Americans have incredible work ethic. Culturally, we pride ourselves on our grit and productivity, and for centuries we’ve worked ourselves up mountains and back to the entire world’s benefit. As a result, we’ve accomplished extraordinary feats and ushered in countless innovations, from the airplane to the Internet.
If your father ever told you that as a child he walked a mile to school, uphill both ways, that’s a great example of what I mean. This tongue-in-cheek uphill climb represents the painstaking efforts Americans have taken to get educated, get the job done, climb the corporate ladder and much more. It tells us that there is no coasting if you want to be productive.
If America is to remain great, we can only hope this work ethic reigns supreme, and do all we can to keep up the momentum. At the same time, it’s never a bad idea to explore new ways for American workers to be productive. As we witness changes worldwide in the nature of work, the only way to stay competitive is to embrace all of productivity’s modern forms and influences. In today’s world, which has granted us a myriad of opportunities, this may mean adjusting the narrative that you can’t make gains without pain.
I know because I’ve been there. After spending decades in the workforce, putting in countless hours at the expense of all else, I had a revelation: long, painful hours uphill are not the key to productivity. I would even argue that in excess, it can be productivity’s antithesis. Today I’ve embraced the fact that a healthy balance makes for better work, more work, and a happier life all around.
In other words, prioritizing “quality of life” does not make you soft, weak, or unprofessional. Moreover, sacrificing it is not a boon to the business world. This is relevant today more than ever for two reasons: one, the philosophy and science surrounding productivity is evolving, and two, the nature of work is changing.
According to the Harvard Business Review, a large body of research supports the notion that more input does not result in better output. It’s well-documented that overwork hurts companies and employees by causing costly stress-related health issues. For some, taking naps or working out in the middle of the day contributes to productivity, and for most, taking time off for vacation makes time on more fruitful.
Nor is grueling misery the key to productivity. The joke about your dad walking uphill is an enduring one because of what it implies: things were hard for me, and I succeeded, so you can’t complain. Well, I agree that complaining isn’t the answer. But I disagree that success through misery is the only way forward. Misery begets disengagement, and disengagement decreases productivity at a cost of $450-550 billion to companies every year.
Having a family put a lot of this into perspective for me. As dedicated as I am to my career, my family is the most important thing in my life, and something I am not willing to compromise. So if my son needs me to coach his basketball game, I’m there no matter what—and I just may come up with a business solution during this break.
Don’t get me wrong, though—I still travel a lot, especially during election years, and routinely put in 12-15 hour workdays and weekends when the situation calls for it. This is part of my industrious nature, and understanding quality of life does not mean I’m any less hard-working, especially when the job demands it.
The key, then, is meeting our jobs’ demands with gusto and also meeting the other needs in our lives in order to do so. Human beings are more than just worker bees. We have distinct parts of ourselves that need to be fed, and if we spend too much time feeding our career and not enough feeding our spirit, the imbalance can topple us over. It can even damage our ability to do good work at all.
I realize that not everyone has the privilege to prioritize quality of life. But trends in the workforce indicate that flexibility is a priority for more and more businesses. Workplaces are increasingly connected to the internet, and with automation well on its way, old jobs are disappearing with new ones rising to take their place. As such, the workforce is changing with a rise in flexible or remote roles and a drop in the 9-5 job model.
The bright side of this kind of disruption is that more people are getting to define their own work schedules, and it’s helping them spend more quality time with their kids, at the gym, volunteering, and any other number of activities they may have been barred from before. The autonomy to do work when one wishes can decrease stress, increase productivity, enrich life quality and as a result, boost the economy.
In a recent interview with Ideamensch, I was asked what advice I would give to my younger self. There are many answers I could have gone with, but ultimately, I decided I’d tell myself to focus on business as a part of life, not at the expense of it.
The way I see it, we’re fortunate to inherit and perpetuate the hard-working ethos of our ancestors. But we’re also fortunate to be afforded new ways to be productive, comfortable, and happy all at once. We should embrace the opportunities of modern productivity—trading in our legs for a lift, so to speak—and use it to improve our careers and lives simultaneously.
This article was first published on NathanSproul.com.