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That advice not to work so hard

We often hear that at the end of life, people often wish they hadn’t worked so hard. (I’m assuming this is coming from executive types who have the option of working less, not people who had to work hard just to put food on the table.)

I don’t understand this. Work is ok, but in almost any moment I much prefer relaxing to working. Nonetheless I often wish I were working harder or had worked harder. I don’t feel that I work too much.

So I don’t know what to think. Am I just unusual? Or maybe I already don’t work so hard, so there’s nothing for me to regret? Or—and this is the scary option—maybe right now I wish I were working harder, but in twenty years I’ll regret that I spent so much time working?

Here’s one thing. I like almost all the research papers I’ve written, but the vast majority (including some of my favorites) have had very few citations and, I assume, very little impact. So maybe I worked too hard on some of them?


  1. Jonathan says:

    Where is this coming from. This seems pretty out of the blue. But I do agree!

  2. lylebot says:

    I feel the same way, but many of my peers seem to prefer working to relaxing. Some will say “I work 12 hours a days” as if they’re proud of it. I assume they are, but to me that sounds nuts.

    I definitely do not work 12 hours a day, and while I sometimes think I should work harder, I have never later regretted that I didn’t. I somehow suspect that if I did work 12 hours a day, I would later regret it.

  3. Z says:

    That depends I think on how much you explored life and liked what you had seen / how much you enjoy your work. I do remember one of your posts about a guy who ranted against academia and you mentioned how people could choose to live on the weekends even if they dont like their jobs. I was a bit surprised at your take on it. People can choose to live everyday (I am talking about people who have a choice and not necessarily executive types). I choose to dedicate my life to something aside from my work even though I am allright at my job too (at least thats what I think). I choose to do this thing I am dedicated to everyday. I enjoy this and thats why I do it everyday. I often also explore other things and ask myself questions as to why I do what I do. But maybe you really enjoy your job and do not have to face the first question after 40 minutes of explanation of what you think is an important concept “is this going to be on the test?” if so you are very lucky to be paid for something you love doing. I think there are only a few people like that but maybe I am wrong.

  4. WM says:

    This probably relates to the old adage about the younger generation having the energy to do anything but not the time, while the older generation has all the time but not the energy.

  5. Charles Carver and Michael Scheier have a theory of goal pursuit that says, basically, you monitor your rate of progress toward your goals and compare it to how fast you think you need to be going. And that generates affect. If you’re making faster progress than you need to be, you feel good (happy, content. If you are going a bit slower than you should be, you feel a unpleasant (agitated, frustrated). If you’re way off course, you feel depressed.

    The kicker in their theory is that your affect is what regulates your effort. Happy makes you ease off (and perhaps switch to working on a more pressing goal for a while), agitated makes you work harder, depressed makes you give up. So the perverse part of having goals that you care about is that you need to feel a little bad sometimes (but not too bad) in order to motivate you to work on them.

  6. Basil says:

    I somewhat agree. My concern is if I spend my time in a meaningful way. Like watching a movie, posting on this blog, helping someone with math/statistics, etc. How will this affect my future, someone else’s future, statistics, or education? How can this be measured or is it even measurable? What type of legacy will remain when you depart your relative sphere of influence? Someone who doesn’t think about this is doomed to have no positive influence on others.

  7. Chris says:

    I feel the same way. But maybe academics are a special case.

  8. gaddeswarup says:

    I always assumed that, and it was true in my case, if one was working on things one liked it did not feel like one was working. May be in retrospect (I retired a few years ago) they do not look important and may be feeling ‘it was not worth it’ comes from that. But time passed pretty quickly when I was doing research and time seems to pass quickly when one is old.

  9. M. Goff says:

    It seems like one’s motivation for working might be a major influence in how one feels about the amount of work done in hindsight. At one extreme, work done solely in pursuit of things like money, prestige, or power may seem regretful in hindsight as one’s perspective changes with age. It may turn out someone concluding the extra money/prestige/power wasn’t worth the cost of time away from more enjoyable activities and/or fulfilling relationships with friends and family. At the other extreme, if one happens to get paid for doing something he or she has a passion for and would likely be trying to find a way to do anyway, I imagine the risk of looking back with regret about the time spent at work is much less.

