To do meaningful work, stop being efficient

'Those who work much do not work hard.' - Henry David Thoreau

A few days ago, listening to my favorite podcast (On Being), I heard Palmer Palmer — a brilliant writer and human — say the following, describing our success-obsessed culture: 

“The tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness, the smaller and smaller tasks we’re going to take on.” 

I’ve noticed this in my life too. 

If I come up with a to-do list of 35 things to do in a day, my work will turn out to be very shallow. Whereas, if I had only one or two things to do — I have the whole day to dedicate myself to the task at hand. 

But it goes deeper than “cap your to-do list at 1–2 things per day.” 

Parker goes on to say that we need to give up “effectiveness” in favor of “faithfulness.” 

If you’re like me, you probably have shivers going up and down your spine whenever people use the words such as “faith” or “soul” or derivatives from them, such as “faithfulness.” 

But what Parker is talking about has nothing to do with religion or spirituality. (Or relationships, for that matter.) 

He breaks down his idea of “faithfulness” (vs. effectiveness) into three parts: 

  1. Faithfulness to yourself and your natural gifts. Are you doing what only you can do? 

  2. Faithfulness to the needs of others. Are you aware of those needs — including your family, the world, the environment? 

  3. Faithfulness to the intersection between your natural gifts and the needs of others. Are you helping others where you can? 

In Parker's definition, the “success” of any given day should be based on these three things: that we were faithful to our natural gifts, that we did something for others, and that we work on the intersection between our gifts and the needs of the world. 

Everything else is a distraction. 

You can’t get anything meaningful done by “working hard” in the general sense of this phrase.  

More often than not, meaningful work needs lots of solitude and “white spaces” in your calendar — so that you’re able to work undisturbed, in a “deep work” state, for long periods. 

The legendary Henry David Thoreau wrote on this in his diary the following words: 

The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk. Why should the hen set all day? She can lay but one egg, and besides she will not have picked up materials for a new one. Those who work much do not work hard.

Work smart, not hard — by being faithful. 


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