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Why you're working hard but seeing no results.

Updated: Nov 18, 2023

This post is related to the fidc pillar: Intentionality. It’s not just about how “hard” you work, you have to make sure you’re working on the right things, in the right way.

In this blog post, we’re exploring the idea of hard work and how it relates to above-average performance. In the productivity world “hard work” is credited as one of the main factors in the successful outcomes we are striving for. We say “talent + hard work results in success” but what actually constitutes as hard work? Is it just working for more hours during the day? Is it increasing the number of times you do something? Hard work is a term we take for granted. Dan Chambliss, Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College, says “Simply increasing the number of hours one works each day will not produce a major change in status if the kind of work done remains the same”. Sorry to break it to you folks but our standard idea of “hard work” is not sufficient to consistently and reliably hit our goals. How then should we think about hard work and how do we practically ensure we are working hard in the right way and thereby maximizing our chances at success? Read on to find out!

What hard work isn’t

Hard work is not just increasing the amount we do the same things. E.g. it isn’t just increasing the amount of time you study from 2 hours to 4 hours or increasing the number of books you read for your exam. Simply doing more of the same will not lead to moving up the levels of performance. Excellence isn’t just a result of working harder at the same thing.

How do we know this is true. As an example, take the gap between top performers and average performers in a class, is this gap fully explained just by the amount of work they do? The person at the top of the class doesn’t study disproportionately more than the average person in the class. In some cases, the person at the top may even be spending less time studying than those in the middle (if they’re really efficient), why? Because they may actually just be using more effective study methods like active recall and spaced repetition. They are changing what they do not just doing more of the same thing.

Now increasing the amount you do something does make a difference but it only really helps you get good at being at that level. For example, if I’m learning the piano and I increase the number of pieces I’m playing but they are all the same beginner difficulty level then all I’m doing is getting really good at playing beginner level piano pieces. If I want to play at the intermediate level, there are different patterns and techniques that I have to adopt to be effective.

Crucially, you should be beginning to see that hard work then is also a concept deeply tied to our individual goals. You need to know what outcome you desire and only then do you know if you’re actually working hard. Back to our piano example if I want to become a very good beginner piano player and I don’t care to advance beyond that then practicing many beginner-level pieces is a solid strategy but if I want to be able to dazzle people at parties with my ability to play popular songs (that are often more technical) then I’m going to need a different strategy.

Let’s even take this one step further, simply “working harder” at the same thing is actually quite lazy because you haven’t taken the time to evaluate what really will move the needle. It’s easy to just work as hard as you can at whatever is in front of you. It’s harder to create a strategy that identifies exactly what is required to take you to the next level and then execute on this strategy.

We are not saying that hard work doesn’t involve putting in the hours, it certainly does ask anyone who has ever mastered a craft, but hard work does involve asking where those hours are going and not just blindly putting them into whatever is in front of you. Let’s go into more depth on what actually counts as hard work.

What hard work is

To move towards excellence and attain your goals you have to work hard. However, hard work is changing the actual contents of what you do to match the level at which you aspire to be. To quote Dan Chambliss again “Olympic champions don’t just do more of the same things that summer-league country-club swimmers do. They don’t just swim more hours, move their arms faster, or attend more workouts. What they do in those workouts is different.” To get to the next level you’re going to have to be different. You’re going to have to start doing the things people at that level do because that’s how progression actually happens.

The mistake we often make is to think that the levels in our field/craft/domain are on a linear scale and they just continue on one after the other instead of thinking about them more as distinct, separate worlds of their own that have their own requirements. Take, for example, career progression in the corporate world. A mistake people often make is thinking that if they get very good at their current role then they’ll get promoted into the next role up. What smart people quickly come to realise is that at a certain level being good at your role is no longer enough to get promoted to the next level because that new level has different skill, conduct and attitude requirements that your current role does not exercise. In the corporate world, this is often improving your leadership, management and delegation skills. So to progress, you have to find ways to practice and strengthen your leadership skills and, as with any skill, improving your leadership skills will take time and disciplined practice before it becomes natural. To be short, hard work requires a strategy and a mindset of continuous improvement.

As we mentioned before hard work is deeply tied to your end goal. If you want to progress into a new role within your company, then you need to understand what you’ll need to get from where you are now to where you want to be. This will require you to not just do more of the same things but actually improve the quality of what it is you do. There are three areas we can use to break down what kinds of improvements we need to make to get to the next level. These areas are skills, habits and attitudes:

Skills. At higher levels of performance, you’ll find that people with more experience perform tasks differently. They have a wider variety of tools in their toolbox and there are certain skill sets they possess that are pivotal to their superior levels of performance. E.g. the student at the top of the class understands how to implement an active recall learning strategy. Skill also includes the techniques and processes you are using to complete your task, to get to a new level you need to look at how you are improving these too.

Habits. Experts in their craft have developed many disciplines and habits that separate them from people at other levels. They have the discipline to do these things consistently. They do things in the right way, when they’re supposed to it and they hold themselves to a higher standard. E.g. the student at the top of the class starts implementing their active recall strategy from the beginning of the year and remains consistent all the way through to the final exam, come rain or shine. You’ll never see this student cramming or doing 12-hour all-nighters but you will find average students doing this.

Attitudes. The top performers in their field adopt mindsets that push them to not only continuously improve but to enjoy the process. They enjoy the hard practices, look forward to difficult competitions and try to set challenging goals. To move to the next level you have to understand and adopt the mindset of those who are already thriving at that level. E.g. our student at the top of the class is always challenging themselves to recall more and more obscure parts of their course and construct more and more complex arguments

At the end of the day there is only so much you can increase the amount you do, time is limited and our bodies fatigue, but if we also focus on WHAT we’re doing then we can do more with less which is the true meaning of productivity.

Practical Breakdown: How can I use my Digital Life Planner to “work hard”

As we’ve seen hard work requires you to focus on improving the quality of whatever it is you're doing to match the required standard of the level you want to be at.

Take any area of focus in your life where you're trying to reach a different level. You need to identify what new skills, habits, attitudes and contacts you’ll need to get to the next level. To practically do this we recommend using Notion’s Kanban board feature. You can use this to plan out the stages you’ll need to go through to reach the desired level that is aligned with your goals.

Let’s say our focus area is “Becoming a competent piano player”:

The key is we’re aren’t just going to increase the hours of practicing the piano blindly but we will actually think about the most effective way to spend our time to ensure we are doing the things that will take us to our target level.

As another example let's say our area of focus is “Progressing to the next level in my finance career”:

An important note on the importance of contacts

Coming up with your strategy is not a solo exercise, in fact, we'd advise against trying to do this by yourself. You won't know everything that is required at a particular level because you aren’t there yet but luckily for you, there are people that are. At the very minimum do a quick google search on “How to become a better [INSERT YOUR GOAL]” or “How to get to X level in Y field”, you’ll find many experts have kindly shared their lessons and advice in blog or video form on how to do exactly what you want to do.

One step better is to reach out to people in your network or on platforms such as LinkedIn who are already at that level and ask them directly what skills, habits and attitudes are necessary to do what they do. If you are reaching out to someone you don’t know please don’t feel entitled to a response and do try to establish a rapport with the person prior if possible.

Parting messages

Don’t leave things to chance. If you want to get to the next level have a strategy and identify what you need to do to get there. Be intentional about your progress.

Thoughts heavily influenced by Dan Chambliss’ study “The Mundanity of Excellence”. Check out the full paper here.

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