Posted by: jsonmez | April 7, 2013

Bad Advice: “Stop Working So Hard”

I’ve been seeing quite a few posts on Hacker News lately about why you should not work too hard and even saying you should work less than 35 hours a week.

(Now, don’t get me wrong.  I think the authors of these articles are awesome people who have accomplished huge things.  I don’t mean to disrespect anyone of these great entrepreneurs.  I just think some of them have confused where they are now, with how they got there.)

Would we ever want to live in a world where working harder didn’t amount to anything more, but rather ended up returning you less?

I know plenty of people who work less than 35 hours a week, and I wouldn’t say they are doing the best work of their life.

Homeless man on the street

In contrast, I know plenty of people who are working 50 to 60 hours per week and they are doing some amazing things.

You have to work hard now to reap the benefits later

At the beginning of every episode of Pat Flynn’s podcast he says

“Welcome to the smart passive income podcast where it’s all about working hard now so you can sit back and reap the benefits later.”

There is no way around this.  It is the principal of sowing and reaping at work.

While many well intentioned bloggers have urged you to not put in those extra hours at night, but rather to take time to do what you want and live a life outside of your work, they have forgotten the very path they took to get to where they are today.

If you are in that season of your life, then please take their advice.  They are 100% right.  There is this point of diminishing returns where you don’t gain much more benefit by spinning the wheel harder.

Ever rode a bike down hill really fast?


You know how at first you can start pedaling and it will actually make you go down the hill faster, but at some point the pedals just start spinning themselves?

You reach that point where you can’t actually move your legs fast enough to make much of a difference.  Every couple of seconds, your foot will hit that tiny bit of resistance which tells you that you actually did something, but most of the time you are just spinning your loose pedals, not actually adding any speed.

It’s a pretty good feeling zooming down that hill with minimal effort on your part.  There is no need to pedal furiously like you did to get up the hill.  If you are pedaling furiously at that point, not only are you wasting your effort, but you are missing out on taking time to enjoy the best part of the ride.

You have to climb the hill before you can sail down it

When riding a bicycle, there is only one way to reach a point where you can sail down a hill effortlessly—you have to climb up a hill first.bikeup

Altitude change down, requires previous altitude change up.  No way around it.

Pedaling a bike up a hill is hard work.

Not only do you have to keep working to move the bike up the hill, but every time you stop pedaling, you run the risk of rolling backwards.

The faster you want to get up the hill, the harder you have to pedal and the more you risk tiring out and rolling down the hill.

There is no rest, there are no breaks when pedaling up the hill.  The best you can do is get off the bike for a while and walk it up the hill, but that will surely slow you down.

And so it is with life in general.

My personal hill

I’d like to buy into the story that we can just take it easy and good things will come, but the reality of the situation is that you’ve got to put in work first—hard work.

I started buying real estate when I was 18 years old.  I bought my first house, which is a rental I still have today.

Since then, I’ve been buying properties at a rate of about 1 every couple of years.

It hasn’t been easy.  Huge sacrifices to be able to do it, but from when I started I knew that I was pedaling my bike up the hill.

I also had been working as a developer full time for about the past 15 years.  During that time, I was working nights and weekends to handle my real estate, building apps, and most recently creating online courses for Pluralsight.

Only at the beginning of this year was I able to finally quit my regular job working for someone else and start working completely for myself.

It took a lot of extra hours on nights and weekends, week after week for over 2 years to get there.

Just within the last year have all the real estate investments that I have been making for the last 15 years started to actually put some money in my pocket.

I’m still at the point where I am working 60 hour weeks just about every week.  I am still climbing up the hill.

But, the good news is I can see the crest and I know that if I keep pushing down on those pedals, I’ll reach the peak from where I can coast down.

My advice

Don’t buy into the idea that there is someway to get around hard work.

Stop running away from hard work and start embracing it.  I’ve learned from experience that it takes much more effort overall to avoid hard work than it does to do it, and avoiding hard work engenders no benefits long term or short.

Make the right sacrifices.

Don’t sacrifice your marriage or family in order to get ahead.  In the end, it will put you behind.  Remember, there is no more costly pursuit than divorce.

Make time to be with your spouse, set aside time to play with the kids every day, if you have them.  Take a day off to have a family day.

Instead, sacrifice from this list:

  • Watching TV
  • Hanging out with friends
  • Playing games
  • Goofing around
  • Browsing the web

Yeah, it might suck for awhile, but if you want to climb that hill now, so that you can cruise down it later, you are going to have to make some sacrifices.

