Sometimes, the Work Is Easier Than the Workaround Cover

Sometimes, the Work Is Easier Than the Workaround

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.

Do Self-Help Books Work? Cover

How Modern Non-Fiction Books Waste Your Time (and Why You Should Read Them Anyway)

When I first discovered non-fiction books, I thought they were the best thing since sliced bread. Whatever problem you could possibly have, there’s a book out there to help you solve it. I had a lot of challenges at the time, and so I started devouring lots of books.

I read books about money, productivity, and choosing a career. Then, I read books about marketing, creativity, and entrepreneurship. I read and read and read, and, eventually, I realized I had forgotten to implement any of the advice! The only habit I had built was reading, and as wonderful as it was, it left me only with information overwhelm.

After that phase, I flipped to the other, equally extreme end of the spectrum: I read almost no books, got all my insights from summaries, and only tried to learn what I needed to improve a given situation at any time.

So, do self-help books work? As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

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30 Lessons Learned in 30 Years of Life

Yesterday, I turned 30. When I was 18, I thought by 30, I’d have it made.

My 20s were a long, slow grind of realizing “made” does not exist. “Made” is past tense — but you’re never done! The only finish line is death, and, thankfully, most of us don’t see it until we’re almost there.

Instead of the binary made/not made distinction, I now see life as round-based. You win some, you lose some, and different rounds have different themes. There’s a carefree-childhood season, a teenager-trying-to-understand-society season, an exuberant-20-something season, and so on.

At 30 years old, I’ve only played a few seasons, but each round feels more interesting than the last. If that trend persists, I can’t imagine what one’s 60s or 90s must be like. By that time, you’ve seen so much — and yet, there’ll always be new things to see.

Most seasons last longer than a year, and there’s plenty to talk about with respect to the important, defining decade from 20 to 30 alone, but today, I’d like to do something different: I want to share one thing I’ve learned from each year I’ve been alive.

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Lincoln’s Unsent Angry Letter: Modern Technology Edition

In 2014, Maria Konnikova lamented the lost art of “the unsent angry letter” in the New York Times. The idea is that if you’re upset at something or someone, you write a detailed, liberal response — and then stick it in your drawer until you’ve cooled off.

US president Abraham Lincoln may be the most prominent proponent of “hot letters,” as he called them, but the stashed vent has a long tradition among statesmen and public figures. Harry Truman, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill — the list of admired characters to prove the tactic’s efficacy is long enough.

It serves as both an emotional and strategic catharsis, Konnikova noted. You can “let it all out” without fearing retaliation while, simultaneously, seeing what proper arguments you have on offer — and what’s just nasty, unhinged thought.

In theory, the tool is as intact as ever: When you’re angry, write a letter. Then, let it sit. By the time you revisit, you’ll be able to learn rather than suffer from it. In practice, however, 200 years of technological progress have undoubtedly left their mark on what used to be a pen-and-paper exercise. Konnikova writes:

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If You’re an Intellectual, Act Like One

In seventh grade, my history teacher asked if anyone knew what the huge, fancy, painting-like carpets covering the walls of the Palace of Versailles were called. His question was met with silence and puzzled faces.

Eventually, I raised my hand and said: “Gobelin.” My teacher was thrilled. So was my neighbor. “Ooooh, go-be-liiiiin, Mr. I-know-everything.” The class erupted in laughter.

There’s something to be said here about shaming intellectuals and about a system in which being fun is cooler than being smart, but at 13 I was oblivious to both of those things — so I too erupted in laughter. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right?

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How To Not Be Gullible

In 1997, 14-year-old Nathan Zohner used the science fair to alert his fellow citizens of a deadly, dangerous chemical.

In his report Dihydrogen Monoxide: The Unrecognized Killer, Nathan outlined all the alarming characteristics of the colorless, odorless, tasteless compound — DHMO for short — which kills thousands of Americans each year:

  • DHMO can cause severe burns both while in gas and solid form.
  • It is a major component of acid rain and often found in removed tumors of cancer patients.
  • DHMO accelerates corrosion of both natural elements and many metals.
  • Ingesting too much DHMO leads to excessive sweating and urination.
  • For everyone with a dependency on DHMO, withdrawal leads to death.

After giving his presentation, Nathan asked 50 fellow students what should be done. 43 — a staggering 86% — voted to ban DHMO from school grounds.

There was only one problem: Dihydrogen monoxide is water.


Every day, people use facts to deceive you because you let them.

Life is hard. We all get fooled six ways from Sunday. People lie to us, we miscommunicate, and it’s impossible to always correctly read other people’s feelings. But facts? If we let facts deceive us, that’s on us.

When it’s hard to be right, there is nothing wrong with being wrong. But when it only takes a few minutes or even seconds to verify, learn, and educate yourself, choosing to stay ignorant is really just that: A decision — and likely one for which you’ll get the bill sooner rather than later.

If you know a little Latin, Greek, or simply pay attention in chemistry class, the term “dihydrogen monoxide” is easy to deconstruct. “Di” means “two,” hydrogen is an element (H on the periodic table), “mono” means one and “oxide” means oxidized — an oxygen atom (O on the periodic table) has been added. Two hydrogens, once oxidized. Two Hs, one O. H2O. Water.

