If you believe the social media memes, the answer to your success is simple. It’s just a matter of working harder. ‘Hustle’ and ‘Grind’ seem to be the popular catch-cries ‘success’ merchants endlessly scream at the rest of us.

It’s true that no one succeeds without earning it. However, hustle is an ingredient not a recipe. The best performed people work hard at the right things, and completely ignore the rest. Success is about smarts first, and stamina is more often a consequence of do the right things right.

In this post I’m going to show you how you can re-imagine your work and life to better suit your nature. If there is any success hack it’s this: successful people align who they are with how they work, and always ensure they are making their highest contribution by doing so.

Working Harder Doesn’t Work

If you’re the kind of person that reads a post like this, I assume you already work hard – because you’re reading when everyone else is looking for catchy quotes on Instagram. Also, you’re reading. In an age of Netflix and Facebook, entertaining oneself often wins out over bettering oneself.

Am I being hypocritical by praising you? After all I just criticised ‘success merchants’ for lionising effort didn’t I? Well yes, but I’m not highlighting your effort so much as your thinking. While most cut corners or switch off wherever and whenever they can, you are thinking for yourself and seeking solutions.

Let’s quash this ‘hustle’ crap once and for all, shall we? Those who hustle hardest live in the third world. Their quality of life is a day to day proposition, and their survival depends on sustained effort. Those who ‘hustle’ the hardest in the first world are usually working to make others dreams a reality.

Nobody hustles harder than the poor Indian child begging for food on the streets of Calcutta. Nobody grinds it out like the minimum wage factory worker with little education and no specialised knowledge. I’m pretty sure these people would laugh at the idea more effort is all it takes.

Realise this, working hard matters most when your living depends on the work you do with your hands. In an idea economy, notions like ‘hustle’ and ‘grind’ often do more damage than good, and lock people into an endless unthinking cycle of struggle fuelled mediocrity.  

Research suggests that around 40% of workers in the private sector report high levels of burnout, and the public sector is worse at 60%. Plus, worker engagement is at an all-time low. Clearly, outcomes are not meeting expectations.

The thing is, you can’t give away what you don’t have. Constantly pushing yourself to your limits is more likely to lead to breakdown than breakthrough. I know this because I’ve made these mistakes myself, and learned the hard way.

The Day I Almost Ruined My Career

In my first job, I worked like a madman. I was young ambitious and selfless. I thought nothing of working twelve-hour days, then going home spending hours planning ahead. I thought I was killing it, until one day I almost did something that shocked me.

One wise quip from a colleague almost set me off. In that moment all I wanted to do was punch this guy right in the mouth. It was visceral, real and terrifying. When I took a step back, and really thought about my reaction I realised I my whole outlook had changed.

No one told me to work every day, no one told me I had to go home and work till late, neglect my partner, my friends, and my family. I assumed this was the cost of success, and so I had been working for three months without a day off. And then I crashed.

I lost the motivation, passion and purpose that are seminal to success. Suddenly my dream job had become a dreaded obligation, and I projected my sense of dissatisfaction and disillusionment onto my work, and those around me.

Apathy, illness, depression, anxiety and a host of others are often just signals from your body. In their own way all of these issues force you to repay the debt you’ve accumulated through an imbalanced approach to life and work. The pendulum always swings both ways.

It sounds obvious, but so many of us fall into the same trap. We give out much more than we put back in, and soon enough that imbalance corrects itself. Why would we do this? Because we’ve come to believe that rest gets in the way of work, and work is the key to success.

Why Recovery and Productivity are not Mutually Exclusive

Believe it or not, balance is an essential prerequisite for performance. If you make money using your mind then your brain is your most precious asset. Understanding how to get more from your mind then, is the hack you’re looking for.

Most people treat the mind like a machine, when it functions more like a muscle. The brain (which is the mind’s hardware) needs both stress and recovery to service the mind effectively. It works kind of the like the way a hybrid car toggles between using fuel and electricity.

The conscious mind is like the electric engine, it does the heavy lifting and gets things moving. This involves taking in information and sorting it into categorises it in relation to existing mental models. When we are working the conscious mind hard, experts call it focused thinking.

The unconscious mind is more like the gasoline engine. It leverages the momentum already created to further improve performance. It does this by making connections between new and existing information to arrive at insight. When we are using the unconscious in this way, experts call it diffuse thinking.

To get more out of your mind, you need to make the conscious and unconscious work together. The best way to do this is to cycle between periods of work and recovery. This means gathering all the information, and thinking hard about the issue at hand, then creating some distance.

Play is the fastest way, but this can also be achieved by switching to a task that requires less deliberation and conscious attention. Activities that allow the conscious mind to switch off or wander allow the unconscious to go to work making connections and solving problems.

This is why Steve Jobs took long walks, it is also why Richard Branson loves kitesurfing. There are plenty of ways to do this, and the key is finding the one that works for you. When I am writing, I take regular breaks to surf, or walk along rock shelves to force my mind to pay attention to something else.

Of course, this is an oversimplified explanation, but the important thing here is only to realise that just working harder rarely works. The world’s highest performers work hard and smart. But it’s not just about recovering better, it’s also about working in a way that suits your nature.

How to Make Your Life and Work… Work.

Crisis often precedes change, this is because crisis forces us to see clearly. When we see clearly, we choose wisely. After my moment of reckoning I understood I needed to get smarter about the work I took on and the way I completed it.

I realised that time is a finite resource, but energy is not. It follows then that learning how to manage and conserve your energy can drastically improve your work. This allows you to more effectively prioritise your tasks, and maximise your productivity -without compromising your well being.

