3rd January, 2023

When Working Harder Doesn’t Work

With Rachel Morris

Dr Rachel Morris

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On this episode

How have you been living your life so far?

Most of us have worked hard all our lives to be successful. Whilst hard work is commendable, it can start to define your life. Instead, how about we try to work happier so that we can find fulfillment in everything we do.

In this quick dip episode, Rachel talks about what to do when working harder isn’t working anymore. She explains why working harder is actually counterproductive and why it can fail us. Rachel also shares simple but powerful tips to flip your mindset and adopt a healthy work ethic. Work hard at your job, but work twice as hard in looking after yourself. That is how you can create a life worth living.

If you want to know how to work happier instead of harder, tune in to this episode!

Show links

Reasons to listen

  1. Discover why working hard is failing you instead of leading you to success.
  2. Learn why you should write a ‘to be’ list instead of a ‘to do’ list
  3. Understand the importance of embracing your limits.

Episode highlights


Working Hard in High-Stress Jobs


Why Working Harder is Failing Us


Guilt from Not Working Harder


Focus on Working Happier, Not Working Harder


Flipping the Mindset


‘To Do’ List vs ‘To Be’ List


Recognise Your Limits

Episode transcript

Rachel Morris: This is a You Are Not A Frog quick tip. A tiny taster of the kinds of things we talk about on our full podcast episodes. I’ve chosen today’s topic to give you a helpful boost in the time it takes to have a cup of tea, so you can return to whatever else you’re up to feeling energised and inspired. For more tools, tips, and insights to help you thrive at work, don’t forget to subscribe to You Are Not A Frog wherever you get your podcasts.

I’d like to talk to you about what to do when working harder just isn’t working anymore, and why we need to work happier, instead. I don’t know about you guys, but I worked my ass off through school. I had to work really, really hard for my A level. I went straight to medical school and I hadn’t done biology.

I distinctly remember in the first term feeling, “I don’t understand anything that is going on in these lectures,” and teaching myself biochemistry, which was really, really, really, really difficult. but we got through. We all got through. And for the five years that I was at Nottingham, that was punctuated by a lot of going out, a lot of partying.

But at the time, a lot of working when everyone else was managing to sleep in till midday, all the medics were getting up and going to lectures nine till five. So working hard is in my DNA. I come from a family are very, very hard workers, even though they’re retired, they still seem to be working really hard. So Mum and Dad, you can stop working now; you can relax.

I went straight from university into my house jobs, and straight from those jobs into SHA rotations, where I was doing on-calls, weeks of nights. This will sound very familiar to many, many people. And I just remember how dog-tired I was and watching that series by Adam Kay, This is Going To Hurt, on TV, brought all that back to me.

Sidenote, I think that there’s a lot of doctors going through, sort of, collective post-traumatic stress, just remembering what it was like. And then, when I started my GP training, of course, having to see patients, on-calls, as well as studying for my exams– again, working really, really hard, moves straight on from that job into a salary job. So all my life, I’ve worked hard, and the only times I’ve taken a break, I think, were my maternity leaves.

I tell you this, not to tell you about how amazing I am for working like I did. In fact, I don’t think it’s amazing at all. I really regret not taking some more time off. But to tell you that the pattern throughout my life has been to work really, really hard, and I wonder what the pattern has been throughout your life. Have you just worked hard all your life?

Now, just as I thought life couldn’t get any busier or harder. I had kids, which of course, brings with it such a lot of joy but such a lot of hard work. And I remember my mum saying to me, “Well, Rachel, holidays– it’s just hard work in a different place.”

This thing is ingrained into us– this work ethic. And many doctors and many other professionals in healthcare and other high stress jobs feel that they have to work hard. We feel that it is the only way to be successful in life. And by and large, it sort of worked up until now. The problem is this– that I don’t think that working hard is working for us anymore.

All my life, I’ve thought that, to be successful, you just have to work harder. But there’s a problem with this because at some point, you reach a point where you actually can’t work any harder. Either you run out of energy and you run out of resources, or you literally run out of hours in the day.

Even if you don’t sleep, you will be limited by the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day. So working harder is failing us, firstly, because it is illogical. It cannot carry on forever, can it? Because we only have 24 hours in a day. And so, if somebody is asking you to do more work than you can fit into the hours in the day, that is illogical.

As Oliver Burkeman says in his wonderful, Four Thousand Weeks, it can’t be the case that you must fit in more in the hours that you have than hours that you have. This is illogical. So firstly, we hit against the barrier of time. The other problem with working harder is that you cannot have wellbeing at the same time, as you have incredibly hard, overwhelming work.

