More work, worse outcome

Man vs. snow vs. time

Yesterday I published an article called “The Outwork Myth” where I push back against the popular notion that “working harder and longer than other people is the way to get ahead”.

Today I want to demonstrate a simple example of what I mean.

It snowed

This past weekend in Chicago we got a good bit of snow. It started Saturday and didn’t let up until Sunday evening.

I went out to shovel the sidewalk in front of our house four separate times. I was on top of it. Shoveling my ass off. Once 2″ piled up, I attacked it and cleared it away. Clean sidewalk for the neighborhood strollers. A job well done.

Because I shoveled so often, I didn’t let too much pile up at any one time. That kept it from being too heavy. This was a good strategy in the past — especially with wet, heavy snow. I thought I was saving myself work.

I remember feeling like I was out-shoveling my neighbors. I looked around. Their sidewalks were still coated, mine was clean. I imagined people trudging through the snow only to show up at my clean sidewalk and thinking “This guy cares!” I was the responsible one! It felt good to be ahead.

I remember finishing my last shovel at about 8pm on Sunday, just as the snow was finishing up. It was just a really light powdery sprinkle now — nothing like all the tougher snow before. I did the work and I’m good, I thought. Sleepytime.

Then I woke up the next morning to this:

That’s snow on ice

For those who don’t live in cold climates, that’s snow on top of ice. The worst kind of slippery. And a real challenge to deal with — you either have to heavily salt it to try to melt it (and then shovel it) or you have to brake it up with the edge of a strong metal shovel or pick. It’s about 10 times harder to deal with this clean up than it is with pure snow.

And if you look closely you’ll see it’s not smooth ice — it’s loaded with footprints. This is caused by people walking over an unshoveled sidewalk. The snow melts a little, compresses, and turns into ice.

Why did this happen?

It happened because I didn’t shovel at the right time. It had nothing to do with all the previous shoveling I’d done. All that work I did meant nothing in the end — I actually ended up with a bigger problem than I started with. I put in the work — more than my neighbors — and ended up with an ice-covered sidewalk that’s going to require significant additional work to clear off.

Keeping up with the Joneses

Compare my busted-my-ass-multiple-shovels-yet-very-icy sidewalk to my neighbor’s ice-free, clean sidewalk:

My neighbors shoveled right — they took care of the snow after it ended, not while it was coming down

Every time I went out to shovel, I never saw them shoveling. Every time I went out there they had more snow piled up.

But… Less shoveling! No ice! Clean pavement! What the fuck?

Turns out my neighbors — who seemed like they were being lazy by not shoveling during the storm — waited it out. They shoveled at the end — after all the snow had actually fallen. They got to work once it stopped. So they didn’t have any lingering snow to be compressed into ice by foot traffic.

They did a lot less work and ended up with much better outcome. I shoveled my ass off on regular intervals. I intended to beat this snow. But it beat me because I put all that work in at the wrong time. I didn’t wait until it was officially over — I stopped when it was almost over.

If I had skipped all the previous shovels — but shoveled just once at the end (or maybe one other time as well) — I’d have done a better job. The right job. No ice, just pavement.

I could have finished the job with a broom the next morning — dusting off the remnants. Instead I left myself an uneven ice rink I to deal with. A casual, quiet broom or a loud, backbreaking ice pick? I had those two choices, but I only left myself one of them.

By working so much, but working at the wrong time, I created more work for myself.

Come on

What does shoveling have to do with business? Nothing. I’m not comparing shoveling to business — I’m comparing working more multiple times to working less at the right time.

Brute force didn’t help me. Out-shoveling the neighbors didn’t help me. Working longer and harder than everyone else yesterday ultimately created more work for me today.

There’s a pretty good chance this directly applies to what you’re doing right now. Working your ass off on something. Working hard. Assuming the effort is the difference maker. It ain’t. It’s doing the right thing at the right time. A case when it wasn’t about how much, it was about how little when.