Using the process I am about to share with you, I managed to cut my workload by about a third, while dramatically improving outcomes within three months. I also regained the meaning I had lost in my work. I now use this process with the majority of my coaching clients.

Once executive I worked with used this process to re-imagine a key aspect of his job which for a long time had drained him. The changes he made instantly improved both his performance and productivity, and to his surprise his colleagues much preferred his new method also. This works, and it can work for you.

In an effort to keep this concise, I will be more instructive than descriptive here. Though if you have any questions about this process or would like any more info, feel free to drop me a note at hello@terrycondon.com.

There are a couple of key definitions you need to know before undertaking this task. The first is energy, and the second is necessity.

Energy: for the purposes of this this process I define energy as the joy and flow that can experienced during a task. The process of ‘doing’ a task may either light you up or drag you down. High energy tasks can offer us insight into our preferences, low energy tasks also show us something of ourselves.

Necessity: This is how important the task is to you and or others. A high necessity task must absolutely be done by you. low necessity tasks may be done by others or maybe even not at all. Thinking about necessity is important when it comes to making space to double down on those tasks in which you can make your highest contribution.

Your highest contribution will be made by focusing mostly on those tasks that light you up, and which are essential. These are the tasks that inherently suit your nature, and in which you will display higher levels of commitment, focus and creativity.

In order to clear the way for more time and energy spent on high energy, high necessity tasks, we must prune elsewhere. The four-step process is essentially about pruning. Here you will learn how to rid yourself of excess, and redesign your life to better suit your inherent nature.

Step 1: Audit Your Life

1.1 Make a list of all the activities and tasks you repeat on a daily and weekly basis.

1.2 Mark a plus (+ = like) or a minus (- = dislike) next to each activity depending on whether a task gives you energy or drains you.

1.3 Divide your list into two, one for all the high energy tasks, and one for the low energy tasks.

1.4 Rank and sort your lists so the highest energy tasks are on top of one list, and the lowest energy tasks are on top of the other.

Step 2: Look for Patterns

2.1 Take a good look at your favourite three to five tasks. Rank them on a 1-5 scale in terms of how much energy they give you and how necessary it is you be the one that is doing them.

2.2 Look for any themes that emerge. For example, upon completing this exercise I realised that I tend to gain energy from tasks that involve creativity, critical thinking and a level of collaboration.

2.3 List these themes and then rank them according to your preferences. To do this, think about what trade-offs you would make if forced. For example, if I could only have one of creativity or collaboration which would I choose?

2.4 Those tasks which are high energy yet low necessity should be delegated. Trust me on this, these are the surplus that need to be culled first. A little pruning here creates important space

 Step 3: Make Comparisons

3.1 Now, looking at your most dreaded tasks, isolate the top three to five.

3.2 Assign each task a 1-5 rating for energy and necessity. For example, a task may sap me of energy (less than 2/5), and be of moderate necessity (3/5).

3.3 Now rank this short list in terms of necessity, those tasks that are of lowest necessity should be on top, and those of higher necessity should come later.

Step 4: Moderate and Innovate

4.1 Starting with low energy, low necessity tasks (I call them ‘baggage’). Make one of two choices, either drop them completely, or delegate them. Those tasks which are of low necessity to you, but high necessity to the smooth running of things should be delegated, all else should be dropped at least temporarily.

4.2 For low energy high necessity tasks (I call them ‘fixer uppers’), pick out the lowest hanging fruit. This is the low energy high necessity task that can be redesigned most easily, and which causes the least disruption to others.

4.3 Consider how this task might be redesigned to suit your preferences. Do this by thinking about ways to inject those common themes that emerged from tasks you enjoy. For example, you might think about how to inject more creativity into a task that feels very constrictive.

4.4 Once you have settled on a prototype, test it and continue to iterate until you get the desired result (doing an old job a new way which improves the experience and outcomes simultaneously)

4.5 Using a ‘lean’ approach prototype ideas and test their effectiveness, continue to iterate until you get the desired result.

4.6 Repeat this process with the other ‘fixer upper’ tasks until you have improved the experience as well as the outcomes for all.

Learnings: The Three Assumptions That Clog Up Your Life

Too often we make assumptions about our life and work that add to the complexity of our lives and drain us of energy. These assumptions are very often the cause of burnout and should be called into question.

The first assumption is every task being carried out regularly is of high necessity. This is very often not the case, many tasks may have been high necessity at one stage yet are no longer required (or can be done better by others) for things to continue running smoothly.

The second assumption is that the way a task is currently done is the best way it can be done. Once again this is often flawed logic. Your preferences have a major impact on how committed you are to doing a task well. Neglecting to rework your work to better suit you is a huge mistake, and is often the cause of poor work.

The third assumption is that work is a stressor, and life is not. This process should be used for tasks outside of work, as well as those within it. I used this process to redesign the way weekly chores are allocated in my home, and the result was a dramatic drop in conflict. I did not realise how these small but regular skirmishes impacted by ability to recover at home until they no longer existed.

The Take Home

Our lives constantly collect clutter like our closets do, yet we are more likely to invest hours spring cleaning and changing our physical environments than we are our psychic one’s. This is often to our detriment.

To do your best work, you need a balance of stress and recovery, and this requires you to create and defend space for tasks and activities in which you can make your highest contribution.

Making your work better suit your nature requires some thought, and the discipline to follow four key steps. First audit your life, next mine it for insight, then isolate the excess, and finally eliminate or innovate