For most of my adult life, anytime I set myself a target or wanted to grow my business, I threw hours at the problem. I figured if I worked hard enough and long enough that anything I wanted to do would get done.
And to some extent I was right. There is a positive correlation (albeit one that gets looser under investigation) between hours and output. But it took a phone call with a friend and fellow entrepreneur to illuminate the industrial-era fallacy behind "working harder".
More often than not, we don't need to work harder and more, but smarter and less.
Now, many of us can probably recall times when we have been grinding out work and burning the candle at both ends and running on fumes and [insert-hard-work-metaphor-here], because we think we have to, or our work culture dictates that we do, or we don't know another way.
But the thing is, that hours-for-output mentality doesn't make sense anymore. Sure, in the industrial era there was a direct and necessary relationship between the number of hours input and the number of widgets produced. If you wanted to make more things, you had to put in more hours to make those things.
And we got so used to trading hours for output that even when our economy evolved, our way of working stayed the same. We tried to pretend that what served us in the 1800s would continue to serve us now. But it doesn't.
Many of us are not in the business of making actual things. Most of us operate in a service-based or knowledge-based environment, but we still cling to old ways of working that are actively counterproductive and a colossal waste of time and effort. And even those of us who do make things do so under vastly different conditions to what existed in the Industrial Age.
For example, "face time" in the office tells us we "should" arrive at a certain time and "should" leave at a certain time, regardless of how productive we are in between. Most people (I would venture to guess) end up padding their day with coffee breaks, chit-chat, scrolling through social media, busy work, whatever they need to do to be visible for long enough until the boss goes home. What a wasteful charade.
Or those 100-hour weeks that are the expected norm in a lot of companies? They're often counterproductive and dangerous. There are measurable and diminishing returns to working that long for any sustained period. Our minds simply can not and will not function optimally without rest, and our performance will suffer and accidents will happen.
And yet we continue to think we need to do more, more, more, more and work longer, longer, longer, longer to achieve.
But what if instead, we worked less? What if we chose to prize working smarter over working harder?
In the 21st Century, in the service- and knowledge-based industries in which most of us operate, the industrial approach to work simply doesn't make sense. And to create sustainable businesses - that we can live long enough to sustain! - we need to escape our industrial era mindset.
I am not saying we should be lazy or slow, but that we are thoughtful about the work we do and that we question why we are doing what we are doing, and that we always ask ourselves if there is an easier, better, simpler way, or if we are just creating work to justify our salaries and assuage the industrialist lurking inside.
I don't know about you, but at some point every day I find myself feeling bad about where I'm not. It might just be that I have an over-developed sense of guilt (I mean I went to Catholic school for 13 years and come from a big Indian family, so the combo turns normal guilt trips into epic guilt pilgrimages) or it might just be that I always feel pulled in too many directions.
When I'm working, I worry that I'm not spending enough time nurturing my personal relationships and when I'm spending time with people I love, I worry that I should be doing something for my businesses and when I'm working diligently on my businesses, I worry that I'm not investing enough time on my health and fitness.
It's a no-win situation that can drive anyone crazy. And I remember clearly the day a few years ago when I was going down a spiral of "I should be here, no I should be there, no wait, I NEED to be way over there..." and a really wise friend - who is a successful, seemingly non-stressed business owner (who travels all the time for her business) AND is a mom of three - gave me the best advice I have gotten for my business and my life in general: Make a decision and then own it.
Now this little bit of advice might look obvious - and often the best advice is - but the profundity (now there's a big word for a Sunday morning!) lies precisely in its simplicity. And I can usually tell how profound advice is by how difficult it is for me to implement.
In this case, it's that much harder because there are two parts: 1) making the decision, and 2) owning it. I find that as I've practiced and gotten better at 1 (Get Good at Being Decisive), I've really needed to up my game when it comes to 2.
And damnnnnnnnnnnn, is it hard. Not because I abdicate responsibility for my decisions, but because with every decision I make, there is a trade-off, and in my heart of hearts I am an unrepentant maximalist so I hate that I can't have it all, be everywhere, do all the things, and be everything to everyone all at the same time.
Trade-offs suck, but the grown-up (and homo economicus... gosh, I am being really nerdy today!) in me knows that trade-offs are inescapable. And it's only with time and practice and catching myself that I've gotten better at accepting that truth and being truly present wherever I am instead of agonizing about where I'm not.
Because the thing is, once we make a decision, that should mean we have already considered the relevant facts beforehand. That should mean we have done our best to make the best decision with the circumstances we are given. And that should then mean that it is easier to own the decision - trade-offs and all - and move on.
So now, whenever I am traveling to grow my business or spending evenings giving talks or writing on the weekends, I TRY to be fully present and focus on delivering the best talk, having the best meeting, writing the best chapter I can, and leave everything else where it is. And then when I am with my family, I TRY to focus fully on them, on what we are doing in the moment, and leave my phone and all of the things on my never-ending to-accomplish list physically and mentally out of the way. It's not easy, but I try as best I can.
And I firmly believe (know!) that we are not compartmented people, despite what we tell ourselves, and we take everything with us wherever we go. But the key is not to let guilt come there with us too, because it will consume us AND the fun and success we could otherwise be experiencing if we hadn't invited guilt to the party.
I get it. Like I said, I struggle with this on a near-daily basis. And there are no hacks that I've uncovered other than practice. So, the next time you start wishing you were somewhere else or feel guilty about where you are not, remind yourself that you decided to be wherever you are and then practice owning that decision.
It will make being a grown-up, a boss, a business-owner, a leader, a parent, a partner, and a person that much easier AND will be a reminder that choice is a gift we shouldn't always spoil by wishing we had made a different one.