When is Hard Work Worth It?

February 9, 2024

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Welcome! We're all about realistic time management designed for professional working women here in this little pocket of the internet. I'm glad you're here.

This is a little outside my lane but relevant to many women I work with, so let’s discuss when hard work is worth it – and when it’s not.

Resources mentioned:

Years are Short spreadsheet

Career coach/consultant recommendations (recommended by others; I have not worked with any of these people)

A full transcript of this episode is available on my website about two weeks after the episode is published. To find it, click here and then select the episode.

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Full Transcript

Episode 40. Is The Hard Work Worth It? 

[Upbeat Intro Music]

Kelly Nolan: Welcome to The Bright Method Podcast where we’ll discuss practical time management strategies designed for the professional working woman. I’m Kelly Nolan, a former patent litigator who now works with women to set up The Bright Method in their lives. The Bright Method is a realistic time management system that helps you manage it all, personally and professionally. Let’s get you falling asleep proud of what you got done today and calm about what’s on tap tomorrow. All right, let’s dig in!


Hey, hey! All right, so today I want to talk about something that’s a little bit outside my lane but relevant to a lot of the people I work with. And it comes down to just hard work, and, you know, we have limited time and energy for our work life but also our personal life and how they interact and all of that. And so, I think sometimes we think “Man, I’m working really hard. Is this worth it? Is this worth it to me?” And I like, personally, to have kind of a framework to think of that within, to evaluate whether this hard work is worth it. And so, let’s talk about that today.

Just to clarify: today I’m really gonna focus on kind of the broader, “I’m working hard. Is this worth it?” It’s not just like, “Am I working hard on a project, is this worth it?” But just generally in life for a long period of time. The work is really hard and how do you know if that is where you should be putting your limited time and energy because I think we really want to be mindful in a culture at least in the US where hard work can often be celebrated for the sake of hard work. People take a lot of pride in being busy even if you don’t really explain what the busy-ness is for. And so, we want to beware of glorifying hard work for the sake of just the hard work and the glory of that, and really take a step back and think, “I’m a big proponent of hard work, but is it worth it? Is the hard work worth it for me during this period of time?” And so, let’s dig into that.

Now, I’m gonna talk about factors that I have experienced in my own life, but I’m sure there are more. And so, if you have more to add to this conversation, please shoot me an email. I can do a follow-up episode or at least share it to the email list and on Instagram. I think this stuff is really important to think about because often when we are in those seasons of really hard work, we’re living in the weeds. And sometimes it’s important to protect time to look up and evaluate what we’re doing, but also help us (especially future tired us) have somewhat of a framework that we can use to think through this type of stuff.

So, for me, there are kind of just two umbrella factors that a lot falls under, but one is the ultimate goal of what you’re working towards, and one is the ride – the path or the journey to get there. So let’s dig into each of those in turn.

Is Your Hard Work Going to a Goal You Care About? – 2:56

The first is is this hard work going towards a goal that you ultimately want? Again, we’re taking bigger picture here, so what easily comes to mind for me is a career goal, the promotion, the ultimate position you want to be in, or not necessarily the ultimate but what you’re working towards for now, once you get that thing you’re working towards, is that something that you want? And this really came into focus for me when I was 29.

I’ve shared this before. I’m not gonna go into a lot of detail. But I lost my best guy friend from high school. We were also living together in Boston at the same time, I mean, and he passed away, and it rocked me. It really rocked me as I think a lot of death and loss does, and on the grateful side of it, that experience helped kind of push me into really valuing time more than I did before. And part of that was coming to terms with the fact that I was spending, at that time, maybe 85% of my awake hours working in my law firm at my law job. And, for the most part, I really enjoyed it, and we’re gonna talk about that too. But I also was thinking, “Man, I’m spending a lot of my awake hours working towards a goal of becoming a law firm partner that I don’t even think I really want now that I think about it.”

Looking back, I wonder if that really was the goal of what I was working towards. I think that I could have reframed that around I’m becoming a really good litigator. I’m learning so much about different industries and things like that. There could be other goals, but at the time I remember thinking, “Man, the goal I’m working towards is becoming a law firm partner at a big law firm, and I’m not even sure I really want that.” And I think what also came into mind was that before I lost my friend, I think the prestige element mattered more to me. I let that matter more.

