How to Work Smarter, Not Harder: Myth or Efficient Strategy?

Alexandra Cote

Written by

Alexandra Cote

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11 minutes

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Work Happy

The “work smarter, not harder” mantra has been around since 1930, when  Allen F. Morgenstern, an industrial engineer, coined it in an attempt to simplify how workers did their jobs.

But things have come a long way since then, so does this motto still apply in the current context?

Work smarter, not harder in today’s workplace

Truth be told, we can’t just take an idea from almost 100 years ago and hope it’s still valid. What Morgenstern aimed for was to make people do their jobs with less effort in an age where people were mostly working dreadful jobs in steel mills, on the fields, or in manual assembly lines with only Sundays free.

Today there are just as many changes as there are fields of work. The industrial era was replaced by software aimed to make our lives and jobs easier, with laborious work replaced by mental work in return.

Despite this, everyone still tells you to work harder and put consistent effort into your pursuits. That’s due to all the successful people that already endorse it as a key factor to achieve fulfillment. To name a few:

“All roads that lead to success have to pass through hard work boulevard at some point.” – Eric Thomas

“Love your family, work super hard, live your passion.” – Gary Vaynerchuk

These are all nice words, but in reality, nobody knows what they are really doing to succeed. And chances are they won’t publicly tell us.

To give you a head start, I’ve prepared a run-through of all the key actionable tips you need to master to improve your work efficiency the right way. Bookmark them, or write them on a note to have them nearby:

Improve the way in which you manage your time

Time is your first and most important resource. I’m sure you’ve heard this before and how vital it is to manage it. But how can you really do that?

Besides the general advice like setting realistic deadlines or avoiding distractions, there are a couple of actionable techniques you can put into practice. Like dividing your day into distinct chunks of work with downtime breaks in between. According to a study conducted by K. Anders Ericsson from the Florida State University, 90 minutes is the working interval most likely to create high performance at the workplace, anything above this only decreasing your productivity.

People have different time spans though for being more or less productive. That’s why you should pair this up with a set schedule. Without a clear one, you’ll end up postponing all of your activities indefinitely. So either divide your day into these 90 minutes or into two separate 4-hour periods in the morning and evening with one large break at noon.

If you’re a fan of shorter breaks, there’s the ever-popular Pomodoro technique. The idea behind this is that working in batches of 25 minutes followed by a 5-minute break will boost your productivity while keeping your creative juices flowing. You can customize this process and work for more minutes or even an hour but stick to consistent intervals.

Here’s a breakdown of how the Pomodoro technique works:

the pomodoro process for working smarter
You don’t need to go through these steps to start using the technique. Check out this list of the best Pomodoro apps and use one instead.

If you want to stick to the basics, go for a phone’s timer, a classic alarm clock, or an advanced time tracker that monitors how you spend your time on a given task or project.

The latter one is a bit different as it records your work hours to later analyze them and get a closer look at how you’re really spending your time. Particularly when trackers are part of a time tracking tool that will offer reports so you can see where you’re slacking and improve how you handle time.

time tracker

Time tracker in use in Paymo

Regardless of the methods you’ll choose to manage your time, you need to reconsider how you multitask. Trying to work on multiple things at once can decrease your efficiency by as much as 40%. So next time you feel like you can’t focus on your work, it might be because you’re doing too much at the same time or there’s another issue bothering you.

In both cases, the solution is simple: handle each task in a systematic manner according to their priorities (more on that later in this article).

Use digital tools

While Morgenstern and his fellow engineers had to think of innovative ways of outsmarting the dreadful work processes of their times, the average workers today just have to go online and use a tool that does the work (in full or in part) for them.

Easy right? Not so fast. Although tech evolution has inevitably brought a large number of options, testing all of them would be impossible. Plus, it would take a lot of time and go against the time management tips I’ve already mentioned.