Don’t waste your time.

Here is a list of things I don’t do:

  • Cut my own lawn
  • Wash my car
  • Clean my house
  • Any kind of home improvement work

Mowing lawn


I pay for these things and instead spend that time—not sitting on the couch watching TV—but working hard at what I do best.  Working at doing things that will generate me more money than it will cost me to pay someone else to do the other things I mentioned in this list.

I use a service called Fancy Hands to handle many of the time consuming tasks I can delegate out.  I have saved tons of time and money by using that service. (Disclosure: that link is my referral link to that site.)

Every time I am doing something, I ask myself if I should be paying someone else to do this.  And if your time is escaping you completely, start tracking it.

Lighten your load.

Want to make it easier to pedal a bike up a hill?

Good, all you have to do is carry less stuff with you.

This means, get your expenses down.  Start being smart with your money.

Pay off debts, don’t go into debt.  Don’t be pennywise and pound foolish, but at the same time learn to live on less.

If you learn to live on 2k a month, guess how much you need to live?  That’s right 2k.

If you have saddled yourself with debt and expenses that make it so you need 10k a month to live, you are going to have to pedal a lot harder… just saying.

(If you want to read a good book that helps you learn this mindset, read Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert T. Kiyosaki.)

It all comes down to this

Be willing to work hard now in order to have a better, more relaxed tomorrow.

Don’t try to take shortcuts or get rich quick, those roads lead to disaster and wasted time.

Instead, if you are working a full time job now for someone else, give yourself 10 hours a week of “your time,” where you work for yourself.

Put in the time now to build that business on the side.  Make that sacrifice for 2 years or 5 years or however long it takes to get your bike pushed up that hill.

Don’t give up, don’t be afraid to work hard, and don’t be sucked in by any preacher that preaches a fast way to riches and leisure by doing less.

Remember, those who show up everyday eventually beat out both the faster and the smarter.

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  1. Nice post, I feel quite inspired now, thanks.

  2. Thanks you so much for such great post. It made few things clear for me now regards putting hard efforts into my work.

    • Your welcome.

  3. I think it depends what kind of work you do and who you do it for. It also depends on the individual. In my experience, when working on intellectually or creatively demanding projects, not necessarily computing projects, overworking leads to diminished results. I make use of my subconscious, if I take a proper break and think about something completely different, or even sleep on a problem, I often find the solution is typically ready-made for me when I return to the task. In this way I can keep my brain working more-or-less 24/7 with little conscious effort. In this way I often do more useful work than people who work for much longer hours, or so I am told. Fatigue leads to time-wasting errors and those who hammer away often fail to think in depth. I see many bang against walls relentlessly, when a little rest and clarity of thought reveals an open door. I also think that those who work very long hours are either less productive than they could be or are perhaps compensating for some sort of incompetence. I also work harder when I work for myself. I can work on my own projects for very long hours without feeling tired or bored, and my productivity remains high; thus being relaxed and intellectually entertained enables me to work for longer. This work is like play and is therapeutic for me. I also, perhaps for the same reason, work much harder at home. In open-plan communal offices my productivity falls drastically. However, I can not work so well when I work for other people, doing work set for me by others, which I often find more-or-less tedious. perhaps my experiences are unusual, since I tend to work on very challenging projects, often research-based and often novel. This work includes coding, but I also do a lot of other technical stuff, so maybe full-time software developers have a different experience to the one I have outlined. Perhaps it depends whether one is working on ‘routine’ or entirely novel problems.

    • Good points. I agree that context is important.

  4. As for getting rich, quick or otherwise, I have no desire to achieve such. Money is a poor motivator for me.

    • For me it is about being financially independent enough to do what I want with my time.

  5. This hits home. Now unemployed, probably due to the past 14 years I did as I was told helping my boss first, and myself, a secondary second. I left over 475 sick hours in the ‘bank’ upon my position being eliminated and since I did not accept the relocation package. I did not realize I should have been working on building: 1) my resume, 2) my transferable skills, and 3) my network. Now I need to adopt this work hard, balls-out approach that you outline here, which is considered type A in my type B household. I find it challenging to keep up with all the Pluralsight courses that I have on my list to take while at the same time studying towards learning Java towards the minimal Oracle Associate level so I can be hire-able. I am half way through my professional work career and find myself focused on only two things: Java and Jesus.

  6. I’m in complete agreement with this sentiment. For a number of years, I spent my “me time” getting a MS degree in Computer Science while working full time. Once I graduated, instead of taking my feet off the pedals, I plowed the time I had been spending on my degree into starting a blog and LLC, moonlighting, and picking up additional skills and knowledge.

