Is It Possible to “Be Hungry” Without Working Insane Hours?

What does it mean to be hungry in the context of your work — if you take working insane hours off the table as an option?

This idea came up during our recent Ready Week (a trimesterly week where we don’t do any client work and instead focus internally while capping it off with an all-hands retreat). We didn’t really dive into it in much detail so I wanted to take a stab at articulating something.

This is particularly important to us because we are a self-managing organization. Each member at The Ready holds a portfolio of roles. Each role holder is expected to figure out the best ways to “energize” their roles and the limitations on what you can and cannot do are fairly non-existent. There aren’t any roles in our organization whose purpose is to manage any of the other roles. The end result is an incredible amount of freedom and autonomy to do what I think is best. At the same time, it truly is up to me to figure out how to raise the bar on each of my roles.

That’s where the idea of hunger comes in. A truly self-managed organization only thrives when everybody is pushing up against the limits of what they think they can do. Without that deliberate expansion and exploration of what each role could or should do the organization remains static. It’s only when the edges are explored and challenged that the organization continues to grow and evolve.

The easiest way to think about being hungry at work is simply putting in more hours than anyone else. This is far too simple and unsustainable to be the actual answer. While we all sometimes put in more than the standard 40 hour week, we try to make that the exception rather than the rule. In many cases, working extreme hours is what you do when you don’t actually know how to have an impact or are more interested in “hunger theatre” than actual hunger.

For me, I’ve been exploring the ideas of prioritization and focus as my way of operationalizing hunger.

The two books I come back to again and again as I think about how to up the hunger factor in the way I work is Deep Work by Cal Newport and Essentialism by Greg McKeown.

On the Deep Work side of things, being hungry means tackling everything I do at work (and elsewhere) with single-minded focus and determination. It’s about being able to concentrate on something beyond the first twinges of discomfort in order to get beyond the surface level observations and output that are relatively easy to gain and thus less valuable.

Having a deep work practice, and having that practice be my standard operating procedure for when I’m “at work” strikes me as being hungry. Deep work isn’t easy. It doesn’t necessarily feel good. But a company full of people dedicated to the practice of deep work is a company that’s inevitably creating something new and valuable.

Prioritization, on the other hand, is about knowing what to go deep on. It runs the gamut from developing and using even-over statements, to ruthlessly unsubscribing from unproductive email, saying “no” far more frequently than I’d prefer otherwise, streamlining low-impact but necessary activity, etc.

My favorite resource related to prioritization is Essentialism. Essentially (heh), being hungry is about eliminating the vast majority of the low impact activities, responsibilities, and requests on my time. It’s about forcing myself to get clear about where and how I have the largest impact and ignoring everything that’s not that. In my specific situation, that may mean skipping a “let’s get coffee and chat” request in order to work deep on a new theoretical contribution to our work or setting aside time to turn off all my devices, go somewhere quiet, and just think for a bit.

The nice thing about operationalizing hunger as focus and prioritization is that neither of these are contingent upon time. They aren’t antithetical to work life balance (actually, they are directly in support of it).

If your next performance review came down to hunger what would you do in the next 90 days to make that the cornerstone of how you work?

This article is part of a new experiment where I write and publish something in about 30 minutes (nearly) every day. Find a typo? Have a question? Leave a comment or follow me on Twitter to chat.