To find the relevant tools for you:

There’s really a solution for everything: image editing tools even non-designers can use, social media planners to automate your posts, online code editors, keyword generator tools, this platform that helps companies and individuals legally sign documents online. Even time tracking tools you can connect to your favorite Adobe Creative Cloud tools:

paymo adobe cc integration for work

Paymo widget docked in Photoshop

Delegate work

In his book “The 4-Hour Workweek”, Tim Ferriss admits that he resorted to outsourcing smaller tasks for virtual assistants in an attempt to reduce the number of hours he worked in a day. That’s one way of working smart: asking for help.

Now the idea of working only 4 hours each week is not so realistic if you’re looking for great results in the long run. But delegating your tasks is one aspect you should consider.

As a freelancer or part of a team, there’s undoubtedly a couple of tasks for which you can use someone else’s help. Whether you’re a writer looking for illustrations from a designer or a business owner who needs a web developer to set up an online shop, you can always find a person who might be better at that extra job than you or has more knowledge on the topic.

Imagine you were a developer and needed to take care of the bookkeeping. You can either hire a professional accountant or spend countless hours learning all best practices and policies. The latter choice is what you’d call hard work.

But here’s another thing to keep in mind from Tim Ferriss’s book: “Never automate something that can be eliminated, and never delegate something that can be automated or streamlined. Otherwise, you waste someone else’s time instead of your own, which now wastes your hard-earned cash. How’s that for an incentive to be effective and efficient?”

The growth of artificial intelligence is bringing more opportunities for humans to stop wasting their time. YouTube now auto-generates video captions, there are lots of AI-based automation and testing tools to speed up the software development process, even ask this tool if your photo is good or not. This just proves how delegating will be so much easier in the future when you’ll no longer have to wait for someone else to deliver what you asked for or bury yourself in invoices.

Prioritize the right way

Another case of “Everyone tells me this but I don’t know how to do it.”

I mean, it’s normal to feel like you can’t get your tasks in order. Especially when you’ve got so many important things each screaming for their fair share of attention. So here are three key tips to keep in mind when prioritizing work:

The Eisenhower Decision Matrix

This technique helps you distinguish between urgent tasks that demand immediate attention and important ones you can complete at any other time. The matrix allows you to separate tasks into 4 different buckets – important and urgent, important but not urgent, not important but urgent, and not important or urgent.

eisenhower matrix

The Pareto Principle

Also known as the 80/20 rule. This method relies on the principle that 20% of your tasks are responsible for roughly 80% of your results. Applied to business, this can mean that 20% of salespeople are responsible for 80% of sales, 20% of your clients bring 80% of the total profit, 20% of bugs lead to 80% of software issues, you get the point.

Pareto for smart work

Getting Things Done®

The GTD method is a 5-step framework created by David Allen to help you handle your duties in a structured and relaxed manner without having a lot of “brain tabs” open. To implement it, follow these steps:

  • Capture – put down all of the ideas and activities that demand your attention
  • Clarify – make sense of each idea and what you can do with them
  • Organize – sort you activities into lists
  • Reflect – take the time to regularly analyze what you’re doing
  • Engage – work on your ideas

Here’s one example of a GTD diagram to clarify how this process works:

diagram for good work habits
If you’re looking for some extra tips on managing your tasks the right way using these task prioritization methods, check out this guide to organizing your daily activities.

Keep meetings to the point by involving the right people

Too often, meetings are a huge time waster. Mainly because not everyone will be directly concerned by all topics. But just talking to your colleagues via chat or a chain of emails is not the way to go if you want to ensure everyone is doing their work the right way.

Details could get lost between tens of messages and you’ll end up having to redo your work several times. Not holding meetings is by no means a solution.

professional development

The simple answer to this problem is to keep meetings to the point and hold them only when necessary. Above all, make sure you involve only the right people so you don’t bore the hell out of the rest. 73% of meetings involve 2-4 people on average and that’s the healthy way to go.

If you’re looking for the answer to help you solve this issue, check out my comprehensive article on this topic to hold a super productive meeting.

Don’t be afraid of change coming your way

Fear of failure is what stops people from reaching their goals. But without accepting risk, no matter how small, you’re less likely to attain them.