So the ego part of me would have said, “Yes, I want that. I want that law firm job,” because of course I do. “Of course I’m working really hard towards this law firm job. It’s so respected.” I’m not sure I would have had the clarity around this, but essentially my ego really wanted it. It was a really prestigious thing. It would have sounded really cool to be like, “I’m a partner at this firm.” And it wasn’t until I kind of had my world rocked a bit and could look a little bit deeper on what is the life I’m actually trying to build here that I could look beyond the prestige and think, “Is there anyone in my firm that I can see whose life I really want?” And just to be clear, I wasn’t looking around at the partners being like, “Oh, my gosh. Their life looks terrible!” In a lot of ways, it looked great. But it wasn’t really something that felt like the right click for what I wanted out of my life.

I was really fortunate that I worked for partners who are really honest about the life and the lifestyle and the pros and the cons of it and not just the pros and the cons in the work setting, but on the ripple effects it has on your life. And I got really lucky to get really candid, wonderful input from people who really enjoyed what they did but were also honest about the pros and cons of it, and that could help me, then, evaluate, “Okay, I might be different than them in these ways. Are those pros and cons? How are those gonna shake out in my own life?”

Look Beyond the Prestige and Ego – 6:29

So I think that’s really important to really look kind of beyond the prestige, beyond your own ego, and ask, “Not just in theory do I want this, in this maybe romanticized view of what that might be but let me look at the reality of the people around me and do I want their life, or do I think there are skills or priorities that I have that they don’t that will help me create that position for me. Even if I don’t see it, I believe I can create that position based on the data I have, and not just a romanticized version of it, or not.” Because the goals we’re working towards, ultimately, let’s say you’re like, “Yes, I can!” Then, of course, you can pour in and sacrifice more in your day-to-day life to get there, to go for that broader goal that you want.

Now, I do think I just want to caveat that by saying that, again, just be really discerning here and look at the day-to-day life of people’s life in that position that you want. Maybe take out someone at a different company who’s in a comparable role that you can ask more transparent questions to about what their day-to-day life looks like, what they enjoy, what they don’t to get that data, because I do believe — and this is presupposing that you’re not enjoying the ride very much, which we’re gonna get to. But if you’re not enjoying the day-to-day life and you’re viewing it as more sacrifice than enjoyment to get there. I have a suspicion that if you’re not enjoying the journey to get there, you’re probably not going to enjoy the destination as much as you think. But I totally could be wrong, and I’m sure there are people who disagree with me. [Laughs]

So, again, send me that email. But I just want to say it’s more of the caveat of if you’re miserable in your day-to-day life and you just think, “If I just get there then I’ll be happy,” that’s when I would be really questioning because if you’re miserable in the day-to-day life of getting somewhere, a lot of that day-to-day life will remain in that next position, so you just want to be careful there. And I want to throw out there that I would evaluate and re-evaluate this at different phases.

So let’s say that you’re a first-year law associate and you’re like, “Yep, the partners look great. I want to do that.” Just make sure that you’re re-evaluating that every year because you will learn more about what that position looks like, and your life will change, and something that looked good as a first-year associate, that lifestyle might shift as your personal life changes, perhaps. That by the time you’re a fifth or a sixth or a seventh year, you’re like, “I’m not sure I really want that anymore.” And that’s fine. That’s totally fine, and so, just re-evaluating that at a frequency. Maybe put it in your calendar even to just evaluate, “What is the ultimate goal I’m working towards here, and do I still want it in a real — do I want that daily life? Do I want what that’s looking like?” And remind yourself to also look beyond the prestige and the ego.

Now, on the plus side, because I don’t want to be all doom and gloom. I love working towards big goals. There have been many times in my life that the ultimate goal is what I want, and therefore, it’s justifying the hard work. As I kind of just alluded to, when I was a first- or second-year associate, I think I really did want that partnership life, or I didn’t know enough to know yes or no, and so, I was happy to work towards that goal knowing that I didn’t know enough.

And so, for me, I was working really hard, but I did want that goal. I mean, I had wanted to be a lawyer since sixth grade. I wanted it. And so, that justified, to me, the sacrifice that I was making in my day-to-day life to get there. That changed. (As I mentioned, you need to re-evaluate.) That changed, but for a period of time, it really did, and that was awesome.

