Are You a Tortoise or a Hare? About Work.

Are you a tortoise or a hare?

I love paradoxes, parables, koans, aphorisms, fables, and teaching stories of all kinds. Lately I’ve been thinking of the Fable of the Tortoise and the Hare.

In the familiar fable by Aesop, the tortoise and the hare run a race. The hare is so confident that he’ll win that he takes a nap, and while he’s asleep, the tortoise’s regular, plodding pace allows him, the slower competitor, to cross the finish line first.

I’m not using “tortoise” and “hare” exactly as Aesop did, but it’s a handy frame of reference. Here is my question: Are you a tortoise or a hare when you approach a large task?

A Tortoise prefers to work more days, for fewer hours–three hours a day for seven days. Slow and steady.

A Hare prefers to work fewer days, for more hours–seven hours a day for three days. Bursts of effort.

There’s no right or wrong way, but just whatever system works better for you.

I myself am a Tortoise. I like working every day, but I don’t like feeling that I have to get a huge amount done in any one session. I like having distant deadlines that I approach slowly and steadily. I love writing books, but I could never work for a daily paper; the crush of constant deadlines would make me crazy. On the other hand, I never miss a deadline.

A friend is a Hare.  She allows herself to take a day off here and there, but she makes up that work. She doesn’t mind the pressure of needing to accomplish a lot over a short period. She feels energized by deadlines.

One problem with being a Hare is that to be effective, you really do need to catch up. You can’t sleep through the entire race. Often, I see quasi-hares fall into the trap of the “tomorrow problem” (which is related to the one-coin problem).  “I didn’t work today, but I’ll work seven hours tomorrow”–but when tomorrow becomes today, they don’t feel like working the seven hours.  If that’s a challenge you face, you might try a tortoise approach. Don’t try to do too much on any one day, but push yourself to be very, very consistent.

How about you? Are you a tortoise or a hare?

  • I’m not sure where I fall into that category. I usually work hard at whatever task or project it is until I reach a natural stopping point. It might be that I’m not feeling especially productive and I won’t beat myself up about it, so I just stop and pick it back up the next day. Or I might be on a roll and just keep working until later in the evening. But I will say that I don’t procrastinate starting the work on something because I prefer being proactive and relatively stress-free about meeting deadlines versus creating a deadline-related issue where none existed.

  • Ambrose

    Are u a hare or tortise is a metaphor and also very hilarious piece . It really made laugh. The piece will be appreciated by the protagonist of happiness like professor Maryard of London school of Economics and Political Science. It is very timely in the sense it reflected the pace which the economic is gradually adding flesh. S&P today restore our Tripple AAA. who will aurgue that the eonomy is not growing like a tortise with what I called sustainable growth.

  • I tend to be more of a tortoise, although I’ve lived like a hare in the past. I’ve found that I don’t feel my best under pressure and I think I can actually do more and do better when I feel my best. I know that I can crank out a paper in one day’s time, but do I prefer it? Not at all.

  • I’m a tortoise, but my husband is a hare! We have to be mindful of our differences when planning home projects.

  • HEHink

    I am a hare gradually morphing into a tortoise. In college, I was very much a hare, putting off papers, projects, and studying until a night or two before the deadline. I liked to believe I was working on things “in my head,” I worked better under pressure, and it would all come together when I sat down to put it on paper. But mostly I was in denial over my lack of good time management skills.

    Fast-forward 20+ years to the present, where I have a husband, two school-age children, and a full-time job. All-nighters just don’t work for me any more, surprise, surprise. I’m slowly learning to think ahead about all the steps needed to complete a big task, and parcel them out over a more appropriate amount of time. I mean, let’s face it – even if I have a big block of time to work on a project, there are limits to how fast I can work, how much I can actually accomplish in x-amount of time, and how little sleep I can get and still function the next day. I still like to work in longer, uninterrupted blocks of time, but I’m more realistic about what I expect to get done, and that has lowered my stress level. I’m also learning to make better use of the little pockets of time that appear more frequently.

