What does “Doing the Work” mean? (Part 1)


“Doing the work” is a phrase that I only heard for the first time a couple of years ago on (American) self development podcasts, like The 4 Hour Work Week.

Initially, I wasn’t sure exactly what it meant. Was this some New Age, hippy bullshit?

There was something curious about this phrase, at least to my (British, male) ears.  Because it was clear from the context that the people using the phrase did not mean traditional “work” as we might understand it. They were not talking about coal mining, sweeping chimneys or constructing a spinning jenny…or other forms of labour that British people typically think of as real work.

No, they were referring to emotional work.

Yes, that’s an actual thing!  It’s the process of understanding yourself and what shaped you.  The process of understanding our flaws and how emotions often cloud our ability to think and act rationally. The process of introspection, self awareness and changing for the better.

The recent Olympics showed that we Brits are pretty good at doing the work when it comes to sports training. Not just the physical training but also the mindset needed to win. Why can we Brits do this successfully in the context of sports…yet struggle to apply the same principles in other areas of life?

In a sporting context, I think we all get the idea that before we can win, we need to get better. We know that great success probably won’t be easy, we’ll make mistakes, luck will play a part and that sacrifices may be required.

But for some reason, we Brits rarely talk about applying this admirable mindset to personal finance or other aspects of personal growth.   This is a shame because the exact same traits that work for sporting success work for financial success. I’ve never seen an Olympic gold medallist that was a complainypants.

As well as mastering their Outer Game, athletes must master their Inner Game.  Without strong inner Game, the fittest and most skilled sportsman can be reduced to jelly.  If you’ve ever seen a golfer get the yips or a footballer fluff a penalty, you’ll know what I mean.

So sports stars have to do the emotional work to get comfortable with giving their all…without a guarantee of success…being watched and judged by other people. They have to be able to accept reality. Sometimes their game will be rubbish.  Sometimes they will feel like giving up and blubbing like a toddler. But they actively seek out discomfort, then push through this to get better.

When I joined a running club a couple of years ago, I knew that if I did the training work, my physical performance would improve.  That’s Outer Game.  More interesting was my Inner Game.  When I first joined, silly thoughts popped into my head like: what if I’m not good enough? or what if no one talked to me?, a bit like the new kid at school.  Learning to acknowledge those thoughts and then let them go is pure Inner Game.

On the path to financial independence, it takes some work to improve your Inner Game…to retrain your mind away from consumerism and from the idea that having more shit is always better. To do this, we have to accept that we are not our material possessions.

Buying more stuff is a poor substitute for actually getting better ourselves.  It helps to stop worrying about what “everyone” else thinks about you (hint: they are usually too busy worrying about what other people think about them).

The conclusion that we might draw from all this is that the average British person finds it easier to see themselves working down a coalmine for their entire life or winning a gold medal at the Olympics than doing some emotional work on themselves.

Which is a shame because “doing the work” is way easier than coalmining or winning an Olympic gold medal.  Sure, acknowledging and addressing our human flaws and weaknesses is tougher than blaming our partners / bosses / politicians.  But once you are on The Path it gets easier and easier as time goes on.

This got me thinking: why not get someone that has actually done much of the work to explain it? Perhaps someone that is not quite as British or as male as The Escape Artist?

So I invited Helene, my Canadian friend and fellow blogger from Free to Pursue, to give me her take on what it means to “do the work”.  Enjoy!


It’s 4:45am and I’m sitting in the same coffee shop where I started writing three years ago. It’s also about the same time of the day when I used to come here (thank heaven for 24hr shops) because I couldn’t sleep. What got me up then is the same thing that got me up this morning: a drive, an itch, a deep desire to explore and share ideas with others that might cause us all to wake up to the reality that the way the majority of us currently live is not the way it has to be, should be.

The idea? The itch? Here’s the thesis: In most areas of life, we don’t do the work anymore.

