The Effort Trap

Socialization has led us to believe that tired feeling as you sink gratefully into that bus seat at the end of a long day at the office signals a job well done. But it may simply signal energy lost — most likely frittered away — on busywork.

We chronically confuse the feeling of effort with the reality of results —and for anyone working in a creative field, that means the constant risk of frittering time and energy on busywork, instead of the work that counts.

This is the “Effort Trap:” the cultural bias that the harder you work at something, the more valuable it is.

However, results are what matters – especially to clients. It’s a much more rewarding and meaningful to focus on the things you’re producing, not just the way in which you produce them. Sure, journey matters somewhat, but increasingly we’re living in a world where success isn’t defined by effort and participation, but instead by outcomes and results.

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. 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.

The well-known advice to do the most important tasks first in the day is probably still the best; that way, even if you do lapse into busywork, you won’t be wasting your best energies on it. And if your work situation permits it, experiment with radically limiting your working hours: The added constraint tends to push the most vital work to center-stage.

It will take a lot of work to stop thinking about work in terms of effort expended. But, if we can, the sense of reward we will reap will be even greater.

Summing-up: Remember that tiring yourself out—or scheduling every minute of your day with work—isn’t a reliable indicator of a day well spent. Results are what matters.

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