Similarly, in my business now, there are plenty of times that I have to work really hard on things that I don’t really want to be doing, like finances and the tech backend and all of these kinds of things. But the business I’m growing justifies that for me. I want the ultimate vision of where I’m going.

Now, I do think, just throwing out there — I know this is a little bit meandering, but such as this topic — you do have to evaluate and make sure that what you are building is the life you want. I think, particularly in business, where you have so much autonomy and can create a business that you want, you have to just keep yourself in check on making sure that you are building a business that you want, that’s not going to be another overwhelming beast that you create, that you’re working really hard towards, that is actually not giving you the life that you want.

So just to recap where we are because I think I went off in a couple directions here, the first factor I think about is is hard work worth it? Is evaluating the ultimate goal of what you’re working towards, and if it is worth it to you, not from an ego or a prestige standpoint, but from a, “This is truly what I want my life to feel like when I get there. I have data that supports or at least informs my belief that that’s what my life will feel like when I get there, and if that’s what I want, then the journey there, even if it’s hard, is worth it to me.” And if it’s not, that’s also a good data point to know. It doesn’t mean that you have to get off the ride. But it’s an important data point to be aware of and really have that clarity around it so you can make informed decisions based on that.

Are You Enjoying The Ride? – 11:47

Now, the flip of this, or the kind of hand-in-hand other factor of it is the ride. Are you enjoying the ride to get there? I think this is the tricky part because when we were young, we’re often taught about hard work and following through and all of that, and I think that’s partly, now that I’m a parent, because it’s really hard to teach the nuance, especially when kids are really little. It’s something that I think we definitely develop over time, like want to develop with our kids, but I understand why, in some ways, when kids are  really young, you want to teach the value of hard work and following through as stand-alone skills because the nuance of when you employ those and deploy them can be tricky for a little kid to understand.

So I understand that, and because of that, for a lot of our childhood through probably high school, we’re taught about the value of hard work and working hard and hard work for the sake of hard work, candidly. And I think that there’s probably room to bring some nuance in high school, but up until middle school, let’s say, I get it. I get why parents focus on that and our culture focuses on that to a degree. But, as we get older, we need to parse that and really evaluate, “I’m on this really hard path, and is it worth it to me?” This was a big aha moment for me.

When I was finishing up college, I was studying for the LSAT, and I was studying really hard for the LSAT, and, again, up until that point, that’s a lot of what my parents had emphasized is hard work, working hard, all that kind of stuff. I was back in Minnesota. I think it was just a long weekend, and we were out on the lake and having fun. We were at this cabin, and I was just working all the time. I was studying all the time, and I remember candidly just being like, “My parents are gonna really applaud this hard work that I’m demonstrating,” and I was doing a little bit of it for the accolades. That’s what I was pretty sure I was gonna get.

And I’m sitting there, and there was one point my dad was playing at the lake. He might have been doing some yard work, but he was outside having fun, and he walks over, and I’m like, “Here it is! Here are the accolades coming my way.” He’s like, “Why are you working so hard?” I was like, “Well, you know, I’m studying for the LSAT. I’ve got to get into the best law school I can get into.” And he was like, “Okay, just make sure that you don’t study so hard that you get into a law school that you’re gonna have to study this hard for throughout. It’s still three years of your life,” and he walked away.

I was like, “Wow.” That is a different angle and perspective than I had been used to at that point. He’s not saying, “Don’t go for your dream. Don’t become a lawyer. Don’t go to law school.” He’s not saying that at all. I mean, he always encouraged hard work and going for what you want, but he was also not discounting my experience along the way to get there. And it was a big moment for me of even if you want the ultimate goal, don’t ignore your day-to-day life on the way to getting there and the value of enjoying it because it is still three years of your life.

I’ll also throw out there that my friend who passed away was in his third year of med school when it happened, I believe (it might have been his fourth, but it was somewhere in there), and I do think — I’m just connecting that now — is that, luckily, he is someone who really went after life and enjoyed I think so much life. And so, he lived that, but I do think it’s important to remember that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, as corny as that sounds. We could pass away somewhere in the middle of the journey of getting to where we want.