  10. ginger says:

    I think many people don’t love their work. I would be torn and I would want to do more of everything I loved, including work (when work is good). And lying in bed snoozing and listening to the rain fall, and reading books, and having drinks with friends, and eating good food. And spending time with the people I love, of course. But ultimately that sort of regret is pretty wasteful, too – I will probably regret all the time I spent filing my taxes and cleaning behind the toilet and standing in line at the grocery store and going to staff meetings, but the time I spend contemplating how I could have spent my time better is totally wasteful unless I change my life to suit.

  11. Thiago Silva says:

    I can empathize with the feeling. I often feel like I should be working more. But then, when I look around me, I see that I’m still getting more stuff done than a lot of other people, people who do work more (hours) than I do. So maybe we fall into the “work smarter, not harder” category? :-)

  12. Karl Broman says:

    I’ve been thinking the same thing, though not so clearly. Regarding your last point, I’ve noticed that my more influential papers have been among the most mundane (in one case, I initially thought it wasn’t worth writing down). But I wouldn’t want to sacrifice quality for total impact. I’ve decided I should just focus on things I enjoy (rather than on things I think are important). So, even if no one had read your favorite papers, I think it’s better that you worked so hard on them (if you hadn’t, they probably wouldn’t be your favorites).

  13. I think people who give ‘That advice not to work so hard’ fail to keep in mind (a) the person you are at 35 is very very different from the person you are at 80 and (b) the person you are at 35 helps determine who you will become at 80. A simplistic example: elderly individuals are often encouraged to eat ice cream and chocolate to boost caloric intake. Ice cream and chocolate are much tastier than fiber twig cereal. Does this mean that people aged 35 or 50 should forego fiber cereal for a double serving of chocolate and ice cream?

  14. Jonathan says:

    Both Ran Kivetz and Thomas Gilovich have psychological papers about how the effect of regret changes over time. Here’s a link to Ran’s paper. Check it out!

  15. zbicyclist says:

    “the vast majority (including some of my favorites) have had very few citations and, I assume, very little impact. So maybe I worked too hard on some of them?”

    One might compare this to regretting buying losing lottery tickets, and wishing you’d bought only the winners.

    [imperfect analogy due to randomness of lottery]

    I think people usually regret working too much when they find themselves old and estranged from their children.

  16. Z says:

    But I guess the other question is what it is by what you mean by work? Is work neccessarily what you get paid to do? Not everybody is defined by their job.

    At the end of the day everybody is aware of the “Isnt it strange that we start dying the moment we are born?” Yes what we do now effects our future and sometimes we got to run after the carrot. And yes we “have to” think about the effects of our existence even if you dont believe in the afterlife. However that does not mean the only place where your time has value is in your job.

    The one thing I agree with one of the commentators above is, when you imagine yourself to be really old, how do you want to remember the past and how do you continue to live at that age? If you can answer these questions satisfactory to yourself than in my opinion you should be set to go. My main point here is that as long as you are aware we will all pass away regardless of what we do, and we are fine with and are aware of whatever path we have chosen in that journey to that point, it is all good. As I am dying I want to look back and smile at the accumulated experiences I had in this time. And maybe for most of you guys that is through your work and that again is a wonderful thing.

  17. Petunia says:

    I always read this poem by the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy when my thoughts turn to the meaning of work & life.

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  19. Steve Sailer says:

    Your colleagues from work aren’t likely to be hanging around your deathbed, but your family members are, so everybody is happier when you say you should have spent more time with your loved ones. Of course, when your will gets read a few weeks later, your heirs will wish you had worked even harder.

  20. Mike Rulle says:

    “We often hear that at the end of life, people often wish they hadn’t worked so hard”

    I think it is better said that this statement is always used by many who are not at the end of life. I cannot imagine people who are about to die ever think this. What I could imagine is “why did I have such anxiety and worry, when at the end we all die anyway”?

    But more likely, people are just scared and think none of these things.