When I first started teaching wellbeing, it became pretty obvious to me that it wasn’t that people didn’t know what to do to keep themselves well, it was that they didn’t have the time and the headspace to do it. So wellbeing is intricately related to your time, and how hard you’re working. The harder you’re working, the less you can focus on looking after yourself.

The less you focus on looking after yourself, the harder work becomes. So it’s this vicious circle. And often, when we work really, really hard, what we do is we give up the things that we need to do to become re-energised, like connecting with friends, or doing some exercise, or eating well, or sleeping.

So consequently, our performance goes down. And speaking of performance, we know that the higher the pressure is that’s on us, the worse our performance is. We know that once you’ve been focusing and concentrating for about 10 hours a day, you’re completely done. Your retention is gone. You can’t actually focus any more. You might as well go home.

I’m sure loads of you have been in the position where you’ve been struggling with stuff, it just takes you ages. Whereas you’d probably be able to nail it within the first 10 minutes if you did it when you were fresh, when you first get to work. So working harder isn’t working for us, because, A, it’s illogical because at some point, you run out of time and space to do it, and you cannot work any harder even though you think you can.

Secondly, it just shafts your wellbeing. It’s very, very difficult to look after yourself properly when you don’t have any time. And thirdly, your performance will suffer if you work harder. And many of us, over the years, have subscribed to the equation that the harder you work, the more productive you’ll be, and the more successful you will be. But this is bad for us. It’s counterproductive.

It does not lead to a happy, healthy workforce. Now, the problem is that this idea is so deeply, deeply ingrained in us that we start to feel guilty when we can’t work any harder, even if it’s through no fault of our own. I was speaking to somebody recently, and she was telling me that she has been a GP all her life, and she became ill. And she felt so guilty and ashamed when she became ill through no fault of her own.

How often have we felt unwell and had to cancel something and felt absolutely awful? A few years ago, we just moved house and I’d spent two or three weeks staying up really, really late sorting out the house. It was late November, there were all sorts of nasty bugs around and I got a really bad cold. But I didn’t stop. I just carried on, and this cold turns into a chest infection.

Very soon, I ended up in A&E with pretty low SATs, needing some antibiotics, feeling absolutely dreadful. And I remember being discharged, I got home. I was crawling up the stairs because I was too breathless to walk. Since my husband– oh my goodness, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to present that course, on Wednesday– this was a Sunday night.

He looked to me like I was completely mad. He said, “What are you even thinking of? The fact that you think you’re going to be able to go and run a day-long training on resilience?” I did realise this was a bit daft at the time, I emailed the client who was incredibly gracious about it and said to me, “Well, of course, we can cancel it. Of course we can.”

I had to cancel it, but I felt incredibly guilty. I felt I’d let people down. And this is the problem, isn’t it? It’s this unhealthy perfectionism, or feeling that we always have to be better, that we can never do enough, that we always have to keep going and going and when we can’t– when we can’t help people in the way that we’d like to help people, and when we become ill, or when we can’t cope with the workload, we feel ashamed because we feel that we are not enough.

We have breached our own values of always being strong, of always helping people. And if you think about it, this mindset is totally illogical, because we all know that there is unlimited demand in health care. We all know that people will always want more and more and more. And we know this, yet we still feel guilty when we feel that we can’t do enough.

I think, this can very, very quickly tip over into shame that we are not enough, that I am a bad doctor, that I am lazy, and that I’m just being selfish. And then, what happens is that we feel dreadful about taking a day-off. Even if it’s the weekend. We feel we should be getting all those emails, clearing our to-do list, and we feel like we can’t ever switch off, and some of us find that we can’t remember what we used to do to relax.

We don’t really know what we ever enjoy doing in the first place. And I know what this is like; I’ve been there. This is a deeply, deeply ingrained thing in us, and it only gets worse. The older you get, the more responsibilities you get, the more out-of-work stuff you have to do. For example, supporting parents, supporting children, supporting partners.

Ultimately, if this mindset continues, it leads to stress, and it leads to burnout because we weren’t designed to work like this. The human race was not designed to work 24/7, with no time off; we have limits. Now, here’s the thing about our limits. The things that limit us, like our human need for connection, for food for rest, these are the things that actually make life worth living, these are the things that make us happy.

Instead of working harder, if we focus on working happier, we will automatically be focusing on embracing our limits and doing those things that we know we need to do to actually perform better. And this is borne out in the literature, time and time again. The new equation is, if you want to be successful, you want to be happy, because if you are happy at work, you will be productive, and that leads to success. It’s not about hard work.

This is such good news for us, but it takes a massive mindset shift. And I lost count of the amount of times that people have said to me, it’s just self-indulgent to want to enjoy your work, to want to be happy at work, to want to thrive in the workplace, and feel fulfilled and do a job that you find exciting and interesting, and to do a job that is actually doable. So instead of working harder, let’s have a think about what working happier looks like.