Instead, be prepared to fail. Make extra plans, learn from your previous mistakes, try anything that can make you profit from your past errors.

But if it’s so easy, then why isn’t everyone successful in their trade? Because they eventually do give up. They try once, twice… ten times, but they give up just before they’re able to get their big break. When you’re told to never stop trying, that actually means NEVER. Once you forget this, it will be much harder for you to do what you’ve put your mind to. In fact, the main idea behind the “work smarter” mantra is to muster up the courage to first pass through challenges and heed the lessons from them.

Ask the “perfect” questions

Sure working smarter, not harder sounds like a good way to spend your life, but you’ll need to learn how to ask smart questions. To give you a head start, I’ll brief you on a couple of particularities to keep in mind when you’re looking for that perfect piece of advice:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask that question. – We’re losing so many good ideas just because we’re too scared to say them out loud. Same goes for any questions you might have. If something’s not clear enough, it’s best to just ask as many times as needed than have to fix a mistake due to lack of knowledge.
  • Avoid suggesting an answer when you’re putting a question. – Compare the following two phrases:

    “This is a good choice, isn’t it?”

    “Which one is a good choice?”.

    The first question is suggesting one answer as right over the other. This could influence the receiver to pick the answer that is automatically being implied by the speaker.
  • Have at least one goal in mind for each question. – What is it you’re looking for with a question? Do you need a suggestion? A concise answer? More guidance? Regardless of your goal, try to come up with questions for each one so you’re not missing out any details. Often a question leads to a full conversation that can spark new ideas you wouldn’t have otherwise come up with. Just think of every question you haven’t asked as a lost opportunity and I’m sure this will be an extra incentive for you to be a bit more daring and get the feedback you need.
  • Ask when appropriate. – You’re not going to get the answer you’re looking for if the person you’re talking to doesn’t have time to fully concentrate on the topic.
  • Make sure you get at least one actionable answer. – The end goal for any question is an answer that will help you continue your work. Don’t ask questions just for the sake of asking them. If your first question didn’t lead to the answer you needed, just ask another question until your demands are met. You can also follow the 5 Whys technique for this.

Just stay happy at work 😀

Work satisfaction has constantly been linked to how happy people are at work. Smart work is all about knowing when to stop rushing your daily life. In fact, a study ran by Morten T. Hansen proves that top performers actually focus on fewer things. Having multiple goals to take care of at the same time only shifts your focus from the ones that matter the most. So learn to slow down.

Beyond everything, you can find happiness at work if you’re working a job you love. Yes, you’re tired of hearing this over and over again. But think about it: you’ve got roughly 10 to 30 years to discover what you truly like doing and make a business out of it. So if you’re already in your 30s and think about a career change, go for it! And if you’re too afraid of failing, start with baby steps. Turn your hobbies into a side gig or get a part-time job as a starting point in your new career path.

I’ll go ahead and say that the “work smarter, not harder” motto only applies for people who are not caught up in jobs they hate. If you’re just working for the sake of getting paid the chances of staying motivated and coming up with smart work ethics are close to zero. Once you’re fully enjoying your day-to-day work you’ll be actively looking into finding new ways of improving your work the smart way.

Hard work is mostly a thing of the past, back when most jobs were physically demanding out on the field or within a factory. I strongly recommend you go on and read Annie McKee’s book, “How to Be Happy at Work”, which debunks work-related myths like how hard work is the only thing you should know or why bygone expectations are no longer the case in the current workplace.

professional growth at work

Putting it all together

Remember that working hard is a natural part of your professional development and not something you should be afraid of. Consider all of the given tips but be prepared to work hard whenever needed. In the end, success in the long run is a mix of these two concepts. It’s really up to you to decide what aids your practice. Whether that’s working hard or not, do what performs best for you. There’s no one way to reach your goals.

Let me know your thoughts on this topic and what your work philosophy is. Are you a hard worker or did you ditch this practice to work smarter?

Above all, don’t forget to work happy 😀

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