Victoria Smith-Douglas
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Geographer, writer, educator.

Working hard is greatly valued in society, and from childhood, we’re told that if we work hard, we’ll succeed. This is sometimes debated, with many advocating ways to work smarter rather than harder, but others still advocate hard work as a key ingredient in success. But what does hard work really mean? For some, it means putting in extra hours, while for others, it’s working more intensely. The truth is that it’s appropriate to use variations on the definition of hard work to fit the person and the goal.

What makes someone a hard worker?

“She’s a real hard worker.” 

“The secret to her success is hard work.” 

We’ve all heard statements like this, either about coworkers, well-known high-achievers or perhaps ourselves. But what does being a hard worker involve? And what can we do to become hard workers? There’s no single or simple right answer for all circumstances, but here are a few ways to recognize a hard worker.

  • They put a great deal of effort into their work, either physically, mentally or emotionally.
  • They put in extra-long hours.
  • They work at high intensity, completing a large volume of work in a reduced time frame.
  • They’re diligent and consistent and maintain high standards at all times, above the average level.
  • They plan and organize their work so as to be as productive as possible.
  • They take initiative, identify opportunities and independently generate productive work.
  • They’re highly focused and have the ability to maintain concentration.
  • They keep going and don’t give up.

Choose the ways that you want to work hard based on the nature of the tasks and your ultimate goal. Always ask yourself why you want or need to work hard. If you’re doing it to impress your boss and earn more money, putting in the overtime could be the right way to go. On the other hand, taking 12 hours to complete eight hours' worth of work isn’t going to impress anyone. 

Why does it matter?

Knowing what hard work really involves and what it doesn’t is important so that we can avoid running around in circles, kidding ourselves that we’re working hard when all we’re really doing is keeping ourselves busy. We also need to know how to protect ourselves and our health. The study “Implications of work effort and discretion for employee wellbeing and career-related outcomes: an integrative assessment” found that working excessive hours has damaging effects, and working with increased intensity may have even worse consequences. Understanding the appropriate ways to work hard and being able to vary the methods to minimize adverse consequences is valuable to our well-being and our professional performance.

Knowing what’s valuable to your employer, as well as what’s valuable to yourself, is important here. If you spend great time and attention on a task that your employer really just wants taken care of as quickly and straightforwardly as possible, are you really working hard? What about when you accomplish many tasks quickly, but the quality is below standard?

It’s a common belief that hard work is, and should be, tough, unpleasant and/or exhausting. There’s no denying that it can be all of these things. But does it need to be? Perhaps the best versions of hard work don’t fit that description at all. A key to working intensely and being able to put in long hours, take great care and focus is being able to get truly into a task. Getting into a state of flow with your work means that you’re fully focused and absorbed in the task and will even lose track of time. It’s in this state that we’re likely to be at our most productive. Yet many of us wouldn’t identify that as working hard, since it’s not unpleasant but engaging and energizing. 

What are the benefits of hard work?

Why should I work hard? The benefits to your employer of you working hard are pretty clear. Theoretically, a hard-working staff should raise productivity, minimize waste and increase the bottom line. However, this must be managed effectively, so as to maintain a hard-working, rather than burnt-out, staff. But are there benefits to you personally from working hard? Evidence suggests yes, absolutely. 

Employers value a strong work ethic in their employees and will try to identify hard workers in their recruitment processes. Having the ability to work hard could therefore make you more likely to land a job in the first place, as well as to gain a promotion (although not necessarily). You will achieve more if you’re working harder effectively and prompt people to take notice. This will open up more opportunities and allow you to develop your reputation. It also just feels good to know you’ve worked hard and accomplished something. Self-confidence, a sense of being valued and knowing you’ve made a contribution can all result from hard work.

Does hard work build character?

It’s a classic motivator, used by parents, teachers and employers to deal with the objections that arise when we’re presented with tough or time-consuming tasks. But does hard work really build character? Consider a time when you had to work hard, either at work, school or home. Would you rather be without that experience? Most of us can probably think of examples when we gained from the experience of hard work. There may be other times that seemed less beneficial or even damaging. In the right context, hard work can develop resilience, persistence, stamina and a sense of responsibility. These are all characteristics that can give you an advantage in your work and personal life and make you feel good about yourself.

With the intrinsic benefits, as well as external achievements, that are gained through hard work, cultivating a habit of working hard could be one of the most valuable things you do for yourself or others.

Last word.

However you define hard work for yourself, its value has been proven time and again. No, hard work doesn’t always get the reward it deserves, but that doesn’t mean working hard and putting in the effort is a waste of time and energy. The key is to decide wisely what you choose to work hard at and how you choose to do it.

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