  • peninith1

    Tortoise. I only work like a hare if it is a true emergency. Then I can go for quite a long stretch but not without regular sleep. I mean a true emergency, as in the immediate storm response after a hurricane.

  • Catseye

    I’m 75% tortoise, 25% hare. Also, it depends on the situation at hand and what the project entails. If it’s a really big, complicated job, I want to start on it ASAP but still have plenty of time to complete it and do it right the first time. If I have to hurry, I’m much more likely to miss steps and make mistakes.

  • work more days for few hours so i could also do other important things, errands, etc. make myself productive in all areas.

  • I am very much the hare. There are periods of bursts where I just run through everything. Then I treat myself to periods of relaxation to get myself going for the next run.

    What I’ve found is that I can actually work as the tortoise as well. However, I naturally lean more towards the burst style of work.

  • Interesting question. I believe I am a tortoise. I’m wondering if this is related at all to the introvert/extrovert differences since introverts tend to mull things over a lot before doing something. Where as, extroverts work things out externally. I am very introverted.

  • Janet

    Tortoise and not just about work.

  • debora

    Tortoise. Used to be a hare when I was younger, but I can’t (and don’t want to ) keep up that kind of pace. I usually give myself much longer to finish projects than I really need because I hate the pressure of deadlines. I really dislike it when ‘hare’ coworkers procrastinate until the last minute and then go into panic mode.

    • gretchenrubin

      I love a line that my sister quoted to me: “Your lack of planning is not my emergency.”

  • Thanks for this interesting post. I am more of a tortoise.

  • HEHink’s comment really resonated with me. I think I naturally lean towards the hare behaviour and am teaching myself to be more tortoise like. In college I could put things off until the last minute and then have a huge burst of energy and get everything done before my deadlines – this was exhilarating. In my life now (30 yrs later) I’m noticing that slow and steady (or consistency and systems) are making me more excited. I also know that I’m changing more into a tortoise as I’m watching my teenage daughter study for her exams and it frustrates me when she ‘puts things off until later’. And I just don’t think I could pull an all nighter to finish a project now without paying a huge price for it down the line and I used to love to do that. Maybe it’s an age thing.

    • HEHink

      Age is definitely a factor for me! But added responsibility to others plays a part, too. When I lived alone, I could choose to ignore everyday tasks like cooking, washing dishes, and laundry in favor of taking a whole day (or night) to finish a project. The flow of our family life would break down pretty quickly if I were to do that now. The grumpiness of all of us after that would outweigh any exhilaration I might feel. As Robin mentioned below, I now need to be evenly productive in all areas of my life.

  • I’m with you on the Tortoise! Although sometimes I take a mix, if I went full on Hare I think my consistency would suffer, but the occasional burst of effort does feel good. Have a wonderful day!

  • Heidi

    I have no idea. So I want to think of a way to do an experiment and find out. What kind of task…?

    • Allison

      Not sure if this is any type of gauge, but maybe think about when you cook a meal – do you clean as you go, or leave it all until after the meal and clean it then? In my eyes, the latter would be the hare – which is what I am, especially about chores. I like the idea of seeing major progress, rather than slight daily progress. I would prefer to cut the lawn every few weeks, when it is real high and I can see a real difference once I cut it, or have a room super messy and then spend an afternoon going great guns and seeing a wow kind of change. (Maybe I just watch too much HGTV and their big reveals :o).

  • I think I have always been more of the worst…or best of both…tending to work ferociously for many hours, many days, until I crash. Not good! I’m slowly evolving towards a hare…but those break days are still guilt ridden.

  • Sadye

    I’m both; it just depends on the sector of my life. I’ve worked in journalism for five years — I LOVE daily deadlines and can’t imagine having to take my job home with me (when I walk out the door, I’m done). But when it comes to running, I prefer the tortoise approach, because I’m afraid I’ll lose too much fitness and motivation if I take too much time off.