We don’t:

  • Invest serious time in relationships—no, social media posts don’t count nor do other shallow exchanges.coal
  • Take the time to dig deep into an issue, preferring instead to consume the sound bites and clips offered by daily news shows or what’s trending on YouTube.
  • Take the time to learn about ourselves, what makes us tick, what we want, what we can do that can make a meaningful difference in our lives and in the lives of others.
  • Carefully consider what we do for a living—now and in the future, including what we choose to study in school, or whether higher education is even the right path for us.
  • Think about what is it that we should stop doing because it’s nothing more than a distraction.
  • Consider the obligations we accept to take on that take us away from what we should be doing.
  • Invest the time and energy in pursuing a massive project that scares us—unless there’s some sort of external reward, and even then it’s a stretch.

We’re so busy being “busy” that we don’t stop and think about what we really want—what we really need—to live a fulfilling and purposeful life. We’re no longer the curators of our hopes and dreams, of what we can really do.

“We get so busy getting things done that we don’t stop very often to consider what it is we really want or where to invest our time and energy to achieve…goals [that align with what we value most].” — Tony Schwartz, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working (2010)

We seem to have given up that role to others, starting all the way back in grade school, if not sooner. We’ve successfully outsourced our right to think and our right to feel the amazing feeling that comes with diligently working toward something that really matters, to us.

I got caught up in this lie myself, but I was a late bloomer…it happened while I was working on my MBA. The long hours the program required made my mind malleable to the key messages the program presented: status over substance in life, always. I learned the importance of money, power and influence. I learned that it was more important to do important things that made money than to be civil; that it was more important to be respected than to be pleasant; that social engagements were a waste of time if they were not work related; and that empathy was a sign of weakness, as was the idea of work/life balance.

I put these learnings into practice for at least a decade after leaving the program, until I realized that I didn’t like myself anymore and that others didn’t care for me either, and for good reason.

Unfortunately, the damage had already been done. Despite a much higher than average salary that was supposed to make me “happy”:

  • My marriage suffered nearly-irreparable damage, as I took my spouse for granted and treated him more as an employee than as a partner.
  • Our finances were only slightly above average as I thought I needed the fancy car, home, stuff that’s required to show status, all of which lead me to squander needlessly on what didn’t matter.
  • My lifestyle was one of long days (and evenings and weekends), leaving my body to slowly disintegrate whilst working for a company that considered me expendable—we are all expendable to an entity that has no soul.
  • The default setting for my state of mind was negative, making me judgmental, impatient and short-tempered.

When I realized the the organization had no issue with changing my work situation with no notice, expected me to work tirelessly and was planning to eventually promote me to a 24/7 job, I started planning my exit. From decision to exiting stage left took only four months because I had started getting our financial house in order some five years prior when my husband and I decided to reduce our status-seeking consumption. (Ok, my status-seeking consumption; he was already there…I was the one who needed to catch up).

Three and a half years later, my life is richer and more fulfilling than it ever was during my previous career, despite having initially taken a $100,000 cut in income when I chose to change direction and get back to what matters most. We spend far less than we used to and save at about the same rate, we invest in our own personal development a great deal more than we used to and we are healthier and happier as a result. I wouldn’t go back to what was my status quo for the world, despite receiving multiple offers to do just that.

And still, I’m not done. I still have to remind myself to pause and do the work that propels me forward in the right direction. I need to remind myself of what it’s done for me in the past and that it can help me in setting the course for me for both the short and longer term.


It’s an uphill battle to do the work when most of the people around us don’t do it at all. And that’s a shame, because most of the best ideas, the most creative inventions, the best lives are crafted “just because” the originators felt compelled to produce them. They felt the drive to go after more, whatever that more might be.

No, most of us prefer convenience over purpose. Just as we choose to outsource the production and preparation of our food, entertainment, lodging, clothing, education, health, transportation—and for some, even their love life—we also opt for convenience in our own existence. We’ve effectively outsourced life itself.

