You’re working hard, but are you working on the hard things?

There’s an old joke about a guy who comes across a drunk searching the ground at night under a streetlamp. The guy asks the drunk what he’s doing and the drunk says he’s looking for his keys. When asked if he dropped them there, he responds “No, but the light is better here.”

That’s how we often make our decisions in real life. When faced with a problem or obstacle, our first instinct is often to work harder at doing what we’re doing, or at what we are most comfortable doing. Instead, we sometimes should be working on the hard thing, the thing that we’re not good at, that we don’t enjoy, that we keep avoiding or putting off.

If you launch a web application and you’re not getting very many signups, what do you do? Many people assume they need to add more features, when they’re actually probably receiving very little traffic. And even if you’re getting thousands of targeted visits per day, attack your copy first. Only then start to think about features. But marketing, driving targeted traffic, and copywriting are not skills that many tech folks have mastered. So they fall back to what they are good at: building stuff. End result: the web is littered with amazing sites and services that no one will ever use.

Another thing almost everyone (myself included) does this with is money: many people idolize it because they think (despite evidence to the contrary) that it’ll make them happy. But if you want to be happy, why not aim for that directly? There’s lots of research about what makes us happy, and money is surprisingly ineffective. Why not at least try to grab the low-hanging fruit of being happy first, then worry about working yourself into an early grave for your millions?

If you’re killing yourself working harder and harder, take a breath and ask yourself why. Is the work you’re doing really going to get you where you want? Or is it just the work you know how to do?