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The Illusion of Hard Work

Remember the episode of Seinfeld called “The Caddy?” It’s the one where George ends up getting promoted for locking his car keys in his car.

George: Assistant to the General Manager!! You know what that means?!? He’d could be askin’ my advice on trades! Trades, Jerry, I’m a heartbeat away!

Jerry: That’s a hell of an organization they’re running up there. I can’t understand why they haven’t won a pennant in 15 years.

George: And, it is all because of that car. You see, Steinbrenner is like the first guy in, at the crack of dawn. He sees my car, he figures I’m the first guy in. Then, the last person to leave is Wilhelm. He see my car, he figures I’m burning the midnight oil. Between the two of them, they think I’m working an 18 hour day!

Jerry: Locking your keys in your car is the best career move you ever made.

Turns out George was onto something:

I frequently talk to MBA students about their careers and aspirations for life. Some of these students worked on Wall Street, and when we talk, a number of them admit that the key to their success was creating the illusion of hard work. One said that he and the other associates would leave their suit coats on their chairs at the end of the work day to make it seem that they hadn’t left for the night — that they were somewhere in the building doing work — when in fact they had gone home.

“We have these little tricks of the trade to create the impression that we are absolutely committed to the organization, even when we don’t have any work,” he told me. “It’s part of managing expectations and our images.”

The trap of busyness is so much a part of corporate culture that many times it clouds our vision of what’s really going on. We expect to be busy; we don’t know what to do when we’re not. The trap of busyness causes us to move with such mindless speed that we’re like the proverbial chicken running around with his head cut off. We plunge into our emails and meetings with a manic energy that forbids reflection, deeply honest conversations, and breaks from the routine.

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