Work Smart or Work Hard?

More precisely, work hard to work smart

Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”  - Abraham Lincoln

At the end of the day, do you find yourself exhausted? Yet you don’t get too much done despite working hard? As days go by, your stress and frustrations grow in numbers and intensity as nobody seems to notice you are working like a dog. And from here to burnout, there is just one small step.

If that is the case, you probably need to rethink your work dynamics. Many people work hard, but few only make it to success, and the secret here lies in not only how hard they work but how smart you work. 

We are always taught that hard work is the key to success, and it helps us achieve our dreams and aspirations. And it does. But - and that’s a big but - hard work isn’t the only key to success. Hard work is necessary for success for sure, but it’s not sufficient. The other key is to work smart. 

The idea that you should work smarter and not harder is not new. The “work smarter, not harder” mantra has been around since 1930, when Allen F. Morgenstern, an industrial engineer, created a work simplification program to increase the ability of people to produce more with less effort.

It is pretty simple to explain what working hard means. If you want to improve your productivity at work and be successful in the long run, you have to do more in less time with fewer resources - and produce a better product on top of it all. You have to start early, before everyone else, and stay up late when everyone else is already enjoying their afternoons and evenings. Madness, right!?

On the other hand, it is difficult to find an obvious guideline on what working smart means and how it’s different from hard work. Many people work hard, but only a few become successful: smart work is the secret ingredient that makes the difference.

I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.” - Bill Gates

Reading this article, you will find out the answer to the following questions: 

  • What are the main differences between hard work and smart work? 
  • Why should you work smarter, not harder?
  • How should you work smarter?

What are the main differences between hard work and smart work?

Hard work and smart work are different tools to complete a specific task. They are two different approaches to reach the same result, but hard work emphasizes spending longer hours while smart work relies on finding more efficient ways.

Hard workers are people who are goal-focused and study in-depth without realizing the limitation of time. Their rigorous concentration often misleads them as they do not realize how dynamic the circumstances can be. Here is precisely where smart work comes into play. 

Smart work doesn’t indicate the absence of work, but it can be spontaneous and use creative strategies. Approaching work in this way will boost growth and leave time for other activities and creativeness. 

Identifying differences between working hard and working smart is challenging as both methods encourage employees to reach the same goals: personal and team success. Their biggest differences may show especially in two areas:

Aim and process

Hard work often aims to increase production or quantity throughout the project. Supervisors develop a reliable but repetitive method to achieve this aim, and employees work to follow that template to meet the goal. Smart work, in contrast, may aim to improve the quality of the final product or the process itself. Those engaging in smart work may sacrifice time to test alternative theories or change a template to produce fewer but more targeted results.

The concept of hard work focus stems from tradition, especially in specific industries where predictably doing things has led to profitable results and happy customers. Succeeding at hard work by learning a method and practicing it until you own it may be appealing to those who like rules and order. Working smart may arise from a more experimental area that starts with a production method similar to hard work but looks beyond current productivity and profit margins for ways to improve them and grow.

Why should you work smarter, not harder?

It’s important to work smarter, not harder, if you want to take control of your time, rather than letting time control you. Working smarter, not harder, reduces stress and overwhelm and saves time and energy. 

Working smarter makes you more effective and productive, leading to increased focus and performance. By working smarter on a few priorities, you are improving your time management.  

Here are seven reasons why you should start working smarter:

#1. Working smarter increases productivity

I know I’m repeating myself, but it’s imperative to understand this point. Working smarter saves effort and costs by streamlining the process. Instead of following an “A-B-C” format, see where you can combine tasks. Note: sometimes multitasking is a bad idea. However, when and where possible, blending tasks can save you time and energy, making you more productive without working yourself to exhaustion.

#2. Working smart saves energy

Working smart means conserving energy. Of course, some tasks demand a certain amount of physical toughness or endurance. However, when possible, do your work in short bursts rather than long, sustained pushes. Fifteen to twenty-minute intervals with a five-minute pause to plan where you are going next with the project will give you more energy and produce a better end-product than if you have to “slop it together” at the last minute.

#3. Working hard boosts motivation and desire to continue

How many times have you worked at an intensely physical job and come home at night demoralized and exhausted? It’s not a good feeling, leading to feelings of inadequacy and depersonalization. Finding ways to work smarter can counter this, fostering more positive feelings about your job, coworkers, and yourself.

#4. Working smart makes you more valuable

Every goal of human effort is to get more done with less effort. Saving effort can also save money. Whether you are a private entrepreneur or managing a team in a multinational conglomerate, finding ways to save effort by working smarter makes you and your team more valuable resources. In turn, your employer’s appreciation makes you feel more confident and inspired.

#5. Working smarter makes you more creative and innovative

Innovation distinguishes leaders from followers. Smart workers constantly innovate somehow. They always try to improve and find new ways to do things.

Many jobs do not value creativity. Employers want to see results, preferably using the “old tried and true” methods. Routine can be very frustrating for people who thrive in a more creative environment. However, if you can apply creativity to achieve the same goal, you are more likely to enjoy your job and wish to continue doing it. Think about how you can use creativity to increase your performance!

#6. Working smarter creates a higher-quality product

Working smarter gives you more essence and the ability to focus on the nuances of the product. You get more time to sweat the small stuff that, when taken care of, creates a superior product in line with your abilities.

