as possible. It could mean setting your morning alarm 30 minutes earlier to allow you to ease into your day without distraction or demands. Taking these little breaks throughout your day can boost your productivity—not to mention your mental health—in miraculous ways and also gives you something to look forward to on days that are more stressful.

Offer yourself grace

The teachings of Kabbalah tell us in a myriad of ways that the process is actually the purpose. As you work toward your goals and dreams, remember that the ultimate achievement is who you become on your journey. This can help you to have grace with yourself when things don’t go as planned, when you don’t meet your deadlines, or when things are taking longer than you’d like. Our lives are a co-creation with the Universe, and when we can have trust and certainty in our path, it becomes less about working harder or being perfect and more about enjoying every moment as much as possible.

Understand the Law of Diminishing Returns

The law of diminishing returns is a bit like ordering your favorite pizza. Imagine you’re super hungry, and that first slice is amazing! The second one is still good but not as satisfying. As you keep eating, each additional slice gives you less happiness, and eventually, you might even feel sick. Now, apply this idea to other aspects of life, like working on a project. At first, putting in extra time and effort might boost your productivity. But there comes a point where working more doesn’t give you the same return; in fact, it almost seems to be the opposite. You might get tired, make more mistakes, and simply be less efficient. Work hard when it feels inspiring, and when it doesn’t, take a break. Your mind, body, and project will thank you!

Hard work will always play a vital role in achieving success, and there are times when it will be necessary, even inevitable. But it is important to understand the pitfalls of overdoing it; it is essential to recognize its limitations. At the end of the day, what we all want is more joy, more creativity, more connection with our loved ones, and a more fulfilling experience of life. And we can have all of those right now. The key lies in understanding when to work hard and when to step back. My wish for you in 2024 is that you measure your success in how many days you spend feeling healthy, feeling joyful, and feeling grateful.


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