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Don’t Work so Hard; You’re Too Important

My father once told me he liked to hire smart lazy people. These are the folks that would look at a problem and figure the easiest, most efficient way to get a job done. (Of course we’d also prefer that these folks take pride in their work, but you get the idea.)

We like to feel a personal sense of value and self-worth. Ideally, we derive this feeling from what we contribute to society. But it probably comes as no surprise that life is not always ideal, especially in the workplace. Because of this, we often create artificial trappings of importance to justify our continued employment and feelings of self-worth. Let me give you a couple of examples:

Over-Engineering Our Tasks

We seem to have it in our minds that for something to be considered important and valuable, it has to therefore be complicated. This misguided perception has inspired us to over-engineer very simple tasks, especially when it comes to work. We don’t want to be perceived as lacking importance or value, so we make what we do as intricate and complicated as possible. Of course we like to remark that someone is so good at something that they make it look easy, but in the workplace, making something look easy can have negative consequences. The last thing we want is for someone to look at what we do and think “How hard can it be?” or “Anyone could do that.” Since our position in the organization—not to mention our compensation—is often tied to what we contribute, we don’t want our contributions to look simple. With simple may come replaceable.

Over-Engineering Our Time

In our society, being busy is a virtue—and for good reason. Speaking from personal experience, there’s nothing that saps my sense of self-worth more than being idle. However, many of us are developing an unhealthy and unproductive addiction to being busy. In her Harvard Business Review blog post, Meredith Fineman asked us all to stop complaining about how busy we are. As she put it, “So much of this is about out-doing each other. To say that ‘I’m busier than you are’ means I’m more important, or that my time is more valuable, or that I am ‘winning’ at some never-finished rat race to Inbox Zero. …What you’re trying to say with these responses is: I’m busier, more in-demand, more successful.” She goes on to explain that this has many far-reaching consequences on our ability to connect with others and to be genuinely productive. In fact, to be heinously busy is more likely an indicator of inefficiency than it is an indicator of productivity. Just as we over-engineer tasks to feel important, we often over-engineer our calendars to feel busy.

This sort of artificial over-engineering of our tasks and time has many downsides: For one, it creates waste. If efficiency is all about simplifying, streamlining, and eliminating waste, then over-engineering is all about complicating, adding unnecessary steps, and creating waste. Furthermore, it distracts us from what’s really important. Fighting fires all day may give us a sense of purpose and accomplishment, but it also takes away time from what has real value, such as fire prevention.

Your time and talents are valuable and important to mess with. Don’t put them at the mercy of artificial environmental conditions that reduce your effectiveness and productivity.

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