Listening to the radio last week, I heard a politician talking about how her party’s policies were supporting the “hard-working people of Britain.” How many times have you heard something similar from politicians where you are?

“Hard-working” is such a common phrase these days that we don’t think much about the way it’s being used. Ask people if they’re hard-working and the majority will say yes. Politicians know, therefore, that by using the phrase they can appeal to most of their audience. “Hard-working? Is she talking to me? Absolutely!”

It’s is an effective tool for politicians because there’s no objective standard for what “hard-working” is, and because most people’s experience of work is that it is indeed difficult. I once met someone who said he felt overwhelmed by his email inbox, and he was receiving about 25 a day; a volume most people would kill for.

So we have the sense that we’re working hard. But given that there isn’t an objective standard, my experience tells me that what a lot of people perceive as “working hard” includes avoidable inefficiencies that lead to stress and lack of productivity. Remove these inefficiencies, and we get more done, with less stress.

If we look at what the experience of working hard means to many people, an inconvenient truth starts to emerge. A lot of the “hard work” they’re doing isn’t helping them or anyone else.

Try this for yourself. Ask yourself whether any of the following would be an indication that you are working hard:

  • I’m regularly stressed at work
  • I’m constantly distracted by things other than what I am focused on
  • I’m worried that I’m not focused on the right things
  • I’m having to put in a lot more hours at the office because of the above

Now I can absolutely see how, if that’s your experience of work, you have the sense that a lot of effort is expended, that you’re working hard. But how much of that is helpful, productive behaviour? How much of your time and energy is being wasted? Is it any wonder that you have the sense that work is hard?

How about this as an alternate vision of work:

  • I regularly have a sense of balanced control and perspective
  • I’m focused on the right thing for me to be doing, right now, without unnecessary distraction
  • I’m productive in a low-stress, friction-free way
  • When I’m not at work, I’m able to shut off, so I can focus on my friends and family

In this vision, productivity goes up, stress goes down, mental clarity increases, and we live a more balanced life.

Our work in GTD is all about enabling this second vision of work. I’m guessing it won’t be hard work to figure out which you would prefer.

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