And so, my dad’s point stands of you need to really make sure that, even when you’re working hard towards something that you want, you need to enjoy the ride. You need to set yourself up to have elements of your life. That doesn’t mean you have to enjoy every minute, but parts of your life that you are enjoying even on the journey. You can’t just throw away years of your life in sacrifice of a goal that you might want.

And I do feel like for a long time that my experience at that Boston law firm was really worth it in that way. Even once I realized I didn’t want to be a partner at a big law firm, I still was like, “I’m actually kind of enjoying my day-to-day life, though. I enjoy the cases I’m on. I’m enjoying the partners I work with. I’m enjoying the money I’m making.” All of those things combine to, “You know, maybe this is okay for a while. Maybe this is a great path to be on.” And then when I was kind of forced to leave that path because of my husband getting placed in California for residency, that’s when I was like, “Well, let me not now jump into another big law firm, since I’m really sure I don’t want the big law firm route. Let me see if there’s a different type of law firm that might be a good fit,” and I found out it wasn’t. But it was still a great opportunity to realize in that moment, “I don’t really want to be at a big firm, so let me not go to another big firm in California. Let me try out something else.”

So, for this part (this factor), I think about both the good and the bad. The good is even if you don’t want the ultimate goal that you’re working towards, the good ride might allow you to feel like the hard work that you’re doing is worth it. You’re enjoying the projects you’re on, more of the day-to-day life that you’re experiencing, for the most part. Probably not every minute, but let’s say across six months, if you had a snapshot of six months in your calendar, in your life, does that feel good and are you enjoying that. Because if you are, then maybe that hard work is worth it. Even if you’re like, “I don’t really want this ultimate goal, but for now, this is a great experience for me,” and it might — I’ve seen this with particularly some working moms where they’re like, “I’m not loving my job. I don’t ultimately probably want to stay at this company or do this type of position, but I enjoy it enough. I enjoy the people I work with enough. I’m making good money.” This is maybe not the most intellectually challenging job or things like that, but it’s great work-life balance for what I want for this phase of, for example, having little kids. That’s an example of when the ride can really serve you well even if the ultimate goal isn’t something that you want.

On the flipside, even if you want an ultimate goal, and especially if you don’t, is really taking a step back and thinking about the ride. You might be saying, “Okay, I think life will get better if I get this promotion. I think I’ll get what I want,” but how long am I talking about when I really think about that? Because, for some people, when you really realize that we’re talking about three to four to five years, maybe. Do I want this ride for the next three to four to five years, given how hard it is, given how much I don’t enjoy it, things like that.

An example of this is, to me, it also happens in our personal life. For me, poignantly in this phase of life I’m in, it’s around kids. I have two children. I thought I’d always have three children, but as I live the reality of it, I’m like, “I think we’re really good at two.” And sometimes when you ask for advice, some people will be like, “Well, it’s just a phase, and it’s so wonderful to have all older kids.” And let’s even assume that’s true, because I’m working with clients who have older kids, and I’m not sure it gets any easier until you’re empty nesting. And even then it’s hard emotionally. But the logistics of having older kids with all the afterschool activities just seems like a lot to juggle. 

But let’s even pretend that it’s just a little kid phase. I mean, the little kid phase lasts ‘til they’re, like, five. So if I were to have another kid right now, that’s basically a year of being pregnant, assuming I could even get pregnant relatively quickly, and then it’s five years after that of little kid life again. And you might enjoy little kid life, which sounds great to you, but if it has been hard for you and it is just exhausting even if you enjoy it, that’s a long phase of life. That’s not just a blip. That’s a lot of years of life. And just embrace that, and you can make a decision based on it, and you’ll make a more informed decision, but that’s, to me, really important to look ahead. How many years are we talking? Get concrete about that. How old will I be when that happens? What else is going on in my life.

Sidenote: that Years Are Short Spreadsheet can really bring this to life. I’ll link that in the show notes. But that’s really helpful. I’ve actually heard of some women using that Years Are Short Spreadsheet, that is not my idea but it’s a great resource of making these, “What will life look like in five years? What’s gonna go on? What’re the ages of kids or parents or me or all of those things? How does all of this play out?” And you can look at that more concretely, but really looking ahead, like let’s go back to a career example.

