You know you work hard. Here’s how to prove it to everyone else.

A follow-up on the importance of deep work to us, the teachers.

Photo by William Stitt on Unsplash

Something we don’t acknowledge enough is that brain work is hard

We know manual labour is hard, because we can see it. No one is going to question that you are working hard when you come off the job sweaty, breathing hard, with dirty hands. Our appearance justifies our value to ourselves, and to others.

In contrast, it’s tricky to prove you’ve been working hard at a mental task. The only reasonable proof is your output – that your writing resonates with your staff, or that students enjoy the lesson you planned. But that feedback comes hours, days, even weeks later. We have nothing in the moment.

Pseudo-work is inefficient and dangerous

Because we feel the need to prove how hardworking we are, we end up doing dumb stuff. We keep working long after we should have gone home from school. We complain/brag about being so busy. We send a lot of emails to let everyone know how focused and dedicated we are to completing the task, but don’t actually do anything to make progress.

This is pseudo-work: tasks that feel like work, and look like work, but don’t actually move us closer to achieving our goals. The stress about proving ourselves manifests in these practices that are not only inefficient, but can also increase our stress, feeding a vicious cycle.

…and ironically mirrors mental illness

The same bias strikes people with mental illness. No one questions you when you have a cough, cast, or crutches, but when your brain is sick, you feel like you have to prove it. Thus, poor decisions follow, like pretending everything is okay, or feeling like you have to conform to stereotypes so that people believe you.

We need to change the way we view knowledge work

Knowledge work is hard! Have you ever noticed how hungry you get when you’re doing focused brain tasks? It’s because your brain uses 20% of your body’s energy, or one out of every five calories you consume. No other organ comes close to demanding that much fuel.

What if we proved our worth by counting the number of hours we spent in pure focus (a.k.a. deep work)? Working on one thing with intense focus is a pretty reliable way to get high quality work done, which is the goal. “Highest Number of E-mails Sent” is not the goal. “Mentioned my Stack of Marking the Most Times in Lunchroom Conversation” is not the goal. Doing meaningful, creative work, and enjoying life should be the goals.

Track your hours of deep work

“Working with intense focus” means just working on the task. No distractions. No checking notifications. No interruptions with phone calls, or quick questions from colleagues.

Because remember, every time you take 10 seconds to do one of those things, your work suffers for the next 20 minutes. One distraction per hour means you only did 40 minutes of work that hour.

But one hour, zero distractions, means you worked hard and you focused for a whole hour. That’s amazing in this day and age. That’s something to brag about.

Now see how many hours you can do in a week.