[ Question ]

What is a reasonably complete set of the different meanings of "hard work"?

by DonyChristie3 min read7th Dec 20191 comment



The concept of "hard work" seems very confusing to me.

I think it could mean combinations of many different things. It doesn't seem that helpful for actually carving reality at the joints for engineering purposes and getting better at whatever traits are needed. It seems like a messy construct composed of many dimensions, and in fact the dials on those dimensions could be set to very different settings and still be called "hard work" without distinguishing between the different underlying factors.

I want to be able to reductionistically decompose what another person could mean when they use the phrase, so I could then narrow it down to the precise anticipation of experience that they are implying. I have some guesses as to some of those parts below.

What I want is a list of Hard-Workingness Theories, composed of particular precise-as-possible lower-level pieces, rank-ordered by plausibility/usefulness/interestingness at capturing what you think people in general mean, and/or your best attempt at defining it. Maybe there is some general feature that neatly explains most of it.

Spoiler alert if you want to think before seeing my thoughts (also, apologies for redundancies and bad grouping in my list). If someone wants (someone else) to work hard, it could mean any combination of the following components:

  • Working for a long period of time, relative to some baseline, measured in hours.
  • Muscular usage, measured by literal sweat, heart rate, and soreness the day after
  • How physically fast a person is at completing a task
  • Engaging in activities that correlate with high trait Conscientiousness (this still makes me unsatisfied with how much it passes the buck but at least it's reasonably operationalized)
  • How ritualized a person's schedule is
  • How much a person's attention is focused on the work
  • How much a person's attention is required for success at the work
  • How much working memory is required to perform a task
  • How valuable others think the task(s) performed are, measured in dollars
  • How meaningful a person felt a task was afterwards
  • How long the time is between effort and payoff (deferment of gratification, time preference)
  • How quickly a person does a task after the task is received
  • How much enthusiasm a person displays for doing a task
  • How much the person worked compared to other people doing the same thing
  • How much VUCA the person is capable of tolerating (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity). I suspect this is the linchpin of much of what constitutes "hard work" for white collar workers in the 21st century. It's quite different and possibly sometimes even in conflict with Muscular Usage, however.
  • The amount that a person learns from a task
  • How much anxiety a person faces and does a task anyway
  • Or more generally than the previous: "the ability for a person to do what a person doesn't want to do". (!) I think this usage has the largest attack surface for being used as a way to shame other people for doing things that aren't actually good for them but other people want them to do.
  • "Whether a person is exercising their conscientiousness above their normal conscientiousness level" (distinguished from, "this person has a high conscientiousness level")
  • Ability for the person to tolerate physical pain while doing a task
  • The amount of different kinds of actions a person has to do while working, or how many different stimuli they have to stay engaged with (multitasking, parallelization)
  • Relatedly: the amount of mental switching costs a person can engage in.
  • Whether they can do things that others can't
  • How intelligent they are
  • Whether, after they are done working, they feel exhausted and like they can't handle any more of it
  • To what extent the work is not something they are intrinsically motivated to do anyway without recompense of some kind
  • How 'enjoyable' or 'unenjoyable' a task is
  • The extent to which someone would do a thing without being observed by other people
  • How much the person actually gets done, quantitatively
  • How effective a person is/how much they get done qualitatively
  • A judgement of how much other people deem the work to be hardworking (I think relevant in cases where humans are really bad at judging what a profession is actually like and they over- or under-estimate its impressiveness?)
  • The extent to which a person changes themselves to do a thing they could not previously do
  • The extent to which a person does not change themselves but changes their environment to make themselves more effective
  • Attention to detail/thoroughness/checking
  • Attempting to perform the task has a high risk of failure for that person, yet they do it anyway
  • Attempting to perform the task has a high risk of failure for most other people, but not that person
  • The person judging hard-workingness does not understand what the work involves
  • The extent to which the person being judged to be hard-working has high-status generally, or has a high-status job in particular, and the extent to which praising/imputing their hard-workingness would therefore be consonant with their external identity regardless of how they actually function at their work
  • The extent to which a task is socially acceptable. Is drug-dealing "hard-working" (which drugs)? Is thievery? Is prostitution? What would polls of different demographics of people say about those fields?

There are various examples that could be classified as "hard work" or "not hard work" depending on what exactly is meant by the example and the particular profile of meanings a hard-workingness classifier is using. One can test their theories of hard-workingness on these examples and ask, "Once fully specified, when will or won't this category be hard work, according to this hard-workingness theory?"

  • Going to the gym
  • Calling people
  • Listening and taking notes
  • Listening and not taking notes
  • Traveling
  • Reading a book
  • Giving a talk
  • Making a Discord server
  • Moderating a Discord server
  • Writing a LessWrong post
  • Writing fiction
  • Driving a U-Haul to pick up a fridge
  • Moving a couch
  • Going to a church when you don't normally go but really having to reel in your impulse to argue with people there
  • Getting to a place on time but you're quite tired
  • Being an airline pilot
  • Being an air traffic controller
  • Being a toddler
  • Thinking about moral and economic tradeoffs
  • Starting a startup
  • Doing things that have a high beneficial impact on the world


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1 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:12 PM

Just thinking aloud... if you offer people several work options, saying they have to do one of them for a month, and get the same salary regardless of their choice... and most people avoid an option X... and it's not specifically because X is seen as low-status or physically dangerous... then X likely is "hard work".

Also, maybe it is necessary to distinguish between "works that are hard when done properly" (but maybe a lazy person could make their job easy by cutting corners) and "a person working hard" (but maybe because they chose to do more than would be normally expected of them). To use one of your examples, going to gym is hard work compared with sitting at home watching movies, but someone who only goes to gym to ogle girls is not doing hard work.

I suspect "hard work" will be relative to who is doing it, but if you don't mention who is doing it, then an average adult able-bodied person is assumed.