Rethinking Time and The Other Half of Work Ethic

In America, men often work long hours even when they are already well-off: such men, naturally, are indignant to the idea of leisure for wage-earners except as the grim punishment of unemployment

Bertrand Russell

Last week, I wrote about why an openness to unlearn or rethink what you know is central to learning and growth. In doing so, I decided to reflect on ideas I had to rethink that contributed to significant growth in my own life.

Like many high-performing, high-achievers, I was singularly focused on hustling, on reaching that next level of success. Every achievement reached became nothing more than an opportunity to find the next challenge. As far as I was concerned, this was just part of having a strong work ethic – hustle now and rest when you’re dead.

But, burnout always came. I even began to normalize it and convinced myself that this was my “normal” rhythm – work obsessively until I no longer could and then hope that the forced recovery would be quick so I could get back to hustling. Rest became nothing more than something to overcome so I could get back to work.

Yet, the more I read about the world’s best and most prolific performers (whether it be in sports, business, or other domains), I found that a strong drive and work-ethic was only half of the puzzle.


A strong work ethic is important. It allows us to make, execute, coordinate, manage, attain, plan and, overall, get things done.

But, there is an upper limit to our work ethic – one I became all too familiar with in my antiquated way of approaching work. A singular focus on work is precisely what lead to burn out. Work, instead, must be balanced with rest. But, rest should not be something we do when we’re forced to. Like a strong work ethic, it must be cultivated intentionally and in a disciplined manner.

A disciplined rest ethic is essential because it gifts us with inspiration, ideas and recovery. It creates space to build enthusiasm and sustain passion on a project. A disciplined rest ethic strengthens your work ethic and vice versa.

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier (Founders of Basecamp) provide one of the better definitions of work ethic in their book “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work.”

A great work ethic isn’t about working whenever you’re called upon. It’s about doing what you say you’re going to do, putting in a fair day’s work, respecting the work, respecting the customer, respecting coworkers, not wasting time, not creating unnecessary work for other people, and not being a bottleneck

What their definition makes clear is that working until the point of exhaustion or burnout is not necessary nor guarantees quality work. A good work ethic is defined by the quality of the work, not the quantity or busywork.


This struggle between work and rest is one that is not new. In fact, the ancient Greeks had two distinct words to symbolize these ideas.

Chronos was the personification of time. More specifically, measured time. In modern times, this is the distinction of time we frequently worship.

However, time has different qualities to it.

When you are on a three hour date with someone you love, time flies by. Compare that to sitting in a three hour lecture or a three hour conference call (may God have mercy on your soul). Time crawls by slowly, painfully even. The Chronos time doesn’t change, it’s still three hours. Kairos time, however is much different – it flys versus crawls. Chronos represents the quantity of time. Kairos represents the quality of time.

Our obsession with Chronos time has resulted in an obsession on how we spend our time, which we then conflate by letting it define who we are. We come to believe that if you’re hardworking you are worthy of admiration and respect, while someone who avoids work is lazy or contemptible. In short, how we spend our time becomes a value judgment.

This belief seeps into our unconscious and drives us to constantly fill our days with busyness and leads us to overwork and constant stress. We find ourselves living a paradox – we grind ourselves down to protect our dignity and self-worth but find ourselves hating our job or the work. While logically this is nothing more than mental gymnastics, if the story we tell ourselves is that work builds character, the more we hate the work, the better it is for our self-worth. A singular focus on Chronos allows us to develop a sense of dignity and self-importance because we hate our jobs.

Our culture worships busyness more than ever. We find ourselves more stressed out, more burned out and busier than ever – but no more productive for it. We equate these states too often with accomplishment rather than seeing them as a detriment to work itself.

The problem, as Cal Newport sees it in his book Deep Work, is that productive deep work, which results in creative and innovative outcomes, is challenging to quantify for the majority of knowledge workers. Rather, we default to “busyness” as the benchmark of productivity. It’s easier to measure busyness. Further, it sets the bar low for what’s defined as an accomplishment without having to get much done at all.

Simply put, by focusing exclusively on Chronos, we maintain a busy existence by focusing our accomplishments on what’s easily measured so we can point to something that justifies our work ethic and ultimately our identity.

Next week, I’ll continue to explore other ideas I’ve had to rethink or unlearn in order to deepen my growth.

I’m curious to know what ideas have you had to rethink or relearn that had a significant impact on your life?

I’ll leave you with another quote by Bertrand Russell that sums up the lesson nicely:

“There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.”

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