hard work is not overwork

There is no time when I contemplate the difference between hard work and overwork more than the beginning of the semester. January marks the start of the spring semester, which is almost always a marathon of tiny, seemingly insignificant tasks. But if you don’t do one of them, the weird little house of cards that is your syllabus all falls apart. Basically, you can rant and rave all you want in your syllabus, but if you don’t have the infrastructure to back it up, you’re in for a world of disorganized, last-minute hurt when it comes to enforcing policies.

For that reason, I have typically had some pretty lax policies as an instructor. For example: I didn’t have an attendance policy for the longest time, because that means then that I not only had to take attendance EVERY CLASS, but I also have to record the attendance in the online course software so that students can see that you’ve recorded them absent, and that they may be penalized for it. This means that you have to set up the online course up front to show absences, which can take some doing because software designers LITERALLY NEVER ASK ME WHAT I NEED, and thus don’t account for the need to record attendance.

Well, this semester I changed my tune. In addition to feeling like I finally have a handle on the work load, I also have a grad assistant (GA) who can help. And while my GA is an incredibly intelligent and highly capable individual, I have nothing but menial tasks for her. So, in addition to having her record my attendance in the online system, she’ll be digitizing old documents and checking APA style formatting on student papers.

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The main reason I didn’t take attendance or have all my old documents already digitized is largely because there are only so many hours in a day. And neither of these things are necessary. Sure, taking attendance is good, but at the end of the day, all my students are paying thousands of dollars to sit in my class, and it’s their own fault if they don’t show up. Similarly, the hard copies of old papers are sitting pretty in a filing cabinet, and will be until they are scanned. They aren’t taking up space that I want to use for something else. They’re just there until they can go elsewhere.

And I have been pretty laissez-faire about these things because my entire work ethic revolves around the notion that there is a wide chasm between hard work and overwork; the former is gratifying and life-affirming, while the latter tends to feel like some bully is rubbing a cheese grater against your soul.

I openly seek out hard work and expect it of myself every single day. After the job from hell, I would rather gargle broken glass than let overwork into my day. I know I need down time to use as I please. So if I find myself devoting time to overwork that I should be devoting to recharging, I fix it.

The thing is though, that so many people never realize the difference between the two. In fact, I would argue that there is some sort of fallacy machine that pumps terrible notions into American public schools. It makes kids think that having too much to do is the same as doing hard things. And certainly, having an insurmountable amount of work to do can feel really hard. And it can be hard to complete. But it’s important to remember that hard doesn’t mean too much, even if too much is hard.

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Basically, what I’m trying to say is this: We should devote our time to tasks that absolutely have to get done and that are worth doing. We need to do that cost-benefit analysis to determine if a task is actually worth our time, or if it’s just something menial that will wear us down and make it harder for us to actually do the things we need to do. We will always have more items on our to do lists than we have room for on paper. Picking the ones that matter is what actually counts.

It’s hard enough to get done what needs to be done. That’s the hard work of it. If you find yourself doing things for the sake of doing them, or so you can choose to be busy, take a step back. Remind yourself that you just need to do the hard work, because the overwork, like a lot of the little things on your to do list, can wait.

8 Responses

  1. Holy crap there are no words for how true this is. I’m still trying to acclimate to the idea that it’s okay to leave work at five PM. There are days where I’m still like “but I haven’t done the requisite penance hours yet”

    But I’m getting there. Baby steps to the elevator.

    1. It’s definitely hard when you’ve been conditioned to think you need to be working overtime every single day. When I worked at Tate, I realized I was working 16-hour days, and said never again. And dude, I’m so glad you are taking those baby steps. When you finally get in the elevator, it’s awesome. (Though, your anxiety will channel itself into new avenues.)

  2. Great post! So true, I often find myself getting caught up with filling my time with ‘busyness’ but it isn’t actually hard work and I am using those tasks to procrastinate!

    1. I do the same thing! I have been known to start huge, unnecessary projects in place of doing work that actually needs to be done.

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