“Each of us has an infinite capacity for self-deception. We become skilled at denial because it helps us avoid discomfort.” — Tony Schwartz, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working (2010)

After all, it’s a lot easier to take the easy road. There’s no pain in it. As long as we go through the motions and pay our bills, no one will complain that we’re not being a “good citizen”, right? Well, that might work for some of us who don’t mind living a numbing, unfulfilling, neurotic, anxiety-riddled life. Those among us who can walk around as seemingly helpless, empty vessels: the walking dead.

For the rest of us who still have a pulse, it just doesn’t feel right. The day-to-day droning on feels purposeless, empty, repetitive. That’s why we fill that void with distractions to reduce the neuroses that result from not doing the work:

  • Addiction to mind-altering substances, food, pornography, games of chance, tumultuous relationships, shopping, collecting sh*t.
  • The pursuit of that elusive 15 minutes of fame…and then what?
  • Gluttonous consumption of social and other media and entertainment.
  • Reading self-help books, knowing we have no intention of following through…but at least we’re doing something.

There’s a much more powerful intoxicator out there but few of us dare take a hit…because it requires a significant up-front investment and it’s not guaranteed to pay off every time. It’s called developing personal drive. A passion for something, anything, as long as it fuels us.

The difference between doers and their audience is exactly that: passion. But how do you develop this elusive thing called passion?

Some of us stumble on it very early in life and just run with it (they’re the ones we mistakenly call “prodigies”). The rest of us need to hunt for it. Yes, it’s an upfront investment, but aren’t we worth it?

Here’s how to achieve it:

  • Stop allowing the world in with its constant distractions and demands.
  • Stop thinking there will be the perfect time to start; that day will never come.
  • Try new things to find out what feels worthwhile investing significant time doing.
  • Spend time thinking about what activities make it possible to lose all sense of time and self. What makes time stop?
  • [Re]discover sources of internal (intrinsic) motivation. Not money, not status, not power…no carrots and sticks here.
  • Consider who to spend time with and what to do during this time; does the current circle of friends & influencers need to change? Are you surrounded by crabs?
  • Listen to “gut feelings” and act on them. Intuition is a powerful messaging system that is too-often repressed in favour or “logic”.
  • Roll up those sleeves and take real, meaningful, purposeful, targeted, repeated action.
  • Stall, rethink, restart on occasion but keep moving forward until that new direction isn’t reasonable anymore and it’s time to pivot again. (There are always fits and starts when we’re in pursuit of a worthwhile goal. The perfect plan is pure fiction.)
  • Invest in the “not so fun stuff” in order to get to the fun stuff that feeds this drive and makes it all worth it.
  • Fail in this pursuit (sometimes often), get up, dust off and go after it again because the activity/project/endeavour itself is worthwhile.

That’s right. We need to take deliberate, thoughtful, systematic action in order to take ourselves to a higher plane: this elusive thing called self-actualization.

It’s only when we do the above that our truest, best self comes through.

It’s amazing what any one of us has the potential to do with what poet Mary Oliver calls this “one wild and precious life”.

“When we connect with our own energy, we’re more open to the energy of other people. The more alive we feel, the more we can contribute to the lives of others.” – Sir Ken Robinson, The Element (2013)

Taking the time to get to know ourselves—what drives us—and then act on our findings is extremely rewarding. We give ourselves, and the world, the best of ourselves throughout our lives. We feel powerful, fulfilled, purposeful. Free.

We become self-propelled dynamos. We can get through anything. We’re our very own version of what it might feel like to be a superhero.

And we’re happier and more productive to the point where others start to wonder how we can spend so much time and effort on our various pursuits without tiring. They then either become infected by our energy and drive, or remain entrenched life-long member of the “pulseless”; having decided that we’re just one of the lucky ones.

Indeed we are.  And they could be too…if they decide to do the work.

Are you doing what you know deep down you could/should be doing? If not, are you ready to do the work? Or are you too busy?

One last thought for your consideration: regret’s a bitch.