  • Megan Gordon

    Tortoise! Whenever I have a writing project, I always work backwards from one day before the deadline to figure out what I need to accomplish each day so that I don’t feel stressed. It’s one of the ways that I maintain balance in my life.
    If I try to put things off and then squeeze a whole article or something into a day or two, it will poke at me and make me insane until I start working on it. If I schedule an hour a day and do my hour, I don’t stress about it at all.

  • Laura Vanderkam

    Mostly a tortoise. But my experience is that working for a few hours a day on most problems — as long as they’re truly focused hours — gets the problem done in fewer days than you might think. Many of us work at a tortoise pace for hare hours because we get distracted.

  • Interesting comparison. I’m probably one of those quasi-hares of whom you speak. I’m working on the tortoise approach, though.

  • Brown Eyes

    I work 7 days and 10 hours per day most days, what does that make me?. I am a teacher and a ABA therapist.

  • Lucas

    I’m defintely a hare and decidedly not a quasi-hare. I love to do massive amounts of work as soon as I find out something needs doing, then relax afterwards and not have to worry about it. The key is getting it off my mind so that I actually enjoy my time off.

  • I would compare myself to a hare. I’d love to work more hours for more time off. It’s kind of like a balance for me. Nice insights. What inspired you to write this?

  • I am a tortoise

  • disqus_0alrkFcgDL

    Definite tortoise, a meandering one at that. Time is a relative concept, I’m intrigued by process and am aware of – but not generally focused on – target dates, time frames, or deadlines. Can be a source of conflict w/hares and those who have more of a linear/concrete/sequential style, but yields invaluable benefits of patience, creativity, spotting clues for problem solving, working professionally w/clients who face the barriers and challenges of chronicity (e.g. pain mgmt, illness, ritual abuse/serial trauma, addiction) and “life issues”, routinely thinking outside the box.

  • guest

    I love this. I am most definitely a hare (I am also a questioner, per your RCI, so I only get going on things I really care about). This is challenging when I am in an environment that moves slow (for example, I’m in grad school with classes 2 days a week and no job). I could do a bit of work everyday, but instead I procrastinate and rush to get it all done. I think this is pretty inefficient and I would love to hear about ways to motivate in these situations.

  • Holly Sarratt Frye

    I have found that pairing up a tortoise and a hare on a joint project is not a good thing. They freak each other out. The tortoise is overwhelmed by the hare’s intensity (whoa, what’s the rush?), and the hare doesn’t want to stop and pick it up again tomorrow (what if there isn’t time tomorrow?)

  • Cinna

    I’m a little of both. It depends how important the task is. But I procrastinate a lot

  • Maud Lovinfosse

    Isn’t it a story by Jean de Lafontaine ?
    I can be both but I’m happier when I let myself be a tortoise (that’s what I learned at collège)

  • cawaterguy

    I suppose I’m a former hare now switched to a more tortoise-work life. 4-5 hours every day. It’s more peaceful but I admit I do feel restless. I get a higher burst of euphoria at meeting deadlines and working long hours under pressure. I feel it’s a trade off. You miss the highs (and lows) of hare life but get peace of tortoise-life. I do question whether a tortoise and hare actually do get the same amount of work done though.

  • Kara Newhouse

    It’s interesting that you mention not being able to work at a daily newspaper. I am a tortoise, but I do work at a daily newspaper. Sometimes it can be frustrating, but on the other hand, I’m an upholder and the frequency of deadlines helps me let go of some of my perfectionism. One article that’s out today may not be everything it could’ve been, but there’s a new article to write, so I can’t dwell on it!

  • Delilah Jones

    I’m the tortoise who works with a lot of hares. Keeps life quite interesting and brings balance to the projects we work on together.

  • Jelena Delibasic

    I’m also a tortoise. Working every day makes me more productive. If you tell me that I have to finish a large project in a very short time frame, I start panicking.