Work Smarter, Not Harder

Work Smarter, Not Harder

"If you want something done, ask a busy person." - Benjamin Franklin

Being busy is not a synonym for productivity.

The thought in the old paradigm was: A busy person will find a way for it to get done. Nowadays, the saying is: A busy person will find a way for it to get done… until they burn out.

The question people should be asking is “How should I manage my energy?” not “How should I manage my time?” Too much work leads to burn out and too little leads to a laziness where one thinks they are overworked; in reality, their focus is split between work and personal interest. The key is finding the balance. Someone who has good balance will find a way to complete the job that needs to be done--whether they do it themselves or find a way to do so in their network.

One way to combat burn out is the cultural move to work “smarter” instead of “harder”.  Working smarter is the idea that there are ways to do the same task in less the time. It takes fewer hours of “hard work” to get the same results. The popularity of “life hacks” is a good example of this generational shift.

Below, I have compiled a list that creates an optimal environment for working smarter. I invite you to play around with the ideas and manipulate them to fit your productivity sweet spot. 

Keep Focused

I work just as hard when I am distracted as I do when I am working on a project with a deadline. When my wheels (my attention) jump off the tracks, my engine runs at the same speed. It’s easy to get off point and not even realize it.

One way to keep on task is to ask yourself every so often, what am I doing? Is what I’m doing working towards achieving goal x? I know some people who set “check-in” timers or an alarm at regular intervals throughout the day--especially around times when they know their attention tends to drift. When the alarm goes off, they check to make sure they are on task and adjust accordingly.

Check Your Mindset

How you approach a problem can either drag you down or build you up. It is important to be a realist instead of fighting the struggle. Accept that if you are going to complete your task for the day, you are going to have to find a way to do so, somewhere, somehow, someway. Acknowledge that there is a way, even if you can’t see it yet. As a mechanism of removing self-doubt and self-criticism, approach every project or task as if there is a solution to every problem. This is an example of a growth mindset. It is someone who believes their talents and skills are not a fixed variable, but can be strengthened and nurtured through sticking with a hard problem and following through with it.

For more information on mindset, check out my blog about Mindset, inspired by Carol S. Dweck’s research. Fell free to check out my notes as well, and pick up a copy of the book here.

Know Your Sweet Spot

Observe yourself throughout the day and keep notes on when you feel productive and when you feel your attention drifting. See if there is a pattern (you’ll probably recognize one). During the productive points during the day, give yourself the heavy lifting tasks on your to-do list. If you are the type of person who gets things done early in the morning, frontload your day with the high energy tasks first. If you find that you are the type of person who is most productive during the night, gradually work your way up to the harder tasks. If you think you are an afternoon person or night person, and evening comes around and you still haven’t started any heavy lifting, you're probably procrastinating. If this is the case, check out my blog on getting started when you are stuck to prevent this problem in the future.

Use technology as a set of tools, not time wasters

The reason why technology thrives and we keep on making more of it is because it makes tasks easier or quicker. Make sure you are using the tools for these reasons instead of using them to get distracted. It is a mental drain to switch your focus from one task to another. Every interruption is time wasted. It takes time and energy to switch your focus away from one thing and then switch back. Find your “laser-focus” zone, and stay there until you get to a natural breaking point. Just like sleep, waiting until your focus naturally wanes will give you natural pause instead of feeling like you were pulling out of something half finished.

If possible, turn off all email and social media notifications. If you are brave, silence your phone and put it in a drawer or out of sight from its attractive light-up screen. Have regular check-in periods when you respond to all email and text messages at the same time.

Mental Clarity

Give yourself time to put your day in perspective. Go for a short walk (before or after lunch) to put your day in perspective. This is a way for you to take stock and calibrate. Think about what you have done today, what you are working on, and what you need to get done. This will get your mind in a to-do mindset. Often, we work ourselves up because we have so much to do and the hardest part is deciding where to start. On your walk, visualize what you have to do in front of you. Use the open space around you to visually move around meetings, emails, and other tasks to give a structure to all the things calling for your attention.

In addition, exercise releases natural endorphins and is usually the first thing doctors recommend for alleviating stress and depression.

Outsource Your Friends (Use Your Network)

I don’t regularly watch movies. When I am in the mood to see a film or if I hear about one that is getting some attention in the news, I ask a trusted friend who is a film buff with similar opinions about films as me. They tell me what they know about the film in question and I make a decision based on their input whether the film is worth my time. Similarly, I don’t have time to read world news every day. I have a friend who is in graduate school studying international relations who I check-in with regularly. She keeps me up to date with her social media newsfeed and I text or email her with any questions I have. Likewise, when one of these friends wants to know about a book that has come out or they are looking for a book to read about X, Y, or Z, I am able to share my bookish thoughts and can easily make recommendations.

We all have specialties, share yours with your friends and eagerly pursue people in your network who have different specialties than you. They will more than likely be excited to share their passion with you. And by sharing your specialty, you will get to practice your skill as well.

Andrew J. Wilt
SEI Junior Consultant
Apprenticeship Program