Work like a Lion, not like a Cow

This is something I've pondered since I heard it from my friend Shaan Puri a few weeks ago. (attributed to Naval Ravikant)

“The way people tend to work most effectively, especially in knowledge work, is to sprint as hard as they can while they feel inspired to work, and then rest. They take long breaks. 

It’s more like a lion hunting and less like a marathoner running. You sprint and then you rest. You reassess and then you try again. You end up building a marathon of sprints.

Don’t work like a cow grazing on the field all day. “People who say they work 80-hour weeks, or even 120-hour weeks, often are just status signaling. It’s showing off. Nobody really works 80 to 120 hours a week at high output, with mental clarity. Your brain breaks down. You won’t have good ideas.”


I think about my time as a manager. I reflect on what many of my founders do and how they manage their teams. Most folks are operating under the legacy of industrial times. Where they equate hard work to showing up on time or working late & being around. Basically grinding like a factory worker, where hours equate to the number of widgets you make. 

I’m not saying you don’t need to grind and spend a lot of time on work, especially in the very early stage of startups. There is just so much work to do in this situation. 

But most creative work requires thinking, generating ideas and getting insights. The way you do this is from reading a lot, talking with people, resting, relaxing and thinking. Even walking in nature (there are a lot of studies out there showing that this does lead to better ideas). Also no surprise that many people get their best ideas in the shower. It’s warm, relaxing and you can let your subconscious mind work freely. 

As naval previously said, grinding like a factory worker when you are tired probably does not lead to any breakthroughs or insights. The author Cal Newport states most people are limited to 4 hours of intense thinking each day, also known as  “Deep work”.  

Morgan Housel wrote in 2016 (i just found it as i was writing this. It’s so good).

“If you anchor to the old world where good work meant physical action, it’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that the most productive use of a knowledge-worker’s time could be sitting on a couch thinking. But it’s so clear that it is. Good ideas rarely come in meetings, or even at your desk. They come to you in the shower. On a walk. On your commute, or hanging out on the weekend. I’m always amazed at the number of famous ideas that came to people in the bathtub. But tell your boss you require a mid-day soak, and the response is entirely predictable.

Look at famous thinkers who didn’t have to impress anyone by looking busy, and you see a theme: They spent a lot of time doing stuff that didn’t look like work, but in fact was stupendously productive.

I think we are in the transition of a working world where inputs are measured (time spent etc) to a working world of “outputs”. Where the focus is on what you have actually done.  A focus on “Real results” not on the time spent. We should be rejoicing about this. This inversion of thinking helps you add more leverage in your life. And you should stop feeling guilty when you are not working all the time. 

The reality of being a creative worker this day and age is you are working when you aren’t working. When you read that random science fiction or fiction book. When you are cutting up vegetables for dinner or doodling on a piece of paper. When you are going for a walk with your partner. When you are chatting with a friend on the phone or zoom. When you are taking a nap. When you do all these things, YOU ARE  doing real creative work. Let’s not forget this if we are to thrive in the future world of work.