My mother’s favourite saying was “Hard work never killed anyone”. She got it from her father. My other grandfather was similarly a non-stop worker. I was therefore raised in a culture of “hard work” and “effort”. This ethic applied to every aspect of life from work and study to housework, gardening and even entertaining. Everything had to be done to the highest standards.

There were times in my teenage years when I may not have fully applied myself but by the time I went to university I had definitely become a “hard worker”. The first decade of my professional life was also built on this mentality of doing whatever it takes.

  • 10+ hour working days – no problem!
  • So tired by Friday that you need the weekend just to recover – no problem!
  • Working weekends if clients asked – no problem!
  • So busy that you work even when you are dangerously sick – no problem!

How Far Can I Push Myself?

It was only when we were planning a family that my wife and I took stock and felt lessons needed to be learnt. We felt life was out of balance and that there was no point having children if we were not going to spend time with them, so we reined in the work. Balance became the byword.

And yet, in truth effort levels just increased. Tiredness now became permanent. There was little respite, and we even took on further commitments – entertaining friends every weekend, signing up to Masters’ programmes. It was non-stop!

It also felt like the giving and taking were out of kilter, so we were nourishing others more than we were being nourished. In short, we were being depleted. If our family histories were anything to go by this would likely lead to an early grave.

Finding a Deeper Sense of Balance

That is when we set aside the idea of work-life balance and embraced a deeper sense of balance. The idea was to build balance into everything we did – to set aside whatever felt too demanding and to continually seek nourishment in all aspects of our lives so that we could in turn nourish those around us.

My invitation is to take a moment to reflect on this and how it may echo in your life. And not only in your life but in your relationships. Not only can we create expectations for ourselves, but we can also project our way of being onto others and have expectations of them.

So, ask yourself:

Where am I on this journey?

In what ways have I pushed myself too hard?

Where did I learn to push myself so hard?

How does this show up in my relationships?

You will likely already know:

  • What is claiming “too much” of your energy.
  • Where you are pushing yourself too hard.

And yet, knowing is not always enough, is it?

  • We may struggle to voice it.
  • We may struggle to tell others that we are being pushed too far.
  • That we have only so much to give.
  • That we are human and not superhuman.

Where Have I Nothing Left to Give?

My invitation is to go through your commitments – those roles and responsibilities that ask something of you – and answer these two questions for each of them:

  • What does it ask of me?
  • How does it nourish me?

And I mean everything – from all things work-related to family duties and volunteering.

Sit with the list and ask yourself:
> Where am I giving too much?
> How am I giving too much?

If you are like me, you will probably instantly know what feels that little bit too demanding. I regularly do this inventory and often find responsibilities that have expanded or roles that I have somehow taken on. I feel the over-commitment deep in my gut – as if the lifeforce is being sucked out of me.

Giving Up

It does not mean we necessarily need to relinquish the role or responsibility, but at the very least it is worth reflecting on how we might continue.

For argument’s sake, let’s imagine you “give up” those activities that are too demanding right now.


You have had the necessary conversations!

The load has been taken off your shoulders.


You are free!

How does it feel?

Earlier this year, I found myself having taken on a role that really energised me. I soon learnt (through experience) that the organisation was dysfunctional so, no matter how much I or the team did, nothing changed. The hierarchy were aware of the issues but did not want to change. They had other priorities.

I therefore found myself doing this exercise and the moment I took the load off my shoulders and imagined being free I immediately knew that I had to leave the role. I had made efforts to bring about change but had faced resistance throughout. There was really no place for me there, no matter how much I loved the idea of the role and the potential for change.

And yet it does not necessarily have to a binary in or out. Just freeing ourselves from the current situation gives us not only the opportunity to stop but also to ask, how might I continue? What might be different if only I gave it a chance?

Sometimes we need to hear the same question in different ways:

  • What might I make easier?
  • What might I simplify?
  • What might I put down?
  • What might I let go of?
  • What might I release?
  • What might I reclaim?

What Might Be Preventing Me from Taking That Step?

Many times, knowing what we need to do is not enough. We may feel somehow imprisoned by our expectations of ourselves or the expectations we feel from others. Here are some points to consider:

Am I clinging on because of pride? Ego?

  • I have certainly held on to roles because of how others would perceive me had I given them up.
  • And yet, that has not prevented me from looking to change my relationship with the role.
    • What voices within me don’t like this decision?
    • Who might I disappoint?

Am I equating effort with self-worth?

  • This is a clear challenge in a culture that values busyness.
  • Being busy is almost a duty regardless of the impact on us.
  • The same is true of the sense that we should be serving others.
    • In what ways might I have equated busyness with value?

Am I afraid to let go?

  • Fear is primal.
  • It plays some part in much of our decision-making.
  • It would be natural if it played a role here even if you might not be sure what there is to be afraid of.
    • Where might fear be playing a role?

What is the Next Step?

It is important at this point to make the process tangible. Reflection needs to be followed by action if we truly want anything to change.

  • So, upon reflection, what decision would you like to have made?
  • What conversations need to be had to bring this about?
  • What new identity needs to emerge?
  • Who might be able to help?
  • What step might you take now?

Questions for Reflection

Questions in the Image:

  • How might I be trying too hard?
  • In what ways have I pushed myself too hard?
  • What feels too demanding right now?
  • What might I make easier?

Want to Further Explore This Theme?

Episode 4 of the Time Academy Podcast: Hard Work and Morality explores whether the hard work mantra so prized by many is fit for purpose for modern knowledge workers. Click below to listen now. It only lasts four minutes!

Next StepsFrom Reflection to Action: These reflections model pausing and thinking, and hopefully show how this can quickly translate into fresh insights and decisive actions. They are centered around three “archetypal” questions:

  • What have I learnt?
  • What do I need right now? and
  • What are my intentions?

The aim is to practice translating newfound insights into viable options.

Nurturing Curiosity – Daily Practice: This is part of the Nurturing Curiosity series of tools, insights and questions designed to help nurture curiosity as part of our daily practice. In point of fact, every interaction we have is an opportunity to question what we are observing and how we and others are seeing the world. Also remember that questions come in many forms throughout our day.

I am in the process of starting a new project and questions around Are you making the right choice? are still in my system. And yet, I know I am because I have carefully considered this from a host of perspectives. Given the options and opportunities in front of me right now this is the best decision. It is just that the body sometimes needs time to catch up. The slight change in routine can trigger resistance.

What Thoughts Would You Like to Share? My name is Tom O’Leary, and I envision a world in which curiosity shapes leadership. In this world, leaders aren’t boxed in by traditional thinking or established playbooks. They are open to fresh ideas and diverse perspectives, fostering a culture of exploration and learning.

My mission is to shift leadership focus from authority, over-measurement and control to curiosity, learning and innovation, empowering leaders to prioritise the essential. My journey, lived in a number of countries and through various languages, has always been driven by a profound sense of curiosity.

In fact, life has taught me that possibility lies not so much in seeking answers but in learning to ask better questions – the ones that help prioritise what is truly essential. I welcome your thoughts, feedback, or personal experiences related to these questions or any insights they may have sparked.