Sean Johnson

Build an Intentional Life.

What hard work looks like

After three months of doing it herself, my wife dragged me into a CrossFit gym.

For most of our marriage, I’ve worked out pretty consistently once or twice per week, mostly lifting weights, and I’d routinely leave the gym feeling pretty good. I thought I knew what working out meant.

CrossFit taught me I had no clue what a hard workout was supposed to feel like.

The first session is the worst. It’s like getting hit by a truck. Your body is telling you it’s literally about to die. It’s not even remotely fun.

The workouts don’t get any easier. But you at least know what to expect going forward. You also find yourself slowly making progress. Two weeks in they had me repeat the workout from the beginning, and I found I’d shaved 30 seconds off my time. I still sucked, but it felt good.

Most importantly, I’ve learned that my body, even in its current pear-shaped form, is capable of far more than I thought. When you see the number of reps that await you – 200 push-ups or 100 burpees or whatever – you don’t think you can possibly do it. But you push through. And even if your time on the whiteboard is worse than everyone else’s (which mine consistently is), you have a feeling of satisfaction.

You now know what a hard workout feels like. And you have the satisfaction of knowing you put in your work that day.

Most people don’t know what hard work is.

I think most people don’t know what hard work is when it comes to their professional life.

There is a group of people who don’t know and don’t care. They believe their job is a necessary evil, and the best approach is to keep your head down and do just enough to avoid getting fired. Thankfully this isn’t the majority, and they usually get found out pretty quickly.

The problem is the second group, which I believe is the majority of us. This group cares about their job, and truly wants to do well. They show up every day, and believe they really are doing their best. When their bosses get frustrated with them for not doing more, they don’t understand it. They’re working as hard as they can.

Or so they think.

Why don’t they know?

Perhaps they don’t know because they’ve never been truly pushed. They’ve never had solid models to follow, like a family that drilled it into their head or a teacher who pushed them beyond the limits of what they thought was possible.

Perhaps it’s the nature of knowledge work. So much of it is sitting behind a computer, and if you’re not making clear deliverables like mock-ups or code or phone calls, it can be difficult to recognize who’s really hustling and who’s just screwing around.

Perhaps it’s because their peers don’t know either. Most of the people they’re surrounded by are as clueless as they are. In a typical office, there might be one or two people who truly know what hard work feels like and do it consistently.

Regardless of the reason, the effects are terrible.

Not knowing is why you might not love what you do.

Many people have been taught to pursue something they’re passionate about. They take a job, don’t like it that much, jump to a new one, and repeat.

There is a growing body of evidence that they don’t like their job because they aren’t good at it, and that passion comes from having mastery, not the other way around.

And the path to mastery is hard work.

Social scientists call it “deliberate practice”. While most people’s days consist of what Cal Newport calls “shallow work”, the people who love their work instead pursue deep work, work that requires intense bouts of concentration. That concentration leads to much more rapid progress, which leads to mastery, which leads to passion.

Not knowing how to work hard and deep makes it less likely you find the thing you’re passionate about.

Not knowing is why you might not be moving up the ladder.

My first job in New York was at a startup that had tons of turnover. This was because most people didn’t get promoted and didn’t get raises very often.

But some people did.

There were 5 or 6 people who got promoted rapidly and received generous raises in very short periods of time. Not surprisingly all of those people stuck around. And those people were instrumental in helping the company eventually sell.

Those people came from different backgrounds and had different personalities and skills. What they had in common though was an understanding of what hard work looks like. There were developers and designers who had 10x the impact of their peers. There was a sales guy who consistently outsold everyone else on the team by orders of magnitude.

Many people in the company saw those folks rise up, got frustrated and left. What they might not have done is ask themselves honestly what the founders saw in those people.

If you’re in a company that doesn’t have strict hierarchies and timelines for advancement and are watching other people who are younger or joined later vault ahead of you in the pecking order, it might be worthwhile to ask yourself why.

While there certainly might be unconscious (or conscious) biases driving some of these decisions, those are largely out of your control. Is there anything you personally can do to change the situation? It’s’ worth reflecting on this. Honestly.

Not knowing might be why you’re not as happy as you could be.

The phrase “workaholic” implies that it’s an addiction. And while I’m a huge believer in balance (having been through the startup meat grinder and with two small kids, I’m about as big an advocate for shutting things down and being present as you’ll find), I understand why they feel that way.

Just like a hard workout releases endorphins and makes you feel good, I think workaholics do so partially because they love how it makes them feel.

Watch an episode of Gary Vaynerchuk’s DailyVee series. He works 14 hour days because he has huge ambitious goals (like owning the Jets) and knows that working longer is one way to make that happen. But he also works that long because he loves it. You don’t get the impression that he cares about the money at all. He cares about the work itself.

Hard work doesn’t necessarily mean putting in long hours. You can spend 14 hours in the office and not get a single meaningful thing done.

But there is often a correlation between the people who work the most and the people who work the hardest – just like exercising.

Again, I don’t advocate 14 hour days. My team works 8. What I do advocate is bringing a higher level of intensity to those 8 hours.

