Working Smart

The data is clear: we work longer and harder than ever before. We take work home, do what we think “must” be done, or what we’re required to do, and try to do it as best we can. It doesn’t seem to matter how many things we check off our ever expanding to-do lists, or how many hours we put in accomplishing less than we may desire, the results aren’t always better. Those who work hard but not smart invariably get half the job done in about twice the time.

North America is the only place on the planet where the work people do is dramatically increasing. Productivity has risen by over 70% in the last twenty years. While the five-day work week was introduced in 1926 by Henry Ford, on average, knowledge workers – those who actually know more than their bosses – put in over 60 hour per week at their jobs, not counting the 24/7 tether to their mobile devices.

As leaders, we often tell people to work smarter, not harder. Then we leave them to figure out what that means. Is this because we don’t know how to define it (or how to do it) ourselves? The answer, based on my experience with a wide array of seasoned professionals over the course of many decades is a resounding “yes.” We frequently talk the good talk but fail to walk it ourselves. What may sound profound isn’t easily decipherable to others. And, being human, they’re unlikely to ask for an explanation that might suggest their ignorance.

Albert Einstein coined the term “Insanity Principle” to define the futile exercise of doing the same thing repetitively while anticipating different results. Better outcomes don’t necessarily flow from greater effort; they tend to occur when things are done differently. So, how do we get people to do that and, maybe, end up working smart?

The first step is to define what “smart” means in concrete, measurable terms. I happen to think that people aren’t dumb, even though at times they can act that way. Smart happens when we take the time to think before we do, when we ask questions. Examples include: Why am I doing it this way? Might there be a better, easier, faster, cheaper way to accomplish what I am trying to do? Is this actually a problem or is it a question I should ask of someone else? The list goes on, depending on the challenge.

Smart is confronting our internal creature of habit – the one that’s neurologically programmed to not think but just do what we’ve always done. It’s making conscious, strategic choices that demand focus, effort and discipline. It’s challenging reactive assumptions and old ways of doing things. It’s developing a solution mindset rather than a problem orientation.

Most successful people I know are masters at eliminating the unnecessary from their lives. They know that working smart begins by focusing attention on time wasters, identifying what’s truly important and obsessing over doing certain things better. Eliminating some of what you believe is important may seem hard but subtraction is the essence of smart. Life is about making tradeoffs; if you can’t, you’ll just keep working hard and not get any further.

When confronted with seemingly important but conflicting challenges, how do you determine which deserve your attention? How do you distinguish the big things from the little stuff, even though all appear a priority? Not everything is (or can be) equally important. “Priority” means some things are more important than others. Many things are important but not everything is a priority. If you have ten priorities, you have no priorities. One of the keys to working smart is to thoughtfully identify what your priorities are. Time is rarely the enemy; determining what really matters from what’s inconsequential is. Reversible decisions, for example, are relatively inconsequential – most can be delegated to others because they can be changed as circumstances dictate.

What in your judgement are your priorities? Have you taken the time to determine and rank them? Is it your health? Your family? (Note these two are highly interdependent.) What about personal enjoyment and gratification? Meeting the expectations of others? Financial security? Learning new things? Spending time with friends? Getting things accomplished? Or something else? Make a list, then determine how much of your time – the only irreplaceable asset you possess – you either want or need in order to pursue these goals. Your list must add up to 100%. Because that’s all the time you have.

Stay with the task. Do the same for your work goals. These will be influenced by factors such as deadlines (that can’t be extended), return on investment (some choices deliver more than others); whether you possess the skills required or must rely on others to get the job done, the expectations of your stakeholders or gatekeepers, the resources needed to achieve the desired results, and the ease or difficulty of accomplishing those. Factoring these considerations into how you will allocate your time make you smart.

Life is complicated. So use these guidelines: Stop when you’re making no progress, re-examine the obstacle and then redefine your objective. Have a plan: take incremental steps, not quantum leaps (eat the elephant one bite at a time). Let difficult challenges marinate for a while: creative problem solving requires time. Focus on results, not on hours: eliminate or reduce low value activities (like meetings). Understand the art of delegation (in all directions). A stop-doing list can be just as important as a to-do list. Smart is achieved when maximum impact is derived from minimum input.