What does “Working Smart” mean?

Don’t work hard, work smart.

It’s an axiom that’s repeated everywhere. But most people don’t really believe it. Everybody hears it, yes. Everybody repeats it, yes. But most people still don’t truly believe it. When work isn’t finished, the instinctive reaction is to…

…work more hours.

What would you say if someone told you that to finish your work, you should work less hours? Ridiculous! But there you go, sometimes, going against “common” sense is the best thing to do.

Is it really common sense?

They say that Einstein used this quote:

The definition of insane is to do the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

– Albert Einstein? Rita Mae Brown?

So let’s look at that in the context of work. Boss gives you work. You don’t manage to finish it in time. It extends to the next day. Boss gives you more work. You’re late for the first deadline and now have to juggle 2 projects at once.

Obviously this slows down your work on your 2nd project. This makes you even slower and ensures that you don’t finish your 2nd project on time. By that time, the boss has given you 2 more projects. The cycle continues.

So what’s the solution? Well, if you can’t finish it on time, then obviously you need more time right? So you keep working later hours, and even weekends, in the hope of “catching up” and “getting back on track”.

But as you repeat this again and again, you should notice at some point that doing it isn’t giving you results. So, are you fulfilling the definition of insanity? Doing it over and over and somehow expecting it to be different this time?

Oddly enough, most of us never notice it until it’s pointed out to us. Even now, I’m sure you’re reading this and going, “That can’t be right. So working harder isn’t helping me finish my work?”.

After all, you’re using common sense, right?

Uncommon sense & Parkinson’s Law

Let me tell you Parkinson’s law, in the hope that you haven’t heard it before and now think I’m an absolute genius for saying this:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

–  Cyril Northcote Parkinson

As you give yourself more and more time to complete a job, the job becomes harder and harder to complete! Of course, this isn’t true about the complexity of the job in and of itself. It’s just that as you allow it more time, it psychologically becomes more complex to complete.

It might be that you waste more time in stressing and worrying about it. It might be that you spend an unusual amount of time in the planning stage in order to “make sure that everything runs smoothly later on”.

It might just be that since you know at the back of your mind that you have plenty of time, you allow yourself to relax more and goof off more in checking emails and facebook or following silly youtube links. The amount of work that you do will expand to fill the time you set aside for it.

It’s not just goofing off though. You actually spend more time doing the job itself. You spend time doing things that are job-related that don’t actually help you to finish it. Instead of just finishing it, you start spending time choosing the best font, or formatting the paperwork, or other trivial things. Now, imagine if the deadline was 3 hours ago, would you still spend time on that stuff? No! Because it has nothing to do with getting the job done.

So… what to do! What to do if working longer hours DOESN’T help you finish your job? Here’s an idea… work less.

Working less hours = Finish your job faster?

I know, I know. It sounds like a contradiction. How can working less help you finish your job?

1. Your job doesn’t ever finish

Here’s the first answer. But to understand it, you’ll need a huge shift in thinking. Your job doesn’t “finish“. That’s a concept that floated in from nowhere. Your current project might finish, but your job should be one that you’re going to continue for quite some time. Your job is “finished” when you’re fired or retired. Your job doesn’t “finish“.

In that case, what’s the point of working more hours? I don’t mean there’s no point in working at all, or that there’s no point in making sure a job is done well, or even that working more hours won’t do something to lessen your workload.

But you have to notice that at some point, you’re just working too hard. Your life is imbalanced. You’re spending waaaayyyyy too much time on your job and you’re not spending enough time time taking care of the other details in your life. When this happens, everything else just gets screwed up and goes down the drain. At that point, working more hours won’t help you “finish” your job. Perhaps working less won’t help you “finish” it either. But it will have minimal effect on your workload and will do wonders for the rest of your life and your general well-being.

So the first answer is: It’s not about finishing your job. It’s about what’s best for you.

2. Get enough sleep

The second answer… the second answer is interesting, because it’s based on what I said just now in the first answer. If your job requires even a small amount of thought and creativity (like I’m sure it does), then it the results of your job aren’t tied so much to the quantity of time you put in, but rather the quality of time you put in.

When your life is imbalanced, there’s a good chance that you’re not getting enough rest and that your mind is worrying over a hundred tiny details that you haven’t had time to resolve yet. This definitely affects the rest that you get. Less work equals to quality rest.

By working less and getting better rest, you can then think straight and finish your work properly. You get to do quality work. As in, work that you do right the first time around and that you don’t have to go back and fix later on. I’ve found that if you do it rushed the first time around, you’ll only have to go back later and spend even more time to fix it.

So sleep is important. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of super achievers like Benjamin Franklin who supposedly only slept 2 hours a day. I don’t believe those stories. Sleep is important. But these people worked smart. They knew the right thing to do.

Go to work with a sharp mind.

80/20 : The Pareto Rule

Here’s another fancy rule from those people who make observations about life. 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts.

It’s a simple rule. It’s based on the idea that when you start from 0%, it’s very easy to improve. It needs just a little bit of effort to go to 40%. And going from 40% to 60% needs double the effort. Going from 60% to 70% requires double the effort again. In economics you call it the theory of diminishing returns.

So the question is, how much time should you spend on your work?

Based on the Pareto rule, it follows that if you spend only 20% of your time and effort on your job, you can still get 80% of it done.

HOW???!!!!! I can hear you shouting it from across the room. The idea is that most of what we do isn’t central to our work. We waste time researching when we have enough info, checking emails (yes, checking emails too much is a waste of time), formatting our work to “make it look nice for the boss”, and so on.

Cut away that wasted effort. Focus only on the core part of your job. Ever heard your boss talk about the “core business” of your company? Focus on the core business of your job.

Be the best in your field

Now, all this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t put any effort into work. In fact, you need to put a lot of effort into it. You need to learn everything about your field of work. You need to study it so well that you know every little shortcut and loophole. You need to learn how to use the software at work so that you can use it effortlessly, whether it be Word & Excel or something as complicated as MATLAB.

You need to put so much effort into your job, that when actual work comes around, you don’t have to put in any effort at all.

This is how you put in 20% effort and still get 80% of your results. It’s the people who have no idea how to do their job who work hard instead of work smart.

Most of us, after doing our work, learn to get by with “just enough” skills. If your work deals with Excel everyday, do you go out of your way to learn excel tips and tricks online including new ways to program systems? Do you challenge your skills so that you can solve ever more complicated problems?

But of course, you’ll never have the time to do this unless you work less hours.

Learn how to do your job better. There’s always new things to learn.

It’s all about doing the right thing

Working hard is just doing more. It could be doing more of the wrong thing. In fact, it usually is.

Working smart is when you do the right thing. Because so few do it, it’s enough to do just a little bit. The most successful people know the right thing to do. Then… They worked hard. They did more and more of the right thing. Who can compete with that?

We usually use the terms talent (knowing the right thing to do) and hard work (doing more of it). Hard work can best talent sometimes. But a talent who also works hard?

That’s who you need to be.

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