#7. Working smarter increases self-esteem

When you are working smarter, you apply all your faculties to solving the problems of a given task, creating a better product with less effort. Having high self-esteem makes you a positive and productive individual who has more time and energy, not only for working, but also for friends, family, and especially for themself. Such a strategy leads to even more inspiration. Instead of a vicious cycle, create a positive one!

How should you work smarter?

If you are here, it means you know that working smart is the future of labor. But what exactly should you do to work smartly? Here is a run-through of all the critical actionable tips you need to master to improve your work efficiency the right way:

Improve your time management skills 

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 do that?

Besides the general advice like setting realistic deadlines or avoiding distractions, you can put a couple of actionable techniques 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 decreases your productivity.

If you like 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.

Time tracking is an excellent solution for time reporting, mainly when trackers are part of a time tracking tool that will offer complete reports so you can see where you’re slacking and improve how you handle time.

To work smart, you have to make your brain work hard

While Allen F. 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.

We live in a post-information age, where the future belongs to the creative class. If you want to create value, you have to constantly train your brain and challenge yourself to new intellectual levels as your brain’s analytical and creative parts are very important.

Smart workers take outstanding care of their competencies. They read, evolve, and make sure they become highly resourceful. They invest massively into developing valuable and practical knowledge and abilities. It can be through formal or informal education.

Acquire high-demanded skills

Being a smart worker means exposing yourself to as many opportunities as possible. The best way to do that is to own competencies in great demand but in very short supply. People who combine the right markets with the right competencies are the winners. Whatever you do, remember that you have to become exceptional at it. 

Select the perfect opportunities

When you are open and exposed to new opportunities, you must carefully choose which options to follow. Smart workers are patient and wait for the one right thing with low risk and massive potential return. It is called value investing, and, as mentioned, your time is the most precious resource you can invest.

Your energy and resources are very limited; thus, you have to carefully choose your battles as a smart worker. If you say yes to everything, you will burn out sooner or later. A burnt-out worker is not a smart worker. Smart workers learn to say no very early in life.

Delegate tasks

Doing everything by yourself is one of the biggest enemies of smart work. If you want to work smart, you have to learn how to delegate. You have to see other people’s time as an infinite resource you can engage, assuming you know how to inspire, motivate, and lead people or have enough money to pay them well. That’s one way of working smart: asking for help. 

In his book “The 4-Hour Workweek”, Tim Ferriss admits that he resorted to outsourcing tasks for virtual assistants in an attempt to reduce the number of hours he worked in a day. But here’s another thing to keep in mind from Tim Ferriss: “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?”

Smart workers plan diligently before acting

Hard workers just do work because there is something on their to-do list. Smart workers are proactive, not reactive. They constantly analyze the best way to complete a specific task and stay flexible with their tactics. 

Smart workers are aware that every hour of planning can save many hours in execution. As mentioned before, smart people choose very carefully when to say yes, but when they do say yes, they make sure to execute with surgical precision.

Cut down your to-do list

Keep your list short, focusing on the top important things to do, and avoid filling the lists with unnecessary items. Shorter lists look less intimidating and will not give you the feeling of an exhausting day ahead. 

Also, keep the heaviest tasks for the beginning of the day. As Mark Twain famously said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” He also said, “If your job is to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

When you feel buried up to your neck in tasks, with so many essential things to do, each screaming for their fair share of attention, review the Eisenhower Decision Matrix and the Pareto principle.

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, smart way.

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

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. According to the HOK Benchmarking report, 73% of meetings involve 2-4 people on average, and that’s the healthy way to go.

Be adaptable and embrace the changes coming your way

Hard workers hate change. They just want to work hard, and when the circumstances change, they focus and get frustrated. Environments have become too unstable, volatile, and unpredictable to only work hard and hope for the best. Fear of failure is what stops people from reaching their goals. But without accepting risks, you are less likely to attain them. Make extra plans, learn from previous mistakes, try anything that can make you profit from your past errors.

Smart workers constantly observe the environment and adjust their strategy and hard work to maximize value creation in every situation they encounter. They try once, twice… ten times, but they never give up. When you are told never to stop trying, that means NEVER. Once you forget this, it will be much harder for you to do what you’ve put your mind to. The main idea behind the “work smarter” mantra is to get the courage to first pass through challenges and learn lessons from them.

Put yourself first

Smart workers are aware that the more power and money they have, the more influence they have on the community they are living in. The healthier you look and live, the stronger your influence will be on people who will have an excellent example of how to take care of their health. 

Smart workers know that emotional security and strength come from trusting themselves and having deep and loving relationships, which means putting yourself first.

Stay happy at work

Work satisfaction links with how happy people are at work. Smart work is all about knowing when to stop rushing your daily life. A study run by Morten T. Hansen proves that top performers focus on fewer things, the ones that matter the most. So learn to slow down.

You can find happiness at work if you’re working a job you love. The “work smarter, not harder” motto applies to people who are not caught up in jobs they hate. If you are working on getting paid, the chances of staying motivated and coming up with smart solutions are close to zero. Once you are enjoying your day-to-day work, you can find 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. 

Annie McKee’s book, “How to Be Happy at Work” debunks work-related myths like how hard work is the only thing you should know or why bygone expectations are overrated in the current workplace.

Wrapping up

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 the work smart/ work hard concepts. It is up to you to decide what aids your practice. Whether that is working smart or hard, do what performs best for you. 

Remember: before you get to work smart, you have to work hard. And, above all, don’t forget to put yourself first and work happily.