Now that we’ve discussed the different definitions and meanings of ‘hard work’ and ‘work ethic,’ we get down to the question of how to improve our ability to work. In the end, it comes down not only to being able to work hard, but also to work smart.
To work smart means to get more done with less energy. This means we increase our productivity, or the output to input ratio. Someone who can get more output with a certain level of input can get more done overall, feel better about it, and maybe even enjoy a life outside of working all the time.
We could, of course, just put more straight effort into everything we do. And this will have beneficial effects. However, the effects may not be optimal or efficient. We may be working really hard at something that doesn’t produce that many results, and a little smart tweak could potentially make the work easier and more productive. We may find virtue in working really hard on something, but there’s no virtue or nobility in the idea of working hard at something in an inefficient or suboptimal way.
Thus, we need to figure out how to work smart, not hard, though of course this is not an excuse to be lazy. I don’t want to make this a battle of smart work vs. hard work, as both are necessary ingredients for success. The best aspect of working smart is that you’ll be more motivated as you will understand and be able to measure how well your efforts are rewarding you with success and products.
How to Work Smart and Work Hard
In the final analysis, we may need to change the definition of ‘hard work.’ We constantly think about it as the process itself, as the (negative) emotions we feel when doing it and the willpower that is needed in order to motivate ourselves to doing it. Maybe instead we should call ‘working hard’ those activities that are most effective, optimal, and productive, even if they may seem ‘easier’ on the surface. We could even say that getting rest and recuperation is an important ingredient of working hard! (More on this idea in a minute.)
These following ideas will allow us to make sure we’re working at an optimal and efficient level. Note that we can never work perfectly – there will always be inefficiencies – but at least we can try our best to optimize our efforts and get the biggest bang for our proverbial buck.
- Always focus on outcome, not simply appearances. In the end, we all want to be effective, not ‘efficient’ for efficiency’s sake, or neat for neatness’s sake, or whatever. What matters in the end is actually being productive, so focus on the activities that will lead you to success.
- Don’t only focus on productivity – focus on what’s valuable. Sure, perhaps you could do a project really quickly and effectively, but it’s often better not to do it at all if it provides no value for you. Be ruthless here – you can often go back and do the project if you need, but it’s impossible to go back and “undo” the project and regain the time you lost.
- Make a good plan. Really analyze what needs to be done, and the steps that need to be completed in order to finish a task. Focus on the essentials. Investing this ‘non-productive’ time may actually make you fantastically more productive when it comes time to actually do the work.
- Don’t work for appearance’s sake when it comes to impressing others or getting sympathy for others. There’s absolutely no point to staying late at the office if it will yield you no benefits. It will usually be better to go home and get rest so that you can be at your top performance level the next day. The fresher you are, the better you’ll perform.
- Learn about and understand the Pareto principle. This idea states that approximately 20% of the activities we do will lead to 80% of the benefits. To put it more simply, there are certain activities and actions we do that contribute the most to our success; other activities may be important, but they are secondary to these main contenders. Thus, we need to focus on those 20% activities that will lead us to success. Highlight the tasks in your work and personal life that give you the biggest benefit, and then focus on them.
- Make sure you’re organized. If you have to struggle to find what you need or wade through the garbage in your office, room, or desk, you are being terribly inefficient, as you are spending resources trying to navigate your environment. Make sure your space is clean and organized so that you can move from task to task and goal to goal efficiently.
- Don’t try to be perfect – avoid perfectionism. Nothing will ever meet these impossible standards, so being a slave to them will do nothing but allow you to beat your head against the wall. Work smart, not just hard!
- Block your time so that you’re focusing on one task at one time, then moving on after completing the task (or at least hitting a milestone). Multitasking, as we’ve discussed elsewhere in this book, is the bane of our existence! The worst part about it is that it seems productive, even more productive, than simply focusing. Unfortunately, scientific studies have shown that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
- Block out your day in advance as much as you can. Anticipate the times of the day when you’ll have to do required activities and try to make your workflow as efficient as possible. Those who get the most done are the ones who are able to slot in little work sessions in even the smallest section of the day.
- Make sure you have the right tools and equipment for the job. Doing things the “old fashioned way” may look like you’re working hard on the surface, but instead you’ll just be wasting time and energy. Use the right tools for the job in order to take the “shortcuts” that will make you get more done with less energy.
- Give yourself a break! Make sure to take breaks throughout the day to account for the natural ebb and flow of your attention and energy. The more you understand your ‘natural’ work process, the more efficient and productive you’ll be through the day. Sometimes truly working hard is not about “bearing it” but about doing things the ‘smart’ way, even if others may see it as slacking or have a weak work ethic. When you blow them away in terms of results, then they’ll see.
- Be adaptable. If something isn’t working, change it! There’s no sense steering your ship into the shore if you can manage avoiding a disaster. Sometimes changing your plan during the middle of the process can help you avoid many problems and can increase your overall efficiency.
- Get help! Sometimes people will do things better, faster, and cheaper than you. Don’t be afraid to delegate, as this is one of the best ways to work smarter. You can then focus your time on your high value tasks and not have to waste it being stuck in the trenches.
- If you have a team, make sure all the components of the project are worked on in harmony. Managing these parallel processes can be complex, but there’s nothing more important. Watch out for the bottlenecks and the ‘limiting reagents’ that will keep back the entire project. Try to minimize their impact and increase the efficiency of the project as a whole.
- Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ to avoid tasks that will yield you no positive benefits. Much of what we think we “have” to do is of course not mandatory at all – you may be surprised at what you can cut out of your life without measurably harming it or others. Many people just generate all kinds of busy work and time wasting without stepping back and calling it what it is: junk. Of course, sometimes these tasks will be unavoidable, and it’s a really great thing to help out other people in need. Still, be smart about your selection and your efforts – you can help more people in the end if you are productive and efficient than if you are scattered and out of focus.
- Don’t get bogged down in the details, but make sure to take care of them. There is nothing efficient about skipping or slacking on the critical aspects of the job, only to have to return to them later to fix the big mess that was created. Get the job done right the first time.
- Figure out your own habits that will lead to increased productivity. For instance, do you work better at a particular time of day? If so, focus your biggest tasks then. Do you find yourself working better in certain places than in others? Focus on getting yourself into the better environments. This isn’t rocket science, obviously – listen to your intuition and trust your judgments. More often than not, you’ll be happily correct.
Don’t Forget to “Work Hard, Play Hard” Too!
We can’t forget, finally, that life isn’t all about hard work, despite what our work ethics might tell us. Life is about fun, recreation, and recuperation as well. In addition, you will be able to work both smarter and harder if you take a rest; working too hard can lead you total burn out, which will absolutely ravage your ability to actually accomplish something. Slow and steady wins the race – don’t burn out your abilities!
Thus, don’t forget to work hard, play harder – enjoy your time off when you’ve earned it. There’s no reason to feel guilty about not working when you’ve actually done something to earn that pleasure.