Working happier means doing those things that create meaning and purpose for us, that create connection with other people, that give you satisfaction. Now, I must say this comes with a slight health warning, because I know that in my life, when I’m doing something that I find a lot of meaning and a lot of purpose in and I really love– for example, this podcast– that can slightly take over as well.

I have been known to be sitting all weekend editing podcasts because I just enjoy it so much. But I need to remember that actually, life is not just about working as hard as I can. It’s not about pleasing other people all the time. I am not a human doing, I am a human being. And so, flipping this mindset from, “I am not enough. I’m not doing enough. I can never achieve enough and feeling guilty and ashamed about it.”

Flipping it to, “I am enough. I can be enough,” is the secret to working happier. When I look into this new year, I think, this is the message that all of us need to hear. And I remember talking to Dr. Surina Chibber about this in Episode 54. And Surina is a GP, she ran her own business, she was also very busy with two small children. And Surina was telling me that a few years ago, she was working very, very hard. She was very overwhelmed.

She was talking to a coach who was talking to her about her to-do list. And the coach said to her “Surina, why don’t you try writing a to-be list instead of a to-do list?” And if I think about doing a to-be list, rather than a to-do list, immediately, my life feels a little bit more spacious and immediately, it feels like there are some things that I could put in place that would make life feel like it was really worth living and that would give real value to other people, tot just to me.

It will help me feel so much more relaxed. So if you’re wanting to work happier, rather than to work harder, what I suggest is, you start with writing a to-be list, not a to-do list. And then, the question is, “What do you do about that to do-list that is as long as your arm?” I went to talk to a GP practice at lunchtime the other day, and they were overwhelmed with everything they had to do.

They kept saying to me, “But we just have to do this. We have no choice.” But on the other hand, they were saying, “But we can’t do this. We don’t have enough staff and there are not enough hours in the day.” So what was happening is that they were trying to argue with reality but reality was winning and reality will win 100% of the time.

When this happens, the only thing you can do is to prioritise and work out what is the most important things that you absolutely have to do, and be comfortable with not getting stuff done. And this is really, really difficult for those of us who are perfectionist, which I think, is almost certainly every single doctor I know, and I count myself in that as well. Perfectionism is what is quite literally going to drive us to an early grave.

I’m going to be recording some more podcasts about perfectionism. Unfortunately, unhealthy perfectionism often manifests itself in us feeling that we have to complete everything, we have to get to the bottom of our to do list, and we can never be seen to do a sloppy job or to leave anything unfinished.

Now, when you have a to-do list that is never ending or too much to do, you only have two choices, really, you can either do everything on your to-do list and do it really badly and be a bit sloppy about it, or you can pick what you’re going to do on your to-do list, and that is prioritising powerfully. And I’ll put some links in the show notes to other podcast episodes, where we’ve talked about how to prioritise.

In order to prioritise, you’re gonna have to say no to some stuff as well. So we’ll link to the episode all about how to say “no” and prioritise powerfully. And we’ll be talking about this much more in further episodes, so think about how you’re going to prioritise. And finally, think about what your limits are.

Instead of feeling ashamed about your need for sleep, your need for connection, your need for love and care, embrace that as a human being, knowing that this is what makes life worth living. So alongside your to-be list, you could make a not-to-do list. What things are you not going to do this month? What things are you going to miss out on and have the joy of missing out– the JOMO?

Here’s what’s really key, if you share this with other people– what’s on your to-be list, what’s on your JOMO list– then the shame will disappear. Because once you have it out in the open, that you can’t do everything, that you are feeling that you’re not strong enough to get to the bottom of your endless to-do lists, that you might not be superhuman, then actually, the shame will disappear.

Brene Brown says that connection and getting things in the open just cuts off shame at the legs. So talk to people, work out what you’re going to do this month– to work happier, rather than to work harder. And one thing that you could do is join our January Anti-Challenge Challenge, which is exactly what it says on the tin. We don’t want you to have anything more to do. We want you to have less to do. We want you to feel better. We want you to feel happier.

So if you’d like to get some simple things that you can take out of your schedule into your inbox every day, then do sign up at the link in the show notes. And I’d love to know from you, what would be on your to be list? What would be on your JOMO list? Stick it in the Facebook for us or email me and tell me because we need to do this as a team. We need to support each other. We need to have each other’s back in this. We’re not superhuman.

We don’t have a time-turner like Hermione, we are humans. We have human limits, which is a great thing because it forces us to pay attention to the things that make life worth living. So in this new year, let your focus be on working happier, not working harder. and embracing your humanity, your limits as a human being, knowing that that is what life is about.