Why do we focus so much on the quantity of work we do?

Quantity vs. Quality At Work

I write a lot about the whole notion of people who run around screaming about how busy they are all the time; here are a few samples:

I turned 35 over the weekend. (Yay.) I was able to spend it with my wife and four of my best friends at a cabin in western Massachusetts. It was a good time. On Sunday morning, this topic generally came up — and it was phrased in this way. What if, instead of valuing how busy we are and the quantity of things on our plate, we had a work/social culture where we valued accomplishing important things, then leaving at a reasonable time to spend time with loved ones or pursue passions? Wouldn’t that be better, if utopia? (Some call this “The Essentialist Movement,” FYI.)

On the way home, on the shuttle bus from DFW to where our car was parked, I came across another article with similar ideas.


Call it the “Effort Trap:” it’s dangerously easy to feel as though a 10-hour day spent plowing through your inbox, or catching up on calls, was much more worthwhile than two hours spent in deep concentration on hard thinking, followed by a leisurely afternoon off. Yet any writer, designer or web developer will tell you it’s the two focused hours that pay most—both in terms of money and fulfillment. (In Mason Currey’s 2013 book Daily Rituals, a compendium of artists’ and authors’ work routines, almost nobody reports spending more than four or five hours a day on their primary creative tasks.) Indeed, meaningful work doesn’t always lead to exhaustion at all: a few hours of absorption in it can be actively energizing—so if you’re judging your output by your tiredness, you’re sure to be misled.

So here’s essentially what we’re discussing: people often confuse the idea of “being busy” with “being relevant or important,” and so they chase “busy.” (See that link above about being busy akin to being a drug.)

This is where it begins to fall apart, though: “busy” isn’t the same thing as “productive” — so if you’re running around being busy, you’re not necessarily accomplishing goals, which is the actual point of life/work in some respects — and “busy” often doesn’t even mean “relevant” to the people that can advance your career. Most people get promoted, or get higher salaries, because of their connections to the pre-existing top people or their connections to the revenue stream. It has almost nothing to do — at most places — with how busy you can present yourself as; if you’re not throwing out monetary metrics alongside that or networking with the right people, it won’t matter.

There’s documented science on being a better leader: Priorities, Who, and Relationships. All those things involve people and goals and priorities and quality work, not rushing from task-to-task. Multitasking is essentially a myth. It’s not supported by any type of brain science. And yet, many of us wear it as a badge of honor.

Here’s another section from that 99U article:

In America and northern Europe, the roots of the Effort Trap may well lie in the “Protestant work ethic,” the old Calvinist idea that being a hard worker was evidence that you’d been pre-selected for Heaven. To reach creativity heaven, though, you’ll need a different approach—one that prioritizes doing the right things, not just lots of things.

Yep. Work-is-virtue bullshit.

Here’s the true situation that most of us face: every day, we go and grind on deliverables/tasks/projects for an employer, often without context or long-term thinking — the idea of ‘deliverables’ essentially murdered strategy — and in return, we get a paycheck (good) but often a soul-draining experience (bad) with very little purpose (bad). We’re supposed to work hard because working hard is virtuous and that’s what our parents and grandparents did, but they had an outcome from it: you saw the big house or the nice vacations or the multiple kids, right? Most of us have a savings rate of negative 1.8 percent. It’s a different picture. The money isn’t there. I casually looked at a few jobs on LinkedIn a while back, and one was listed for “Senior Marketing Manager.” What would you assume that makes? 80K? 90K? The listed salary was $49,000. If your grandfather is still alive, go tell him that. He’d be surprised.

The game is rigged for the pre-existing executives right now, and many of us think the way we escape it is by running around talking about how hard we work, and how much we’ve checked off, etc. In reality, that’s not even close to true. It’s about finding purpose and passion around what matters to you — and right there, you have the bulk of the psychology behind “the sharing economy.”


Ted Bauer

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