Working hard is the American way. Our work culture is all about grinding out long hours, sacrificing time with family and friends to earn as much as possible, and keeping what we do for a living at the center of our identity. And if we keep working hard, one day we will be rewarded with the proverbial “good life,” right?
Wrong, says Steve Cook.
“We often go into our careers prepared to give them our all, because we have always heard that working hard pays off in a big way,” says Cook, author of Lifeonaire: An Uncommon Approach to Wealth, Success, and Prosperity. “The bad news is, it’s not true. But also the good news is, it’s not true.”
Cook says you don’t have to work yourself to the point of exhaustion or burnout to have a rewarding career. If you’re doing that now, you owe it to your family and yourself to quit and find a saner way. (That’s the good news!) What’s the point of killing ourselves for money—or worse, the possibility of having money at some point down the road—if we don’t get to enjoy it?
The hustle and the grind are bad for us in many ways. Yet, they’re amazingly seductive.
“A few years after I started my business, I started seeing quite a bit of rewards coming in,” says Cook. “That’s when I started questioning why I was working so hard. I wanted to slow down, but I had fears. I was scared I wouldn’t make as much. I believed the lie that working less meant I wasn’t working hard. I started to notice that there were many lies I was believing.”
The truth is, plenty of lies get lumped into the definition of “working hard.” Here are three big ones, and what you should be doing instead.
Lie #1: Working hard means working A LOT. This is one of the biggest lies about hard work. Putting in 12-hour workdays is not the same thing as consistently working hard. Why? Because working too many hours tends to diminish the quality of your output.
“I coach many business owners across the country,” says Cook. “Almost without exception, they’ve achieved some level of success. But they’re not feeling it. Why? Because they work too much. They’ve bought into the lie that working a lot is working hard.”
What to do instead: The real secret is being efficient and productive—really giving 100 percent when you sit down to work. You don’t have to work many hours, but you must work very hard during those hours. “I always tell people, when I work, I work hard,” says Cook.
“Cut down the hours you work, but make sure every hour counts,” he continues. “I find that most entrepreneurs are at their highest efficiency if they work four hours a day, give or take an hour. Beyond that, their productivity diminishes substantially.”
Lie #2: If you work hard now, you’ll have a great life in the future. Our society has it completely backward, says Cook. We are told to work hard during our “prime years,” but this takes us away from our kids and family who need us.
What to do instead: A far better solution is to keep life simple and keep your needs low so you can work less and spend more time living life with the ones you love most. It’s not that Cook wants us to give up on having a great career. He just wants us to consider enjoying life now. There is plenty of time for more ambitious pursuits at a later stage of life. Admittedly, this requires a huge shift and the ability to tune out society’s “more, bigger, better” narrative.
“When you are busy living a life trying to keep up with the Joneses, you’ll have to work so much to make ends meet that you may miss your kids’ formative years,” says Cook. “That’s time you can never get back. It’s far better to keep your needs low. Without a huge mortgage, extravagant vacations, and two car payments, you can live on less and spend quality time with your children now when they need you the most.”
Lie #3: Not working much is the same as being lazy. After years of conditioning, people believe that working hard is working a lot. Once they actually have the chance to work less, they feel lazy and guilty about having downtime.
“I’ve helped many people change their lives and cut down their hours,” says Cook. “When they’ve accomplished this, they sometimes feel that they aren’t doing enough. They used to work 50-plus hours per week and now they are working only 20—and by the way, they’re usually making more. Only now, they feel lazy.”
When people suddenly have a windfall of time on their hands, they don’t know what to do with their free time, says Cook. Some find activities to fill that time with, but the problem is that they don’t feel that what they are doing is significant.
What to do instead: It’s all about how you spend your free time. If you fill it with worthwhile activities and projects, you will feel engaged and empowered, not lazy. The right way to accomplish your career goals without spending your life tethered to work is to work smart.
“I’m 100 percent for hard work,” concludes Cook. “But instead of working constantly, I work less. And I give it my all in the short period of time that I do work. That short time of efficient work produces much more than most people do in their overdrive 60-hour work weeks. If you are giving your all during the short period of time that you work, you will see a massive shift in your productivity. This is truly what working smart is all about.
“I’m all for working hard, but not at the expense of the things that are most important to us,” he adds. “It’s my passion to help people work less so they can live more, and oftentimes make more.”
Steve Cook is the founder of Lifeonaire, an author, coach, real estate investor, speaker, father, and husband. He has a passion for teaching, giving, and his faith. After two failed restaurant ventures in 1998, Steve hit rock bottom and lost everything. With no money and nothing but a strong will to succeed, Steve turned to real estate investing, and his efforts were met with an uncommon success.