Right now, “hustle” has a PR problem. While hard work helps unlock career growth and results, “hustle culture” is increasingly perceived as mentally damaging and a sign of a poor culture. Worse yet, these two often bleed together. How can we better set that boundary?

As someone who has seen the positive career impact from maintaining a high work ethic but also the downsides that come with the wrong culture, I would like to make the case that hard work can still be a positive virtue to those around you and yourself, when proper limits are set. This is about exploring the space between #quietquitting and #hustleculture and how to balance the need for boundary setting with the desire to stand out in your role. 

Hard work, after all, is not about more hours, but what you can accomplish with the time given.

To start – there are things commonly associated with hustle culture that we could all do without:

  • Long hours bleeding into personal time 
  • Cutthroat internal competition
  • Employees working late getting ahead
  • Highly political environment influencing what work you take on
  • Increased workload without the recognition or pay
  • Discouragement from taking time off or leave
  • A focus on short-term wins at the expense of the larger mission
  • Wins don’t feel like wins, as you move on to the next task

If you find yourself in this environment, it is often out of your control and your best option is likely to leave. Culture and environment are a huge driver, but you can make an impact as an individual in curbing hustle culture.

So what does hard work look like if it isn’t long hours and output, output, output? Here is how I think about working hard in my day to day: 

  • A diligent daily approach to your work
    • For most complex knowledge-based roles nowadays, this is harder than it sounds. Maintaining a daily schedule you can commit to that allows you to fend off distractions, block time for proactive work, and complete your list requires focused intent each day. This form of hustle is often overlooked yet critical to your success.
  • Saying yes to the right internal asks, and excelling at the ones you take on
    • Learning when to reply with a professional no is an important skill. It helps you avoid being bogged down in tasks not central to your role, and the projects you intentionally take on get more time and attention as a result.
  • Aligning yourself with your organization’s highest value activities 
    • Knowing where to align your time means you can put your defined work hours to the best use. Figuring out how to automate, avoid, or delegate certain tasks means your results shine in the best light and reflect positive return on investment (ROI) from your time.
  • Going the extra mile for a customer or valued coworker
    • If you are going to put in the extra time or go out of your way, it should be for the right reasons. Find time when that extra inch will seem like a mile to someone important.

So… why do the above? Why go the extra mile and hold your daily activity to that standard? Particularly if you are salaried, the same money might be flowing your way. Here are some of the positively impactful benefits from channeling your hard work to the above:

  • Reputation building
    • Being the employee who focuses on the right work and contributes to valuable projects stands out. And a consistent focus is a tried and true way to build a strong internal and external reputation.
  • A positive impact on culture
    • Fighting hustle culture starts with an individual employee’s actions. Keeping your communication to work hours, collaborating effectively, and being a reliable partner all signal to your coworkers how work can get done the right way.
  • Time management
    • As a new dad, I consider this one more important than ever. Being diligent with my working hours and consistently sticking to that commitment means more time for the important stuff without letting anything slip professionally.
  • Increase in results
    • We are all working towards some goal at the office. Increasing the amount we get done contributes to career pathing goals, more professional recognition, increased paychecks, or whatever you have at the top of your motivator list! 

So now you have an idea of how to focus your efforts and where it can lead to. How do you know when it has crossed a line? Here are some signs that hard work is bleeding into hustle culture and how to combat them.

  • Challenge: In a salaried position, you start to view your hours worked as a direct proxy for your results as opposed to being focused on your high-value outputs.
    • Solution: Refocus yourself on the highest value outputs. Work backwards and figure out what makes sense to focus on and what you can deprioritize. Could there be a more efficient way to approach those high-value goals?
  • Challenge: Slacks and emails start to go out at all hours with responses from team members closely following.
    • Solution: Your communication style can be incredibly impactful on those around you. Many of us work odd hours for various reasons, but that doesn’t mean we need to demand the time and attention of those around us at those times. If you happen to be responding to something in off-hours, schedule that communication for working hours. It can always wait.
  • Challenge: Coworkers note your productivity and you get yourself involved in too many projects.
    • Solution: First, take a look at the current projects on your plate. What can be delegated or pushed out, and what is a priority? For the priorities, where can you find additional support or a means to more efficiently accomplish the task at hand? Moving forward, return to the “professional no” to guard your time.

Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention the “quiet quitting” trend taking place. While there are certainly some taking the idea too far, the notion of creating boundaries at work and setting out to do your primary job well is one of the ways to separate hustle from hustle culture. With the right balance and incorporating some of the tips above, the only people who will see your actions as quiet quitting are likely the same ones agitating for hustle culture at the office.

Learn more

Read my 6 Tips for Career Development if you want to challenge yourself to grow professionally within your organization. And if you’d like to work at a company that has been honored by Built In’s 2022 Best Places to Work Awards, check out Quantcast’s open positions!