How hard should you work?

Drive your car as fast and hard as it can, on the regular. That’s going to be hard on the car and make it age faster. From “slightly used” to “whoa, you’re used up” kind of car. There’s a saying, I’ll going to drive this car until I run it to the ground. That’s what I did with my first car.

Except I didn’t redline it. I took the already-used Infiniti G20, and drove it for 12 years.

Drive your car like a crazy person, and that car is going to break down. Because of friction and heat and the higher possibility of crashing.

Don’t drive your car, and it collects dust. What’s the point of having a sports car if it’s a garage queen?

I couldn’t work my used car too hard if it was going to last any reasonable amount of time. I knew where the car struggled (over 65 mph) and how much I could get out of it.

Thinking about how I drove my car (RIP OSCAR) provided mental model to evaluate the question – how hard should one work in life?

If my mind is my vehicle, how hard should I work it? How can I direct my mind to work efficiently and effectively? And perhaps consider – when should I stop working hard?

The equation for mechanical power is: Power = Work ÷ Time.

In other words, Work = Power x Time.

Power and time are the levers of work we can play with.


I’m going to get unscientific and use energy and effort interchangeably with power for this discussion.

The first time I did sprints, I damn near threw up on the side of the bleachers. It was an onslaught of gravity versus my body.

With all other things being equal, the more energy you use up, the harder you’ve worked.

The capacity for power can go up or down.

As my body got used to track life, I got better at not throwing up. (Different story if I tried to sprint 400 meters today).

The first time you try something new usually requires more energy than the 4th or 5th time. That includes good habits like dieting and bad habits like doom-scrolling social media.

The magic thing about habits is that they require much less brain power to execute work.


The first run I went on with the cross country team felt like eternity. I ran for hours around the sleepy suburbs of San Gabriel Valley. I didn’t feel imminent death like I did with my first time doing sprints, but it did feel like a slow death.

Long distance runners go at a low-to-medium power for a longer period of time. It’s a different type of work.

If you usually work 8 hour days, then working 11 hours one day would feel like harder work in comparison.

Here we can compare different types of work according to different inputs of power and time.

Long TimeLess Time
High PowerMadness or Magic*Sprint
Low PowerCoastMaintenance or Magic*

Each quadrant, expressed in terms of work life:

  • High Power, Long Time: The people who are on 24/7. Workaholics or those fighting to survive. *OR: Gary V style of productivity. Can’t stop, won’t stop.
  • High Power, Less Time: Sprints that balance big, intense projects with seasonal breaks. The agency life or being a tax accountant.
  • Low Power, Long Time: The cushy bureaucratic job with solid work-life balance.
  • Low Power, Less Time: Easy jobs, retirement or side hustles like the occasional Uber ride. OR the investor who makes a couple trades and makes millions.

I added Magic* to the extreme quadrants because I believe there are unique people who’ve maximized their talents and smarts to operate at a work capacity that looks like magic to the rest of us.

There truly are wizards who work 4-hour workweeks and live on the beach…and energizer bunnies like Gary V who seem to have no limit to their work capacity.

One point I want to make in analyzing work from this angle is to divorce the idea of morality from work.

Just because someone works a lot of hours, or doesn’t seem to work “hard,” doesn’t mean we should pass judgment on who they are.

Making this fancy quadrant only gave me more questions. It doesn’t yet answer more specific questions, like: What should I work at? How do I pick what to work hard at? And the biggest one…

What is the point of work?

I can work extremely hard at becoming a champion seaweed eater, and no one will give a damn. I’ll just end up with an upset stomach and green poops.

You can work extremely hard at something and it doesn’t matter.

What’s missing in the work equation is the idea of an outcome.

Unless we account for hobbies that are intrinsically rewarding (I’m looking at you, crotchet-masters), having goals help us derive meaning from work.

A sobering thing to consider is that sometimes, people find that they have no choice but to work.

Enter Maslov’s hierarchy. If you’re struggling to find shelter or food, you’ll be heavily incentivized to work hard to protect yourself, survive, and avoid certain death.

As one move’s up Maslov’s hierarchy, the pickier we can be with our goals. If I’m no longer concerned about food and shelter, then maybe I’ll work hard to to pursue higher-level goals like gambling with cryptocurrency. Just kidding, but not really.

Maslov’s hierarchy offers a diagnosis of our needs, and points to areas where we might consider working harder to reach or exceed those needs.

After reaching a few rungs up on Maslov’s ladder, we can upgrade our problems. The Ikigai model further helps define the question what we should expend effort on.

How To Find Your Ikigai And Transform Your Outlook On Life And Business

I also want to note that people are also incentivized to work harder when there is a transition point. A big change. Transitioning from unemployed to no job, from middle class to wealthy, from single to relationship. There’s an incentive to do better, and a clear motivation to work harder in that specific arena.

Not all work is created equal

If you’ve ever switched jobs, you might have noticed a curious phenomenon: it’s easier to get paid more switching to a new job than it is to ask for a raise at a current job. (Just check out this Hacker News thread).

And something even more curious: the new, higher-paying job might even be easier than your last job.

Meaning, you could work equally as hard and make more money. Is there anything wrong with that? Probably not—we can also make the argument that a previous job undervalued us.

That’s why I roll my eyes when I hear hard-work maxims like you can sleep when you’re dead. Um, no MF. If you don’t sleep, you’ll die.

We can begin to further segregate “hard work” from morality if we consider that the benefits derived from work are also a function of environment (change jobs for higher pay), meaning (a company mission you care about) or some other value (intrinsic pleasure).

But that’s a lens that looks at wealth as a function of work.

So… how hard should you work?

I find that there’s 3 typical response to the idea of working hard. I’m going to fuck with all of them:

You should only work as hard as you need to

This is a good fit value leisure. However, this response isn’t that informative to someone who isn’t retired yet, and want to direct their motivations to make progress in their life.

Always work your hardest and give things your 100% best

Hello Gary Vees of the world. While I admire good work ethic, I’ve already made a case that I don’t like the idea of blind hard work. It’s possible to choose the wrong things to work on. There are plenty of ways to waste time.

Work smarter, not harder

This gets closer to something that feels more true. I’m sure we would all like to make more money with less effort, or not had to work so hard at everything. One of the idea I love is the 80/20 rule. What are the 20% of inputs that give 80% of the outputs? What are the big levers to move that’ll make a difference in your project, relationship or health?

“It doesn’t get easier. You just get better”

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