When Nathan ran his experiment “How Gullible Are We?” in 1997, people didn’t have smartphones. They did, however, go to chemistry class. Nathan’s classmates had parents working in the sector, and they all had chemistry books. They even could have asked their teacher: “What’s dihydrogen monoxide?” But none of them did.

In his final report, Nathan wrote he was shocked that so many of his friends were so easily fooled. “I don’t feel comfortable with the current level of understanding,” he said. James Glassman, who wrote about the incident in the Washington Post, even coined the term “Zohnerism” to describe someone using a fact to mislead people.

Today, we have smartphones. We have a library larger than Alexandria’s in our pocket and finding any page from any book takes mere seconds. Yet, we still get “zohnered” on a daily basis. We allow ourselves to be.

“Too much sugar is bad for you. Don’t eat any sugar.” Yes, too much sugar is bad, but the corollary isn’t to stop eating it altogether. Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy, and they’re all broken down into various forms of sugar. It’s a vital component of a functioning metabolism. Plus, each body has its own nuances, so cutting out sugar without more research could actually be bad for you. But if I’m selling a no-sugar diet, who cares, right?

You care. You should. And that’s why it’s your job to verify such claims. It’s easy to spin something correct in a way that sends you in whatever direction the manipulator wants to send you. The only solution is to work hard in order to not let yourself be manipulated:

  • Say “I don’t know” when you don’t know. I know it’s hard, but it’s the most liberating phrase in the world. Whenever you’re out of your comfort zone, practice. “Actually, I don’t know, let me look it up.”
  • Admit that you don’t know to yourself. You’ll miss some chances to say “I don’t know.” That’s okay, you can still educate yourself in private later. Your awareness of your ignorance is as important as fighting it.
  • Google everything. When you’re not 100% sure what a word means, google it. When you want to know where a word comes from, google it. When you know you used to know but are hazy on the details, google it. Seriously. Googling takes ten seconds. Google everything.
  • Learn about your biases. Hundreds of cognitive biases affect our thinking and decisions every waking second. Learning about them and occasionally brushing up on that knowledge will go a long way.
  • When someone argues for one side of a conflict, research both. Whether it’s a story in the news, a political issue, or even the issue of where to get lunch, don’t let yourself get clobbered into one corner. Yes, McDonald’s is cheap. Yes, you like their fries. But what about Burger King? What do you like and not like about both of them?
  • When someone talks in absolutes, add a question mark to every sentence. James Altucher often does this with his own thoughts, but it’s equally helpful in questioning the authority of others. Don’t think in absolutes. Think in questions.

The dihydrogen monoxide play has been used many times to point people at their own ignorance. A 1994 version created by Craig Jackson petitions people to “act now” before ending on a truthful yet tongue-in-cheek note: “What you don’t know can hurt you and others throughout the world.”

Richard Feynman received the Nobel prize in physics, but he started his journey as a curious boy, just like Nathan Zohner. Like Einstein, he believed inquisitiveness could solve any problem, and so he always spoke in simple terms — to get people interested in science.

He also said the following, which still rings true today: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

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Learn Touch Typing in 4 Minutes

Here’s some simple math: If you type 30 words per minute, then a 300-word email will take you 10 minutes to write. But if you can type twice as fast, you can crank it out in five. That’s a lot of minutes saved if you write a lot of emails — or do anything else that requires you to type words on a screen.

With all the productivity hacks out there for managing your time — simplifying your inbox, time blocking, optimizing your meetings — typing faster seems like the obvious, low-hanging fruit. But it’s fruit that many people aren’t reaching for. As the MIT Tech Review has noted, touch typing has fallen out of favor and many schools are no longer teaching it. You probably type at the same speed that you did when you were in high school, and you assume that it’s working out for you just fine.

Trust me, it’s not. Your slowness is costing you. Dearly. You just never realized it. You don’t see the person at the other end of your email typing at twice your speed and therefore getting more done. But that’s what’s happening. When it comes to small tasks at work, speed matters.

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5 Good Things That Will Follow From This Pandemic

The best way to stay calm amidst the coronavirus madness is to focus on the present moment. Accept reality as is, realize you’re okay, and then handle the challenge at hand with direction and resolve.

The second best way is to time travel to the future. What will happen after all this is over? Can you imagine a more peaceful tomorrow? What good will come from this? There will come some good from this. It’s hard to see it now, but making the effort will give you something to aspire to in these dark times.

Of course no one can predict the future, but when I think about what positive, long-term consequences we could see from this pandemic, I spot a lot of potential. Here are 5 predictions to provide some comfort while we’re all stuck at home.

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We Used To Just Live

I remember simpler times.

I remember a time when I woke up every morning and didn’t immediately know what time it was. Sometimes, I looked at the clock on my nightstand. Sometimes, I didn’t. I just…woke up. That was my task for the first few minutes of the day. Wake up. Realize that it’s another day. Another day that would be good or bad, long or short, slow or fast, but another day that would be, above all, full of life. Not devices and tools and to-dos. Life.

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