If you’re a hard worker, one of the most difficult things is how to handle times when work is too easy. If it’s a job you don’t like, you might not mind a slow work flow, but if you care about and enjoy what you do, few things are more vexing for someone with high work ethic than feeling underworked.
The trick is to learn two very different style of creating value. The first and easy one is to simply execute quickly and effectively on tasks as they flow to you, and obvious things you know need to be done. The second is to create value when you have more time than obvious tasks to complete. This is a common challenge in jobs that have a lot of seasonal workflow variation. You get used to cranking out 70 hours a week of solid product when it’s flowing, and you feel satisfied in so doing. But when you’re only getting 40, 30, or 20 hours worth of projects coming your way, you feel idle, listless, guilty, and unfulfilled.
There are two effective strategies to deal with this. The first is to learn to enjoy slow times and take advantage by doing more reading, taking more walks, getting more abstract and philosophical, and working at or learning new things not directly related with your daily tasks. This is harder than it sounds for hard working people. You might feel guilty at first, but over time you’ll realize that the bursts of inspiration and improvement in mental, emotional, and spiritual health you gain are of immense value when things pick up again.
The second kind is harder in that it takes a bigger mental shift, but easier in that you won’t feel disconnected because it more directly correlates with creating value for your organization. That is to zoom out, systematically ask fundamental questions about the business model, the processes, the existing product, and the way it’s delivered – especially those things that seem to be working really well, and seem least likely to need rethinking. Can you implement a new tool for organizing information? Can you reformat your database? Can you create some brainstorm lists or turn them into action items? Can your website copy be improved? The list is endless.
It’s hard to get into this state of mind when work is rapidly coming at you. You get so used to reacting that you have no time for rethinking or creating. But when the daily flow gets easy and you still have energy and time leftover, this is incredibly valuable to learn. It’s what separates those who sell sandwiches to a steady number of customers in a small town day after to and those who build a nationwide franchise. It’s what separates repeaters from creators. It’s not more or less noble, but it’s a different kind of value creation.
This kind of big picture work must by necessity take a back seat to daily or seasonal workflow. You can be the best big picture thinker in the world, but if you can’t just get things done that need doing when they need doing, you’ll never have the chance. It’s hard enough to retrain yourself in slow times to do more than merely react to work flow, but it’s harder still to flip the switch back when work picks up and not be too lost in long term improvements to churn out quality product.
You have to maintain two different kinds of work ethic and two different outlooks, and commit as fully as possible to whichever one the situation calls for, often switching back and forth at a moments notice. If you can keep grinding when the grist is flowing, and rethink the way the grinder operates when the grist slows, you’ll overcome the aimlessness that can make even the best jobs unfulfilling.