When my favorite writer stopped writing, I decided to save all his articles, lest he delete them. I knew I could save them one by one in Evernote, but since he had published over 100 pieces, I thought there might be a way to avoid this tedium.
I asked a developer friend for help, and he referred me to another mutual friend of ours. I messaged that friend on Slack but didn’t get a response. A week later, I emailed him. A few more days went by, but then, he responded.
My friend suggested two scraping tools for the job. I started comparing their features and pricing. As it turned out, one tool would limit exports on a free trial, so I went with the other one. I downloaded it, installed it, and made an account.
The tool was pretty technical, so it took a while to grasp the basics. Eventually, I got it to load my favorite author’s index page, where all his stories were linked. Then, however, the tool required making complex workflows, and to top it all off, it only seemed to export to CSV, not PDF.
At this point, I finally decided the juice was no longer worth the squeeze. I sat down after lunch, sipped some coffee, cranked up the music, and went to work. One by one, I opened each article in a new tab, clicked the Evernote Web Clipper, chose the right output settings, and saved it.
Some pages took forever to load. Chrome groaned under the pressure. Evernote kept changing its settings, so I had to fiddle with them each time. After about an hour, however, I made it. There it was: My favorite author’s entire essay collection, preserved for future readings.
All in all, saving 100+ articles by hand was boring, tedious, and eye-roll inducing. I felt grumpy, annoyed, and frustrated at times. In short, it was exactly what you’d expect it to be. It was also, however, the 100% right thing to do — the shortest path to results, and thus the quickest way to satisfaction.
“Work smarter, not harder!” It’s a piece of advice cited like gospel in meetings, speeches, and job interviews. But how much time do you spend trying to out-smart the work? Isn’t thinking the hardest work of all? Thinking a lot without meaningful breakthroughs — there’s hardly a faster way to exhaustion.
Sometimes, it’s better to admit you’re not that good at it. Sometimes, the work is easier than the workaround.
“The long way is the shortcut,” says entrepreneur and author Seth Godin. When it comes to strategy, that’s easy-to-take advice. Of course you shouldn’t rush your novel, launch your business without a plan, or sell out your audience for a quick buck.
But what about tactics? What about the everyday chores life asks us to grind through? Here, we resist the high road for its seeming length when, often, it is not just the ethically sound but actually the shortest — albeit strenuous — path to success. That doesn’t make any sense.
This week, my year-long struggle with taxes came to a head: The government wants to see proper invoices, including names, addresses, and VAT charges. When you’re a German sole proprietor with strangers abroad buying your online courses based solely on an email address, however, that’s easier said than done.
I had spent months looking for a solution. I tried every accounting software, every table-formatting trick, and every bulk import tool I could find. In the end, what did it come down to? Me, sitting on a couch at WeWork, manually generating 400 invoices by hand to submit at the last minute — and you know what? Once I got started, it wasn’t that bad.
In fact, doing accounting — something I hate with a passion — the hard way, taught me several valuable lessons. For one, I learned that I can (still) focus on one task for five hours straight. For another, I realized that, despite hating it, I can take care of my books well enough for them to be presentable. Finally, and this is the big one, slicing through one tedious task gave me the courage to not shy away from another. I’m sure my article-saving stint had a similar, confidence-boosting effect.
We tell ourselves we’re being smart for avoiding the work, but the truth is that only applies in certain scenarios. When the work repeats endlessly, for example, or when it’s impossible to deliver it on time. If it’s a one-off project you are uniquely prepared to do well, however, wasting time on workarounds is a distraction. It’s a pseudo-justifiable symptom of what’s really going on under your skin: You are afraid.
You’re afraid of monotony, misery, and frustration. You’re afraid your ego might shatter when it catches you doing menial work. You’re afraid you might fail despite doing the right thing — what if you take the high road, the long road, and you still won’t reach your destination? You’re afraid you’re not cut out for the simplest solution. If you type the wrong thing on the invoice, there’s no software you can blame. Most of all, however, you’re afraid grinding it out will work. What if grunt work turns out to be smart? Terrifying! After all, there’d be no reason left to avoid it.
When he went skydiving, Will Smith learned that “the point of maximum danger is the point of minimum fear.” He had spent an entire day fretting, only to feel blissful and excited at the exact time when he had the most reason to worry — the moment he jumped out of the plane. He wondered: “Why were you scared in your bed the night before? What do you need that fear for?”
Now I don’t know much about extreme sports, but my recent bouts with banal tasks indicate Will’s lesson runs parallel to how we should approach our everyday jobs: “The point of maximum friction is the point of minimum fear.”
Once you get going, you’re going — and in the going lies peace of mind. Your unfounded worry disappears, and with each sigh-accompanied step, you’re accelerating towards your goal. It doesn’t matter if you walk slowly, if you think the work is beneath you, or whether you know someone else could have done it faster. What matters is you’re the one doing it, and you’re still here, so, ultimately, life can’t be that bad. It’s the kind of tangible proof no amount of thinking can conjure, and that’s why grunt work has value beyond its results.
There’s a scene in Game of Thrones where, after being taken in by a not-so-kind stranger, two members of the Night’s Watch, a once revered military order charged with protecting the world, are shoveling pig poop out of a latrine.
“When people talk about the Night’s Watch, they never mention the shoveling,” Grenn says. “Or the shit,” his friend Edd comments. “They tell you about honor, pardoning crimes, and protecting the realm, but shoveling really is most of it.” “And getting attacked, or killed, or worse.” “And that. But when you’re not getting attacked or killed, usually you’re shoveling.”
I haven’t watched all of Game of Thrones, but I doubt the fate of any one character in that show is preferable to whatever constitutes your everyday shoveling. Yes, work sucks sometimes. It’s not all collecting checks and after-work margaritas. Often, your biggest win of the day will be produced by shoveling a pile of shit — I mean, papers — from one side of your desk to the other. That may not be sexy, but it proves that, especially when we feel the most resistance towards it, shoveling is, usually, the right thing to do.
When an unpleasant task stares you in the face, do look for the obvious detour. But when there’s none to be found, don’t keep scouring the digital forest for hours. Let out a “pfff” if you must, but then, like Edd and Grenn, relent with humor to your immediate fate: “Ah, look. More shit. I was starting to wonder what to do with the rest of me day.”
Step up to your role in the small scheme of things, and before you know it, you’ll see: Small roles are not to be feared. They give us strength to star on bigger stages, and without them, the shoes of our heroes will always feel too big to fill. Work smart, sure, but remember that includes knowing when working hard is the smartest thing to do.