Does Working Smarter (Rather than Harder) Really Work?

You’ve probably heard the cliche that you should work smarter, not harder. But what does that even mean — and is it sound advice?

In this article, we’ll show you how to apply this old adage to your life in a meaningful, productive way.

But, first — let’s explore the ideas and images each way of working has conjured up historically.

The Perception of Working Harder

When the phrase was coined, working harder got equated with blue-collar folks toiling away in factories or trade jobs.

It was manual labor that relied primarily on the use of the body and generally involved long hours. The work was hard because it was back-breaking and tiring.

The Perception of Working Smarter

On the other hand, working smarter was associated with white-collar professionals filling roles in offices.

The work was mostly sedentary, relied primarily on the use of the mind, and typically involved a shorter, set schedule.

The work was smart because it didn’t take the same harsh toll on the body and afforded the worker more time for leisure.

Reframing Those Beliefs

If the above sounds somewhat ridiculous and antiquated, that’s because it is!

Yes, working in a factory for twelve hours a day will be more physically taxing than sitting at a computer for eight. But, the old notion of working hard doesn’t factor in the mental fatigue that comes with using your brain all day.

And, the limited beliefs surrounding working smart don’t account for the fact that you can work hard in an office.

It’s therefore important for us to change our mindset and more accurately define working hard and working smart.

For our purposes, working hard is all about your work ethic. It’s applying yourself fully to a task and seeing it through to completion.

Working smart, on the other hand, is all about efficiency. It’s finding the best way to approach a task and getting it done well and on time.

Why Not Strive for Both?

Based on these definitions, working hard and working smart aren’t restricted to any vocation type. In fact, people in all professions should ideally strive to do both simultaneously.

Efficiency and effort complement one another and result in a high level of achievement.

Working smart prevents you from working unnecessarily hard.

When you apply tips and tricks to make the work easier and more streamlined, you’ll save time that you can reallocate to other projects.

You’ll get more done in fewer hours, and your effectiveness will drive your overall progress further, faster.

A Word of Caution

But, while a strong work ethic is commendable and efficiency should be celebrated, there’s an upper limit to what you can reasonably achieve in a given period.

Research has shown that employee effectiveness typically decreases after 50 hours of work in a week. Depending on your situation, that number could be even less.

So, after getting a project done ahead of schedule, take an honest look at what’s left in your tank. You need your energy for much more than just your work.

If your reserves are low, try to earmark some of your newfound extra time for leisure, if possible. Doing so is still working smart because you’ll be able to approach your job with a fresh pair of eyes, a rested mind, and a renewed resolve.

How to Work at Your Best

The whole work harder vs. work smarter debate is really just a discussion on how to work at your best and benefit your organization or business the most.

But as we’ve seen, a combination of effort and efficiency is the best bet.

Here are a few best practices:

  • Learn and fully utilize the technology available to you to refine work processes.
  • Use your creativity to come up with new solutions for nagging problems and bottlenecks in your job.
  • Resolve interpersonal conflicts at work whenever possible, as friction can impact your productivity.
  • Have a shortlist of prioritized must-dos every day to avoid being overwhelmed by the bigger picture and keep you focused.
  • Block off periods for deep work in your schedule so you can accomplish tasks without interruptions.
  • Take breaks during the workday to stave off fatigue, boost your mood, and keep your efficiency high.
  • Revisit the company mission or your reason for working in general often to maintain your motivation and work ethic.

By implementing these tips at your workplace, you should achieve the new ideal: working hard and working smart.

Let’s take a closer look at how you can apply these hacks to your current role.

Utilize Technology

Chances are, your company invests in technological advances designed to make work somehow easier. Make it your mission to learn and use any software or tool that can make you more efficient and effective.

Let’s say your office recently implemented a web-based customer relationship manager.

You should stop taking notes on paper or recording details in a spreadsheet and start documenting every customer’s journey in the new system.

That way, you and the rest of the team have easy access to the same information, translating into less back and forth between employees and better service for customers.

Be Creative

We’re willing to bet there’s at least one nagging problem at your work.

Perhaps the flow of work always gets stuck in one department. Or, there’s a redundancy in a process you’re required to use every day.

Take the initiative (working hard) to creatively develop a solution that improves operations (working smart).

Resolve Conflict

When you’re on edge, it’s tough to concentrate on your work. Plus, arguing with another employee is a morale killer and a waste of time.

So, to make you, the other person, and everyone within earshot more efficient and effective, you need to resolve your interpersonal conflicts.

You may be able to do this with a frank but diplomatic discussion with the other person involved. Or, you may need to bring in a trained mediator.

Prioritize Tasks

You’ve probably got a to-do list longer than War and Peace, so there’s no way you can get to it all in one workday.

Trying to wrap your mind around everything that needs to get done will overwhelm you, which puts a real damper on your productivity.

To combat this feeling, create a shortlist of prioritized tasks you must complete each time you’re in the office. That way, you’ll accomplish the most essential things promptly.

Focus Deeply

Every workplace is full of distractions. Meetings, phone calls, and impromptu visits or messages from co-workers can all make it difficult to concentrate and get through your to-do list.

To fully commit to completing your assigned tasks, you need uninterrupted slots of time. So, block off a couple of hours on your calendar, set your phone to do not disturb, and ignore your email. That way, you can focus intensely on each deliverable.

Take Breaks

The tips in this article can help you become a productivity machine. But you’re still human. Humans aren’t designed to work non-stop indefinitely.

Trying to push yourself too hard is actually counterproductive. Your mind and body both need a break — even if it’s just for a few minutes.

So, periodically walk away from your work and watch your efficiency soar when you come back refreshed.

Remember Why

It’s easy to become so entrenched in everyday operations that you forget what you’re working towards.

When the mission gets cloudy, your resolve drops, and your effectiveness suffers.

To avoid this, you need to remember your why often. That reminder could be re-reading your company’s mission statement, or it could mean reflecting on what motivates you to work.

Working Hard and Working Smart

That old, lingering notion that one way of working is better than the other is a total farce.

Working hard and working smart are not at odds with one another. Rather, they operate in tandem to make you a powerhouse of an employee or business owner.

Leveraged properly, you’ll be more productive — and happier, too.

Article written by Laura

Originally published at on March 15, 2021.

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