For more like this, check out www.freetopursue.com

Image credit/copyright (in order of appearance): njaj, nuttakit, dan/freedigitalphotos.net

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  1. Wow….quite the one-two punch from bloggers I enjoy a great deal. I find myself in the “limbo” that both of you were prior to “getting on with your lives; getting busy living vs dying ( hat tip to Andy Desphrane @ Shawshank ) . 🙂 I’m doing the work currently…and making progress. Thank you both for the timely post. FI bloggers are by and large a selfless, helpful bunch. Perhaps they’ve acheived self actualization? 🙂
    * congrats on the Plutus Award nomination TEA ( and you too F2P if you were nominated…if not…it’s a travesty 😉 )

    1. Hi Jon. Aw, shucks. Thanks!

      Sounds like you’re down the road already, which is terrific. Awareness is a powerful thing to build on in creating the best version of ourselves possible, isn’t it? To offer another Shawshank quote, this time from Red:

      “[P]ressure and time. That’s all it takes, really. Pressure…and time.”

      All the best to you as you keep rolling up your sleeves. It. Will. Pay. Off.

  2. A wonderful read. Nicely done.

    It was Robert Burns the Scottish poet who eloquently wrote about the power of “seeing ourselves as others see us”. Often others see more in us than we see ourselves. And that circles back to what you are saying about looking within to truly understand what motivates us, what makes us feel alive, what makes us smile, what it is to live a full life.

    Life is not a dress rehearsal. Throw yourself into the main act of living.

    And in the spirit of that great movie referenced by the above commenter …..”some birds aren’t meant to be caged, their feathers are just too bright”

    1. Thanks Mr. Pie. My step father will be tickled that you quoted Robbie Burns. The Scottish Poet is his idol.

      Indeed, this is not a dress rehearsal. We get one shot and it’s worth the effort to try to knock it out of the park (for those who are not fans, this is a baseball analogy) because if we don’t do the work, we’ll always wonder what would have happened if we’d at least tried…how bright could our feathers have become?

      Doing the work has brought more joy into my life in the last number of years than I could have ever hoped for. I wish the same for everyone.

  3. beevers02 · · Reply

    Fantastic post. A good one for encouraging a partner onto the path I reckon.

  4. Glad you liked it. In my case, Mr. F2P was waiting for me to change my wild ways (or, as it would have it to get back to the sanity of my early 20s). Amazingly, he never said a word, mostly because he knew it would, at the time, fall on deaf ears. At least I was saving in the double digits, but nowhere near what I’ve been able to do effortlessly over the last number of years.

  5. Very well written F2P.

    You’ve clearly ‘done the work’ to allow you to live consciously. In my experience, this is something that few people ever achieve in a whole lifetime. Although, there do seem to be more people who are shooting for this in the FI/simple living community.

    How many years of their finite lives do the majority of people waste having things ‘just happen’ to them? I can’t imagine not wanting to develop enough self-knowledge to be able to take control.

    A recurring theme that I’ve noticed over the years is that, in order to overcome a challenge or succeed at something, the practical steps have always been, in retrospect, straightforward. You just have to keep grinding away, lifting the weights, writing the words or (if you’re TEA!) turning the pedals. The real gains come from getting your head right so that you don’t stop yourself from doing the simple stuff that will get you what you want.

    Are you familiar with the concept of ‘flow states’? I think that, for me, ‘doing the work’ has always been about getting better at achieving flow (‘connecting with our own energy’ as Sir Ken Robinson puts it in the quote above above) on demand. Actually making things happen once you get into ‘flow’ just seems to be magic.

    Great blog too F2P. Keep it coming!

    1. Thanks LL. Looks like you’ve done a heck of a lot of the work yourself.

      I agree with you that more people in the FI/simple living community do the work, and I think it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. The more we focus on saving and simplicity, the more we reach inward for what makes us happy (intrinsic rewards vs extrinsic rewards; seeking vs chasing). It may first be driven by the desire for external rewards, but sooner or later, intrinsic motivation tends to take the lead.

