Over the weekend I had the opportunity to talk with a good friend of mine, and one of the topics we discussed was the disparity between the amount of work someone has put toward a project and the amount that has actually been accomplished. I’ve certainly been caught in the trap of conflating the two, and our conversation was a good springboard for me to write a bit about how I see the nature of “getting things done.”

There are days when it feels like I have worked and worked and worked, but ultimately didn’t accomplish much of lasting value. Perhaps that’s because the tasks on my plate were reoccurring or they just took a long time. In the IT field, a lot of our work role is invisible to the end user, and we put a lot of hours into making sure they don’t know that we’ve been keeping their network up to date. In many cases, we have to go out of our way to remind them of the value of our service, because they don’t see it in front of them. Similarly, if I tell my wife that I spent all day “working on the house” and she can’t see any meaningful change in our environs, she’s going to question just what I did exactly, and how hard I actually worked.

It’s easy to say “I spent X hours on task Y, therefore I was being productive.” The problem with that statement is it completely ignores the ideas of efficiency and the relative value of task Y. When I directly managed employees, I had a simplistic expectation that I reiterated quite frequently: “I expect 40 hours’ worth of work from you each week. If it only takes you 30 hours, great. If it takes you 50 hours, we need to have a talk.” That’s not to say that I expected every minute of each day to be filled with productivity—I know mine sure isn’t—but that I have an expectation that there will be X results in a given work week, and largely I don’t particularly mind how long it takes to reach those results. If someone can do it more quickly, I’m not going to punish them by adding more work to their plate (that’s insanely counter-productive, as studies and my own work experience shows). If someone has to spend a great deal of extra time trying to reach that goal, that speaks to either a process or efficiency problem that needs to be addressed before the employee burns out.

If a task on my plate is to prepare lunch for the day, ultimately it doesn’t matter to the completion of the task if it takes me 10 minutes or an hour to get to the same result; all that is affected is my stress level and amount of free time available for other tasks. I know many people who work very hard, exceedingly hard, on tasks that don’t necessarily benefit from extra effort. Taking two+ hours to cook dinner may be a very nice thing to do for a special occasion, but it shouldn’t be an every-day schedule; it’s just not sustainable. If someone is harried and always “out of time,” I believe it’s important to look at where processes can be simplified or streamlined.

Some tasks by their very nature take a long time; it is largely impossible to get a college degree in two weeks, for example. When I talk about conflating hard work and accomplishment, I don’t mean the overarching goals and plans that take weeks or months to get done—instead I mean the daily or weekly activities that seem to bog down one’s day.

Reflecting on this post, ultimately I don’t think I’ve communicated my point very well and I think I’ll wrap it up. Does the end product’s quality depend on the amount of time or energy spent in accomplishing it? Perhaps to a degree, and that degree changes depending on the project. I’ve spent a not insignificant amount of time trying to reword and rework this post to get my point across, but does the amount of time I spent ultimately matter to the end result? Not really. This post would have the same impact on readers if I had finished it in one fell swoop rather than a longer process of starts and stops.

The main takeaway I’m hoping to convey is for people to look at their own lives and figure out where they’re spending extra time, extra stress, working hard in areas that doesn’t actually help them move forward. An omelet for one person shouldn’t take over an hour to prepare, in my opinion. Is it really necessary to check one’s personal email ten, twenty times a day? Probably not.

Getting out of a “working hard = being productive” mindset can be very difficult, and the suggestions that one doesn’t necessarily mean the other can often be taken as personal attacks or critiques of one’s ability or effort; many people directly associate their work output with their sense of value as a person (or at least as a worker), and I think it’s important to separate those ideas. Obviously it’s easier to say than to do, but if one can recognize that they’re spending 80% of their time on the last 20% of a project, it may bear investigating whether that last 20% is really worth the disproportionate amount of effort.

A lumberjack who can fell a tree in 10 minutes isn’t necessarily working harder than one who could fell the same tree in 25. Whether through natural ability, experience, or process, the former just happens to be faster. That in and of itself doesn’t make a value judgment on the worth or quality of the second lumberjack, rather that perhaps there’s something to be learned from the first that hadn’t yet been passed on to the second.

Again, I think I’m going off-topic and will end the post here. The long and short of my point is that I think sometimes it’s necessary to take a step back and look more objectively at the things that we do, and whether we really need to spend the amount of time we do trying to get them done. I know America has a very strong “hard work = success” undercurrent, but just because you’re working hard doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting far.