Four levels of work on the job

Disclaimer: The ideas here are theoretical.  I haven’t tested them yet.  This is not advice.

The four levels

I claim that there are four common levels of work on the job.

0) Overhead — getting IT to fix your laptop, attending useless meetings you can’t refuse, etc.

1) The main event — this is what they think they hired you for

2) Work smarter — figuring out how to be more effective at level 1 and how to stop wasting so much time at level 0 (and following through on an action plan)

3) Show me the money — figuring out how to get a promotion or a raise (and following through on an action plan)


I claim further that our return on investment typically correlates with the level of work. Time spent on level 0 is time down the drain. Time spent learning how to negotiate a raise or promotion can pay off big. (“Typically”, because someone who worked only at levels 2-3 wouldn’t be employable.)

Diminishing returns

I claim further that there is a law of diminishing returns on time spent at work. For example, for most people marginal $/hour becomes negative at some point. If you work 13 hours per day instead of 12, it will probably not improve your total compensation, so it has a negative impact on $/hour. And that does not even try to take into account the opportunity costs (for example, not spending that hour managing one’s investements, taking a walk at the beach with family, etc.), potential negative impact on health, etc.

At some extreme, a high amount of work/day becomes so detrimental to sound judgement, solution orientation, creative thinking and health, that even the marginal output per day from additional time investment will be negative. Over the course of a month, most people will get more accomplished in 16 hours per day than in 20 hours per day.

The system is actually dysfunctional if it encourages you to spend inordinate amounts of time at level 1 (or worse at level 0), so you’re doing it a favor if you exercise the self-discipline to spend sufficient time at the higher levels and to stay out of the regions of diminishing returns.


First, resolve absolutely clearly on paper, in your calendar, and in your own mind what your scheduled job work hours are. Then don’t, under any circumstances, for any excuses, do job work outside of that scheduled time. This is not just because of diminishing returns, opportunity costs, etc., but a way to force yourself to be more productive by improving concentration, work process, minimizing interuptions and overhead, etc.

Second, there are usually one or two peak times in a person’s biological clock when they do their best thinking. And there’s usually a peak physical environment where they do their best thinking. Figure out what yours are.

Resolve to invest 20 minutes of that peak time each day in your peak environment thinking and planning at levels 2 and 3. For example, spend the first 15 minutes figuring out how to work smarter and giving yourself corrective feedback from reflection on the previous day’s level 0 and 1, and spend the last 5 minutes figuring out to get a raise or a promotion or taking an action step to help make it so.




  1. You might look into Dan Sullivan’s books / products. You can start with “The Great Crossover” which is available for about $3 used in hardcover on Amazon. There are some good insights there. What made me think of it is that he works at a “day” level of granularity suggesting you have focus days where you concentrate on your items 1-3, buffer days where you handle 0 and some 1 items, and free days where you take the entire day off. I can’t vouch for the rest of his system but the book was definitely worth reading and thinking about and would seem to complement some of the ideas you are suggesting here.


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