      Intrinsic motivation is the fuel to do the simple stuff that’s not flashy, that won’t make us famous or liked necessarily, but that gets us ok with being our true selves and helps us understand that a life we’re happy to be living is “enough”. I mean what more could we ask for?!

      As for the concept of “Flow”? I was a convert before ever leaving my corporate life. I even showed Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi’s TED Talk on the subject to my staff! Flow is what I crave, what I seek every day…even at 4:30 in the morning. The only way I could get in a state of flow in my job at Mega Corp was if I was alone in the office, which meant 4:00 to 7:30am and Sunday mornings. It was hell to be expected to produce what I call “deep thinking output” as a member of the cubicle jungle. Now that I get to dictate my own schedule, I can literally “go with the flow” most days and reach that wonderful feeling of getting lost in a process, working at the edge of ability, and producing some of the best work in my life, whether it be training people, writing, speaking, or working out.

      Here are three salient quotes from his book that support the above and also offer an introduction to his work for anyone who would care to read his book “Flow”:

      p. 4 – From their accounts of what it felt like to do what they were doing, I developed a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow—the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

      p. 5 – …what would be the result in the unlikely event that one did turn into a slim, well-loved, powerful millionaire? Usually what happens is that the person finds himself back at square one, with a new list of wishes, just as dissatisfied as before. What would really satisfy people is not getting slim or rich, but feeling good about their lives. In the quest for happiness, partial solutions don’t work.

      p. 6 – A personal who has achieved control over psychic energy and has invested it in consciously chosen goals cannot help but grow into a more complex being. By stretching skills, by reaching toward higher challenges, such a person becomes an increasingly extraordinary individual.

      Last thought: One of my greatest fears for the world is that these little gadgets we call smartphones are going to get more of us further away from this state with the constant interruptions and invitations to distraction. Maybe we’ll wake up to this fact sooner or later…

      I appreciate the comment LL and the invitation to share more about the concept of flow to others (I invite you to check out my article on the subject too, if you want more of my take on it. 🙂

      1. liberatedotlife · · Reply

        Sorry, I didn’t realise you’d previously written about flow. Great article. Everything you mention is familiar to me as a ‘creative knowledge worker’ (programmer).

        It’s always seemed crazy that, in traditional work environments at least, managers don’t seem to understand just how much of a productivity killer interruptions can be. It’s difficult to explain to a person whose work is more routine ‘handle turning’ that 4 disjointed half-hour work sessions, punctuated by interruptions are not equal to 2 hours of flow.

        I’ll check out the TED talk (I can’t remember having seen that one.

        Thanks for the detailed response.

      2. Glad to hear you liked the article.

        So true about the lack of awareness of the impact on flow that traditional work environments inflict on the average worker. Worse yet, I just read an article stating that a number of large corporations in NYC are moving to large open concept work spaces that have been proven to render successful concentrated solo efforts (i.e. when the real work happens after creative collaborations have taken place) nearly impossible. What are they thinking!?

        Based on our back and forth, you might like Tony Schwartz’s book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, if you haven’t read it already.

        1. liberatedotlife · ·

          I’ve not read it yet – thanks for the recommendation. I’ll add it to the very long list…

          I need so much more than one lifetime to do all of this stuff!

          Your point about corporations nicely underlines one of the reasons that I’m completely unemployable these days! Ahh, the joys of self-employment..

          Anyway. Thanks for the interesting blog comment conversation. I’ll stop taking up space on TEA’s blog now!

  6. […] What Does “Doing The Work” Mean? Long, deep and awesome read. It may change your life. I could be blogging to sell the CSR or the Ritz Carlton card every day but I don’t. Seriously, bookmark this and read it when you get a chance. And this… […]

  7. Although this was an interesting read, I fail to identify with much of this wisdom it seeks to enshrine me with – despite being a customer of the many problems highlighted.