I think your work day should feel kind of like a workout. You should be able to take the train home and feel like you gave it 100%. It makes it easier to connect with your family or read or crack open a beer and binge watch Westworld. Because you know you earned it.

How to Start Working Harder

Let’s assume you buy into this premise. How do you practically learn to do this?

1. Decide to start working harder.

The first step is simply to resolve to do it. Make a decision to show up on Monday and bring a higher level of intensity and focus. Like any character trait you’re trying to develop, you can’t wish your way there. You have to make the decision.

2. Prepare for discomfort.

Understand that working like this is very much like starting a new workout routine. In the beginning, it will feel uncomfortable. That’s to be expected.

Anticipate this, and come up with a strategy for dealing with it in advance. Tell yourself “when I get frustrated and want to quit, I will _______.” Your blank could take many forms – a reminder of some goal that your new focus will help you achieve, a reward you’ll treat yourself to at the end of the day, etc.

3. Measure your effectiveness and level of focus.

It’s almost impossible to improve your physical strength without tracking your workouts. Tracking tells you when you really pushed it and when you went through the motions. It also can help you stay motivated when you hit plateaus.

I suggest doing the same here. You can start tracking your level of focus on a scale of 1-10. Or you could get fancier and track your time, evaluating what % was spent on meaningful work. Once you have a baseline, you can set yourself goals for improvement.

4. Give yourself grace.

You will screw up. Every day. One of the secrets to success in life is learning to live comfortably in the gap between who you want to be and who you currently are. When you mess up, don’t beat yourself up. Dust yourself off, gently resolve to do better tomorrow.

5. Find a mentor who knows what hard work looks like.

There are people around you who already know what this looks like. People whose families were immigrants often know. Athletes who competed at the college level often know. People who spent years playing an instrument often know.

Find these people. Take them to breakfast. Ask them everything you can about how they go about their days, what drives them. Try to identify common patterns you can apply. Consider going one step forward and enlisting them as your personal coach to hold you accountable.

6. Build in renewal routines.

When I say you want to work with intensity, that does not mean non-stop. That is a recipe for burnout. When you exercise, you have periods of intense concentration and rest, both in between sets during your workout and between workout days.

Do the same – every 90 minutes or so, create a ritual that can help you recharge. Get away from your desk. Talk to some coworkers. Go for a walk. Grab a cup of fancy coffee from your favorite spot. Take a 15-minute power nap.

While this sounds indulgent, if you do it as a reward for 90 minutes of hard work I guarantee your days will be orders of magnitude more productive, even with the breaks.

It’s also important to build in routines in the evenings and weekends that recharge you. My wife and I have found that TV or movies at night don’t give us more energy or life – they usually drain it. After a hard day, ending on a stressful note is not helpful. Our routines involve cooking (which we love), reading with our kids, stretching, spending time in prayer or meditation, taking a bath, enjoying each other’s company.

7. Order your tasks from most to least important.

For most people, their willpower dwindles throughout the day. A good practice is to spend the first 90-minute block working intensely on your most important task. Each morning (or the night before) ask yourself which thing on your list would make the most impact. If you got nothing else done today, what one thing would make you feel like the day was still a success?

8. Identify your unproductive triggers.

Most of us have developed bad habits over the years that prevent us from truly focusing at work. For many, this involves things like constantly checking email or jumping into Facebook, launching an Internet death spiral you emerge from 30 minutes later. For others, it’s a constant need to get up and walk around.

There’s usually a triggering event that initiates patterns like this. Work hard to identify the trigger, and develop a strategy for dealing with it. This could involve installing software that blocks specific websites, or that turns off Internet access entirely. It could be applying strategies from meditation, gently noticing yourself when you get distracted, recognizing it and returning your focus. It could be more extreme, having a rubber band on your wrist and snapping yourself when you get up and break your concentration.

These patterns are not facts of life – they are simply habits, and they can be broken.

9. Create a motivating positive triggering routine.

On the other side, you can deliberately design triggers to tell your brain to engage in your positive routines.

This could involve lighting a candle by your desk. Making a cup of tea. Putting on a specific Spotify channel. Having an inspiring YouTube video queued up. Viewing your overarching goals one more time and reminding yourself why you’re about to start working. Try different approaches and see what works.

10. Set quantifiable goals.

If you don’t know where you’re going it can be hard to drum up the motivation to do this. Set measurable goals so you can monitor how you’re doing. Progress can be motivating.

If you have a collaborative goal setting process with your boss, set stretch goals for yourself that you know will require hard work to achieve. If your company doesn’t set goals for you, don’t use it as an excuse – make them yourself.

11. Find an accountability partner or group.

Many people have experienced the wisdom of having a gym buddy or coach to hold them accountable. Do the same with your work.

Seek out people who you think these ideas would resonate with. Send them this article. Ask to start a group that checks in on each other each day or week. Report on your intensity level, again on a scale of 1-10. This doesn’t have to be formal – a simple group text thread is sufficient.

Start working harder today.

Work should not be your entire life. But for the time you spend at work, you should put everything you have into it. If you do, I’m convinced you’ll enjoy your job more. You’ll likely get promoted. You’ll develop a skill that will likely translate into other areas of your life. And I’m guessing you’ll find yourself surprisingly happier overall.

Popular Posts