“I think I’m gonna have to be doing this hard path for the next four years until I get to the next phase. Let me look at using this spreadsheet or even just in my head, let me really think about what does life look like over the next four years? What parts of life are going on, and am I okay sacrificing my ability to give time and energy to those parts of my life in light of this?” And I’m not saying these are right or wrong, but I think it’s really important to evaluate this from a more informed place versus the very understandable approach that a lot of us take of just like I’m gonna live in the weeds and dig, dig, dig, dig, dig. I’ve got to just keep grinding, but not realizing, perhaps, how long it could take.

A side note of this is, while I really value past experience, in this analysis I would not look at how much you’ve invested to date. I just think that often we focus too much on how much time we’ve put into our current trajectory and don’t really evaluate, “How much time would I have left in this?” Because it might be a number of years. It might even be decades if it’s just the life of your career, and you’re like, “Well, I’ve invested ten years in getting here. I’ve invested fifteen years in getting here.” It’s like, yeah, but you’ve got, like, 30 left probably that you’re gonna work, and so, do you want to sign up for that? I think that’s really the important part here.

So just to clarify where we’re at is we’ve talked about do you want the ultimate goal, and now we’re talking about do you want the ride because sometimes a good ride can justify a goal that you don’t actually want, and it’s serving its own purpose for now, and sometimes even if you do want a goal, a tough ride can still make it not worth it to you. You’re like that’s just a dream that maybe sounds really cool in theory, and I’m sure it would be awesome when I get there. But I’m not willing to sacrifice X years of my life to get there, and I think having the clarity of how many years are we likely talking here and what’s gonna be going on in those years and do I want to sacrifice that.

And sometimes you do. That’s great too, and I think that’s really important to realize that you can still go for it, but then you have owned that decision, and it will make the tension you feel between work and life easier to manage from just a mindset standpoint because you knew what you were doing, and you owned it. Again, always re-evaluate. You can always change your mind, but for the period of time that you’re in it, using that analysis, I think you can really own your decision there.

All right, so I know this was a little bit — I hope it was interesting. I think a lot of us think about this type of stuff. Is the hard work I’m experiencing right now worth it, and having somewhat of a framework to think about it in of, “Do I want the ultimate goal? Am I enjoying the ride?” And letting those answers, when you really think about them and take a step back and think about them, inform your decision of whether it’s worth it or not.

If You Choose to Exit Your Career Path, What’s Next? – 23:49

And if it’s not worth it, I think that this is somewhere that is not my expertise. I’ll actually link to some resources that people have recommended, people who help people exit career paths and things like that. I have not worked with any of the people, so I can’t necessarily speak to them, but they’ve been recommended to me. So I’ll put those in the show notes if that’s something you want to look into.

I think you don’t have to jump ship right away, but it was be a good realization to be like, “You know what? I’m not enjoying the path that I’m on, and I need an exit plan, and I don’t know what that’s necessarily going to be, but I can start working towards that both from a financial savings standpoint and a planning standpoint, and also maybe hiring someone who can help me figure out what’s next and how to get to there.” And even, again, what is next? That can be a big decision.

For me, it was a huge one. As I mentioned, I’d wanted to be a lawyer since sixth grade. Leaving was not something that I — it caused a lot of turmoil, let’s say, because it was a big identity shift for me. But even if you are happy, going back to it, like when we talked about if you’re not, but even if you are, I still think it’s really awesome to do this analysis, and, again, re-evaluate at periods of time. Calendar it, and make sure because it really helps you own your decision. When things are hard, you can have that kind of peace of mind and clarity and powerful feeling of, “Yep, this is hard right now, but I know it’s worth it to me because I’ve decided that, and I’ve really thought this through.” That can be really powerful.

I’d love to hear if you have other things that you think about. I have mentioned in the past that I really like the how-do-you-want-your-life-to-feel perspective, and I think that can inform a lot of what we’ve talked about, but I love hearing how other people approach this stuff, how they own it, how they think about it. Just shoot me an email! Let me know. I can do a follow-up episode, as I mentioned, or just share in my email newsletter or on Instagram, and I just think it’s a really interesting conversation that isn’t directly tied to time management, although, obviously, it informs how we spend our limited time and energy, but really is like time management adjacent for a lot of people I work with, and so, I thought it was worth talking about and thinking about. I think it’s really interesting. So hopefully you enjoyed it, and I will catch you in the next episode. Thanks for being here!

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