    It’s been a slow process requiring constant effort and dedication on nights when I’d probably rather just flip on the TV and space out, but it’s starting to pay dividends in the form of passive income, unexpected opportunities, and general networking. I have no intention of stopping now, preferring instead to keep pedaling until I get to the point where I have complete autonomy when it comes to income and meeting my expenses.

    Great post — I couldn’t agree more.

  7. The problem with this position is that all scientific testing and empirical data suggests that you’re wrong. The 40 hour work week arose from hundreds of workplace studies that demonstrated that as humans we have limited mental capital to devote to tasks before we deplete it.

    They clearly demonstrated that 60 hour work weeks produced worse results than 40h work weeks over time, and that after that mark you end up actually doing more harm than any gains.

    Some people are exceptions, but it’s important to recognize that those people are outliers, and just because it worked for them, does not mean that it’s the optimal course or even that it was the most optimal course in their case!
    ( it’s likely going by the data that if they did crank it back a bit, they could do even better).

    I think it’s dangerous to buy into this kind of superhuman mythos of the 60+ hour work week to build anything. It teaches a bad lesson to new entrepreneurs that has no empirical backing.

    The thought that more work does not mean more results is inherently counter intuitive to most people. But like most things in reality, the key to success is in moderation and “sweet spots” not in extremes. Or as the adage goes, the difference between medicine and poison is the dosage.

    • You have some valid points for sure. I definitely agree with you that working over 40+ hours at your day to day job is likely to not give a benefit and that studies have been done that show it is less effective.

      My main point is that after those 40 your work for your employer, you need to put in more if you want to build something for yourself.

      And as a self employed person trying to start a business, you will have to put in more than 40 hours to be successful, it is just reality.

      • I don’t necessarily disagree with the core of what you’re trying to say, but I think the context matters a great deal(as people said above).

        What you’re trying to get at(correct me if I’m wrong), is that in a small company you’re required to put in a lot of time because if you don’t, no one else will.
        So you’re making a known trade-off that in order to work long hours, you will degrade the quality of your work, because if you don’t fulfill minimum obligations, you won’t succeed.

        Ex. If you’re getting those first customers, and they call up seeking help, you can’t just tell them you’re not available because you already “went home” so to speak. You need the momentum from acquiring them so its a worthwhile sacrifice to keep them until you can afford to be less available(or hire someone to be).

        I don’t disagree that its a necessary evil to do those kinds of things in *most* startups. Where I do disagree though is the thought that its actually necessary(in the sense that its something we should shrive for). To me, this is a symptom of the bad planning most startups have, and not a required facet of success.

        I think that if you have proper planning from the get go, that those hellish days are not needed, and you can afford to work at your prime potential(by working “less” to take advantage of your peak mental capabilities and maximize moments of insight).

        Granted, I’m not delusional, I know most startups are started by inexperienced(or least less experienced) people who operate on shoe-string budgets just trying to get anything out the door at all. But again, I see that as a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself(poor planning).

        As a founder/project manager type for a long time work habits have always been really interesting to me, since I’m always looking at ways to maximize my and other peoples productivity.

        On top of the whole 35~ hour thing, one interesting thing the data shows is that people get the vast majority of their best work done in the first 2-3 hours of a work-day.

        For a project I started a year ago I took that principle and tried to see how far I could stretch it. We started with a 10 hour work-week, the idea being to work as little as possible well meeting the minimum goals we set for ourselves. The rules were simple, we set a work week and you only worked until that threshold, if you didn’t complete your task, just go relax, think about it, come back next week.
        After about a year we ended up with a work-week adjusted to around 16 hours. Granted we’re only a single data point, but 16 hours per week to do the same work load I’d normally alot 35-40 to, to me is very telling about how bad our planning and management structure is in typical startups(through no fault of their own really).

        I did choose a project suited to this(entertainment, so there was no need to press a first mover advantage). But at the very least it showed me there is a lot of room to optimize work habits.

        So I don’t buy into the hard-work mythos, we’re engineers at heart, if something clearly is wrong, we should strike to invent a better way.

        • I agree with you. I always think whenever I need to get any work done: Is there a better way? i.e. You should work smarter not harder.

  8. […] Bad Advice: “Stop Working So Hard” (John Sonmez) […]

  9. […] Maximum weekly working hours and opting out Work Life Balance Bad advice: stop working so hard […]

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