The 3 Questions I Ask Myself Before Doing Too Much Just to 'Work Hard'

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Corporate Change Maker
May 24, 2024 at 4:54PM UTC

Keep your head down. Work hard, and you will be recognized.

This is the mantra that drove me for most of my life. Like many children of immigrant parents, I was indoctrinated with a very strong work ethic. My dad moved to the U.S. at a young age and had to work his way up to the top. He held a number of jobs, including janitor, even though he has been educated as an engineer in India.  He worked day and night — with my mother by his side — to build a great life for his family. 

Both my parents worked hard because hard work pays off. Hard work drives results. Hard work gets you what you want. Work and work and work, and then work some more. You will be recognized. You will be rewarded.

In some ways, it was the false sense of the American dream that I brought with me into my first day in corporate America. That hard work, toiling away, preparing and more preparing. Thinking that my hard-working efforts would magically be recognized.

In those early days, my 'work hard' mantra led to constant over-preparation, a need to understand every last detail multiple times over, like I was constantly preparing for final exams. It led to diminishing returns. Because often, the end result was the end result — and it was a pretty good result. And in corporate America, there was no distinguishing between an A, an A++ and the A++ plus extra credit.  The work was done, and it onto the next thing to get done.

So, those hard-working hours could have been better put to use.  I could've learned a new skill, met more colleagues or branched out for new assignments. I could have been working hard on different things.  I could have been working smarter.

Now, before beginning any project or initiative, I started asking myself these three questions to stop the over-preparation and deep diving into details that may not be needed:

1. How long do I need to work on this?

When I would be preparing emails to send to senior leaders, I would obsess over the language and grammar. And it would suck way too much time. Now, if I am going to send an important email, I set timer or watch the clock so I don’t get sucked into spending hours on one email.  And yes, I still always still check for spelling and grammar. Plus, I make sure it’s brief — no one wants to read a novel on their iPhone.  

2. Who can I ask for help?

Before spending hours on something by myself and falling into the black hole, I think to myself: who can help me with this work?  Often, someone else will have an insight or a piece of information that can save myself and the organization time. And, instead of sending a lengthy email, I'll find time to connect to ask for help in person.  If I am asking for someone’s help, I also try to remember to ask how I could help them in return.

3. How deep is deep?

There are no such thing as experts anymore.  We are all trying to build expertise across a variety of disciplines.  So, for this particular project, how much expertise do I need to build and what expertise do I already have?  What questions will senior management want answered?  What level of detail is needed to successfully complete this work? 

I still work hard, but I catch myself when obsessing over something work related. I catch myself when I am asking others for levels of details that aren’t really required. I catch myself when I start over-preparing for something that, in the end, will be resolved relatively quickly.

I still do believe in working hard.  And I believe in freeing up my time  to focus on the things that will  show the impact I can make for myself and those around me.

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