    Perhaps I was expecting a american style self-improvement list, which would be eye opening and dumpable in equal measure.

    The one thing I’d mention is that for whatever reason if you gain the awareness that you’re on the way to a slump, its likely it is those around you that are causing this. Surrounding one with high achieving and smart people (wherever they are) will force one to change their ways and overcome obstacles much quicker. Human beings are inherently lazy, even as I type these words i’m heavily reliant on spell check – we need to be forced into things without alternatives – we need to be removed from distractions that arouse our dopamine feeds.

    ..There i’ve given my thoughts – oh and it has brought me a good feeling, maybe I need a chocolate bar to reward me for it?

    1. So, to summarise, you want a quick & easy checklist version of an article about “doing the work”??

      And a chocolate bar.

      Love the comedy Saori…just not sure whether it’s intentional 😉

  8. The ‘walking dead’.. Very apt description. I did feel like that for quite a number of years, even now, I don’t feel any more ‘alive’ than I used to when I was younger other than the thought of FI freedom to keep my spark when I can ‘lose sense of time and self’. I find it’s a struggle on a daily basis. Somedays I regress to going through the motions. The sports description is very well put as well. I played a lot of tennis back in the day and there’s a saying called ‘being in the zone’ where your at the state of self actualisation. I need to train up that skill.

    Thanks for the fuel for my FIRE. I like this aspect of journey to FI where it is as much about finding yourself and finding contentment in life as much as the financial bit. The two are intricately linked i think seeing how so many FIers are such philosophers of so similar concepts.

    1. “[FI] is as much about finding yourself and finding contentment in life as much as the financial bit.” Absolutely. And I think those who believe “there has to be more to life than this” are the ones who go after it with the greatest zeal. Self-determination is unlike any other state of being. Good luck on your journey FIREplanter.

  9. I was deeply unhappy at my last job, trying to ‘do it all’, to keep a manager happy who had decided he wanted me out. I worked with a life coach to figure out my values and how to find a job and a company in alignment. I am so much happier in my current job. Management makes a big difference, but the company too. The biggest example was expectations to get to work after shoveling out 14 inches of snow at the last place, despite a non crucial role vs being told to work from home to not get stuck at work with a predicted snow storm.
    I don’t know that this is my ideal job, but the improvement in my mentality has been noted by friends. It’s funding my path to FI.

    Having worked in an open cube (also at the last place), I can attest to the decrease in productivity. I would stay past 5 to get things done, but then it didn’t make sense to come in very early (salaried, no overtime ) . Yet that boss didn’t like me working 9-6. I got permission to use an empty office one afternoon, and with the door closed I completed the department share point site in ~3 hours that I hadn’t been able to prioritize or get uninterrupted time for at my desk. Yet my request / suggestion to work remotely 4 hours per month (one afternoon not even a Monday or Friday ) was rejected. I had started to question what was wrong with me that I needed more than 8 hours to get the job done when others left ‘on time’ every day. Turns out a lot of them logged back in after the kids were in bed, but I refused to put in 10 hours in person plus more after.

    1. Sounds like you’ve found a better situation. You might like to read “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working” by Tony Schwartz. I appreciated this book because it confirmed that what most of us consider common sense when it comes to work is indeed more likely to make us more productive and happier as a result. Here’s his TEDx Talk on the subject. Thanks for taking the time to share your recent situation and, happily, a better outcome than merely accepting the status quo.

  10. This was a fantastic read. Just what I needed. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Derek! I appreciate the comment.

  11. Ernest Gordon · · Reply

    What i find so fascinating about the doing this work process is once I’m engage or pursuing my intrinsic passions, i notice two things happen. First i find that this boisterous energy has a tendency to create a strong energy that just pulls anyone in Semi bad or semi good. Second i find that once my creative juices are flowing and my spirits are up, the universe creates situation that tests my ability to stay congruent and authentic. Being a late bloomer, ive begun to detect these situations and be comfortable with confront the naysayers. Any thoughts?

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