Working hard for little? Here’s how to stay the course

I can recall entering ‘no man’s land’ – that grey zone, in the words of one self-help guru, where you “you’re not really happy about your life, but you’re not unhappy enough to do anything about it.”

It was right after running for political office and leaving every ounce of energy I had ‘on the field’.

I remember rocking up to work, in the days following defeat, exhausted and struggling to keep up as the papers mounted, work challenges ensued and pressure grew.

My buzz had largely gone. And I was now having to work hard with little energy and even less drive.

Winning back

This is common in many people. But it’s not something we always discuss.

And, even for a voracious reader like myself, excavating relevant ‘bounceback’ advice wasn’t exactly straightforward, especially when my usual desire to devour books had waned.

But I learnt something important on the slow return to recovering my dreams and aspirations. You can win these things back in the same way you lost them – bit by bit.

Here are some thoughts for anyone experiencing fatigue but also questioning whether the grind is worth it and, in our more tired moments, feeling like you’re working hard for very little.

Minimise your system

One small thing that helped me was making things as streamlined as possible.

We’ve heard why people like Mark Zuckerberg, or Steve Jobs when he was alive, are often seen wearing the same outfit – because they want to save their energy for more important decisions.

For me, however, it was something as simple as putting things in the right place when I got up in the morning, from my phone and water bottle through to my clothes for the day.

Getting out the door with minimal hassle provided some relief from the busy day I was stepping into.

Reward yourself for small wins

When at work, I was always cautious about drinking too much café coffee, seeing it as largely as an indulgence, let alone the added costs over time.

But I made it a habit to not only get coffee but eat lunch out regularly, often with friends on a compressed timeframe, preferring to see it as a reward for the effort I was sustaining at work.

This may not seem indulgent to some yet, for me at the time, it was actually quite a big deal.

It was no doubt a pressure valve, and one that taught me to go easy on myself.

The craftsman’s mindset

Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You also taught me a great deal.

In it he talks of the ‘Craftsman’s mindset’ that, among other things, he notes as:

  • Creating valuable skills so that you can go on to write your own ticket
  • Not expecting to love an entry level or early career job
  • Not always asking ‘is this my calling?’ but doubling down and learning as much as you can.

For me it was about confronting, and both doing and getting good at, the things that are within your immediate circumference.

It can be as simple as taking better notes, making an effort to understand an issue, sending a few extra emails, speaking up in a meeting, making a few extra calls or practicing how you’ll respond in a meeting.

A craftsman’s mindset is likely be totally unglamorous. But while the ‘big picture’ is important – a point I’ll touch on – mini-mastery can be much more satisfying than getting too carried away with what’s too far down the road.

Listen to Buffett

In moving through a fog you need to find a compass. Complications require simplicity, which means going back to principles.

There are no shortage of motivational montage YouTube videos, and there are many with advice from billionaire investor Warren Buffett. One of the most sensible things he has said isn’t what company to invest in but what to invest in – yourself.

If you imagine yourself as a car that you’ll have for the rest of your, he says here, then you’ll take damn good care of it.

Try to get enough sleep.

Drink lots of water.

Take a multivitamin, or a supplement, if you’re not getting enough nutrition.

Go to the doctor to get a general check-up.

Run.

Walk.

Work out.

Not only are basic principles important. But one of them in particular – looking out for yourself – rises above the rest.

Role model refresh

What about the big picture? This, I admit, is something I had lost sight of.

But one of the things that helped me considerably was dragging myself back to restudying the successful people I respected and admired – Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Christopher Hitchens, Neville Bonner and, among many more, Booker T Washington.

Readers will have their own heroes.

And I’m sure you’ll see they kept growing and learning, regardless of what stage of life they were in.

It gave me a neat reminder on the importance of self-growth, staring down adversity and relighting the fire.

Think about being helpful

While I didn’t quite think of this at the time, looking back I recognise how important it was to remain helpful to people, even when I may not have totally felt or believed in it.

Friends, co-workers, people you walk past in the street. Hold open doors. Be polite. Smile when possible. Go out of your way to say ‘thanks’.

A service mindset will be helpful, not only in strengthening your community but also in advancing your career.

In the Netflix documentary The Defiant Ones, there is a great scene where the legendary producer Jimmy Iovine speaks of his early career – with virtually no skills – working with John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen and Patty Smith. “I had no right to be in that room,” he says, “except that I was of service”.

It is as the great self-help guru Jim Rohn says, “What you don’t get paid for don’t worry about that. Just render the service with the vision of the future that’ll come back multiplied if you come back if you have this kind of habit, and this kind of philosophy.”

A final point on habit

Rohn’s last point on habit is important.

The reason why I cite the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in my book, or at any chance I get, is to highlight how important it is to build a reservoir of resilience.

This is because when I hit the burnout stage, I not only had good habits to draw from – staying active, reading lots, knowing better – that helped to see opportunity in setback.

I can’t help but think how much harder the recovery path would have been had I not built a reservoir of resilience but also good habits.

Summing up

The Victorian Englishman Rudyard Kipling noted meeting two imposters – triumph and disaster – and treating them the same.

I’ve found a steady balance in taking on adversity, but also receiving prosperity, is a nice rhythm to find.

Staying the course is hard.

And you’ll get so worn down at times you’ll ask if it’s worth persisting or should you just quit and go onto something else.

But just as staying the course is hard it’s also critical to your success, growth and character.

Climbing back is possible. But it’s done bit by bit.

Image source: McCabe and Co

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