Why the Protestant work ethic is broken

by | Apr 27, 2016 | Time

Takeaway: There is immense value in working hard—but only up to a point. When you work through tiredness and fatigue, and don’t take time to recharge, you will become less productive. Today, most of us no longer do work with our bodies, like we did when the Protestant work ethic solidified. We do knowledge work, which changes how we should approach our work.

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes, 15s.


“I’ve never found in my whole life that you could convince someone who doesn’t want to work hard to work hard.” — Steve Jobs1

There is nothing wrong with hard work. But only up to a point.

The Protestant work ethic—the work philosophy that those who work hard, and are disciplined and frugal, go to heaven—has served us pretty well up to this point. The phrase was coined in the early 1900s, and has propelled us through the industrial revolution, where the harder we worked on the assembly line, the more productive we became. For many, the Protestant work ethic involved working straight through tiredness and skipping lunch breaks to get more done. Unfortunately, today the idea no longer works. The nature of our work has changed quite a bit since the early 1900s.

Chances are if you’re reading this post that you no longer do work with your body—you work with your brain. This shift has changed everything.

For example, if you were to rewind 50 or 75 years to when the Protestant work ethic was in full force, you’ll see that our work as a lot different. We used to:

  • Do simple, repetitive work. Today, though, our work requires more mental lifting than ever before.
  • Work harder and faster to get more done. In a factory, working harder and quicker produced more widgets. Now, if we have more work to do than time to do it, this is the wrong approach. The most productive people aren’t working faster and more frantically—they’re the ones who work more deliberately, and with more intention.
  • Not care about our energy. How much energy we had didn’t matter as much, because our work didn’t require that much of it. We could have several drinks at night, show up the next day, and still be productive. Today, energy is the fuel that our brains burn throughout the day to get stuff done—and if we don’t take the time to recharge and cultivate how much energy we have, our productivity will be toast.
  • Not care about our focus. Our focus didn’t used to matter that much. With knowledge work, however, our work tasks benefit from all of the focus we can possibly bring to them—and habits like multitasking can seriously derail productivity.
  • Own our attention. After the industrial revolution, our work owned our attention from 9 to 5, but once we got home, our attention was ours. We didn’t have a flood of interruptions and notifications that disrupted our focus, as well as our productivity, throughout the day.

I should reiterate what I said at the top of the post: this is not to discount the value of hard work. There’s no way around it: working hard, in addition to working smart, is essential to becoming more productive.

But at the same time, it’s possible to take things too far. When you skip lunch in favor of putting in an extra hour of work, you don’t give your brain time—or glucose, which it burns as energy—to recharge. The same is true for simple productivity tactics like getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating properly. All of these will give you more energy, which lets you get more done. Similarly, your brain has a limited pool of physiological energy, which makes taking breaks—including breaks from technology—crucial, so you can recharge.

The most productive people not only work hard, but also cultivate how much energy and focus they have.

The tectonic plates that underlie our working world have shifted dramatically: instead of doing simple work with our bodies, today we do complex work with our minds.

This shift has changed everything—including the most productive approach to our work. Today, productivity isn’t about doing more, faster—it’s about doing the right things, deliberately and intentionally. The more energy and focus we can bring to our work, the better.

  1. As cliché as it is to start an article with a quote from Steve Jobs, I love this one and couldn’t resist. 

Written by Chris Bailey

Chris Bailey has written hundreds of articles on the subject of productivity and is the author of three books: How to Calm Your Mind, Hyperfocus, and The Productivity Project. His books have been published in more than 40 languages. Chris writes about productivity on this site and speaks to organizations around the globe on how they can become more productive without hating the process.

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