No matter their religion, creed, or ethnic background, nearly all Americans share a belief in at least one thing--the value of hard work. Blame our Puritan forebears, our striving immigrant roots, or something wacky in the water, but whatever cause you cite, the result is the same, most of us feel good when we work hard and a little ashamed when we kick back and relax.


Faith in hard work might be as American as apple pie, but it's also often misplaced. argues author Oliver Burkeman in a fascinating recent post on 99U that is absolutely worth a read in full. Our focus on hard work often comes at the cost of actually accomplishing something meaningful, at least if you work in a field that requires some creativity, he insists.

What's so great about hard work, anyway?

"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," Burkeman writes.

He goes on to cite a mountain of research that shows people tend to value hard work over results (we prefer a search engine that informs us it's "working hard" for us rather than one that gets good results more quickly, for instance). That's not just a weird brain quirk, Burkeman explains. It can profoundly warp how we approach our work, pushing us towards burnout and away from true accomplishment.

"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. Yet any writer, designer, or Web developer will tell you it's the two focused hours that pay most--both in terms of money and fulfillment," he warns.

And even if you don't personally fall prey to this cult of hard work, if you're an employee, your boss just may. The result has been termed "productivity theater," an effort by employees to perform busyness for the benefit of management rather than focusing on results.

The bottom line: Too many of us don't feel good about ourselves (or our teams) unless we exhaust ourselves with long hours--to the detriment of our actual work. (Hence the popularity of humblebragging about our busyness.)

The solution?

What's the answer to this pervasive problem? Insulate yourself from the constant pull of the cult of hard work by doing your most important tasks first thing. "That way, even if you do lapse into busywork, you won't be wasting your best energies on it," notes Burkeman. But if you control your own schedule, he suggests a more radical intervention: "experiment with radically limiting your working hours."

Are you guilty of overvaluing effort? Let us know in the comments.