As a child I learned, that I have to work hard if I want to achieve something. I remember the entry from one of my cousins in my poetry album: “No pain, no gain”. I applied this belief diligently to my life without questioning it for years. This thought was so deeply ingrained into my brain, that eventually it became a very powerful belief system. During the first years it was very helpful. To name a few examples, I was never very good in school. Learning hard helped me to survive and to achieve my graduation. And after school I went to university. At university it helped me to obtain my PhD while working in parallel to earn money. But I became more and more a prisoner of my belief system. I was living to process my to do lists. I woke up in the morning and my first thought was about what I have to get done during the day. I felt only happy and content at the end of the day, when I had finished my list. If this would not have been enough, in addition I established stupid rules for myself as doing every morning a round of HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), even that it exhausted me and made no fun anymore. I was in a rat race rushing from one task to the next without enjoying what I did. I felt like the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. And the rat race went faster and faster.
Luckily, at one point of my life I realized, that something is wrong. I started to doubt my belief system. And I started to search for something else and to be open for other opinions and thoughts.
The history of the belief no pain, no gain
I stumbled across a very interesting historical information by reading a book from Harald Welzer. He describes, that in antiquity only women and slaves had been working. In the Middle Ages and early modern era work had been seen as drudgery and hassle and not at all as desirable. In the agrarian society if people did not work due to for example bad weather, this had not been called laziness or idleness. Starting with the early industrialization, time synchronization of factory workers was needed to be able to schedule work to be efficient. Work started and ended with the factory bell and took 16 hours. People were not used to this. They needed to be trained. If they were not willing to work, they were punished with hitting and whipping. During this time work and education have been interconnected. And diligent working has been praised as great virtue. In West Germany till 1970 and in East Germany till 1989 so called penitentiary homes for juvenile delinquent still existed. Young people got work prescribed for their improvement. Still, in our era and western culture, we believe, that we are successful, if we work all the time and very hard and show only perfect results. Reading this, I realized that probably I am not the only one with this powerful belief system. It is a belief system of our culture.
It is more profitable to think about money for one hour a day, than work a month for it
During reading literature about financial investment, I came across another important piece to my jigsaw puzzle – the quote from John D. Rockefeller: “It is more profitable to think about money for one hour a day, than work a month for it.” This is the direct translation you find in German literature back to English. Interestingly, this might be a very free translation from the original English quote from John D. Rockefeller “He who works all day, has no time to make money.”
Thus, I started an experiment…. For example, I allowed myself to have lunch or dinner on the balcony without doing anything else than enjoying the food and the sun. I stopped doing every morning HIIT. Instead, I exercised only every 2nd or 3rd or even 4th day. And sometimes the exercise was a very quiet round of Yoga. I allowed myself to have more sleep, to take a break, when I felt I need one and not to work until I had all mails answers, instead left them for the other day. Doing this experiment, I had mixed feelings. On one side it felt wonderfully relaxing and calming. On the other side there was my complaining and annoying inner voice, who was telling me, that I am lazy. Interestingly, no one else complained. No one complained to get a response to a mail one day later. And my husband was even very happy, that I was more relaxed.
With time I realized, that with not working all the time and being busy, there was suddenly space for something else: all kind of ideas bubbled up. I was astonished to recognize, that I am creative. I thought for years, that I am the least creative person on earth. And I was able to view things differently. I started to understand, that a lot of the work I had done, kept me perfectly busy, and even that I might have done it very efficiently, it has not been very effective.
Productivity is not about the amount of work
During the months I figured out, that productivity is not about how many hours I work, or how many to-dos I am able to cross off my list. It is about the outcome. And the right balance of work and leisure is the key to improve the outcome. There are days I work long hours. And there are days, I work less. Sometimes for lunch I sit on the balcony and only enjoy the food and the sun and sometimes I do my mails while having lunch. There are weeks I only practice Yoga and there are weeks I mainly work out by running and HIIT. The longer I do this the better I get in sensing, when I need what. On the long run doing sometimes nothing makes me more effective and productive. And even exercising less, makes me fitter. My body has time to recover and build up the muscles. And I exercise more intensive, as my body has time to rest. Overall, I reduced stress, anxiety and overwhelm while improving my performance.
I still use lists. I have to admit I love to do lists and check lists as with writing down my thoughts and ideas my mind is free for new thoughts and ideas. The difference is that now I own the lists rather than the lists own me.
My experiences are perfectly summarized in an essay from Scott Berkun and a blog article from Neil Hughes.
In his book “Mindfire” in the first essay “The Cult of Busy” Scott Berkun describes the importance of the ability to pause, to reflect and relax, to let the mind wander. When a mind returns it is sharper, more efficient, and perhaps most important, calmer than before. He mentions that some of the best thinkers throughout history had some of their best thoughts while going for walks or playing cards with friends.
Neil Hughes illustrates it in his Blog article “A Case for Trying Less Hard” in a very original and playful way by using a pool noodle as analogy that we lose productivity from overwork. Sometimes the answer is simply to slow down. Ideally, that slowdown brings us closer to that optimal state where maximal results are possible.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska