We often hear the phrase “work smarter, not harder,” but what does this phrase actually mean? What does it look like to take a smart approach to everything you do at the office—and outside it.
According to Melissa Gratias, a workplace productivity coach and speaker, people who work “hard,” put in extra hours, check their email on nights and weekends, and maintain a rapid pace even when they’re tired. “They are motivated, well-intentioned people who want to do a good job.”
However, people who work “smart” understand the power of pausing in creating the “freedom to think, plan and innovate,” Gratias said. “Working smarter is the pursuit of productivity coupled with a respect for downtime and rest.”
Gratias cited an equation that’s central to success from the book Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness: “Stress + Rest = Growth.”
Ellen Faye, COC®, CPO ®, a productivity leadership coach, noted that working smarter involves being intentional about what you say yes to. “Your yeses should tie to your goals and intentions. If something doesn’t serve you—or someone or something you care deeply about—then it should not make it to your yes list.”
Maura Nevel Thomas, a speaker, trainer and author on individual and corporate productivity and work-life balance, put it this way: “Working smarter primarily means accomplishing more important work with less effort.”
So how do you actually do all of that?
These tips can help.
Set clear goals and intentions. Having clear goals and/or intentions makes it “much easier to choose how to spend your time,” Faye said. Because you know what’s important to you.
Faye noted that goals have specific outcomes, whereas intentions focus on how we want to be in the world.
To set short-term goals, Faye suggested jotting down three to four things you’d like to accomplish in the next 6 months (possibly one goal per life area, such as business, self, family and service). To set long-term goals, do the same but change the time frame to 6 months to 3 years. Then rewrite each goal so it’s measurable.
To set intentions, Faye suggested focusing on SMART intentions:
- soul focused: the fullest expression of your inner self
- meaningful: what truly matters to you
- aspirational: what you hope to do or be
- reasonable: including shades of gray
- transformative: change that empowers your authentic self.
Honor your need to pause—without technology. The problem most of us face when trying to be productive is that we interrupt ourselves—a lot, Gratias said. This often happens when we don’t honor our need to pause and collect our thoughts during the course of the workday, she said.
Instead of genuinely pausing, we check email, scroll social media, send a text or make a call. Whatever the specific action, it interrupts our train of thought—and our focus fractures.
“It is essential to allow yourself to sit back in your chair, take a breath, and then resume work on the primary task,” Gratias said.
Use a timer. This is especially helpful when you’re procrastinating on a task or are having trouble focusing, Gratias said. She suggested setting your timer for 15 minutes, and trying to race the clock. See how much you can tackle in that time. Plus, you just might get in the flow and work well after your timer dings.
Control your environment. One of the biggest mistakes we make at work is believing the myth that “constant distraction is just a fact of business,” Thomas said. She helps clients with attention management—which she believes “is the most important business skill for the 21st century.” She’s written a forthcoming book called Attention Management: Breaking the Time Management Myth for Unrivaled Productivity.
A potent way to manage our attention—by decreasing distractions—is to control our environment. Thomas suggested closing your office door; putting a “do not disturb” kind of sign on your cubicle wall; and wearing headphones. This creates boundaries and broadcasts to others that you can’t be interrupted. As she said, “Once someone says, ‘Do you have a minute?’ you’re already distracted.”
Control your technology. In her work, Thomas teaches people just how powerfully persuasive technology is. A client sent her this quote from Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe:
[Professor BJ Fogg’s] insight was that computing devices allow programmers to combine psychology and persuasion concepts from the early twentieth century, like propaganda, with techniques from slot machines, like variable rewards, and tie them to the human social need for approval and validation in ways that few users can resist. Like a magician doing a card trick, the computer designer can create the illusion of user control when it is the system that guides every action.
When you really need to focus, it’s critical to work offline, Thomas said—without watching email downloads and hearing notifications dinging. In other words, “silence your devices and put them out of sight.”
Regularly re-evaluate. Many of us continue saying yes to things we’ve clearly outgrown, because we don’t stop to consider if these tasks actually serve us, said Faye, past president of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals.
She shared these examples: You keep attending a networking event that no longer contributes to your business development. You do your own bookkeeping, even though you hate it and don’t do it well. You keep books, training materials and files that you never reference and can’t find the things you actually do need to use every day.
When you re-evaluate, you realize that instead of attending the networking event, you can spend those 2 hours taking a special client out to lunch, or having dinner with a friend. You realize you have the resources to hire a bookkeeper, and you “keep a few mementoes and clear [your] space for the things that will make [you] successful today.”
Faye recommended running your calendar commitments through this filter list:
- “Will it help me reach my goals?
- Will it help someone or something important to me?
- Will it help me grow personally or professionally?
- Will I have fun doing it?”
If the answer is no, she said, “then the answer is no.”
Check in with your boss. If you work for someone else, Faye stressed the importance of periodically checking in with your supervisor to make sure that the work you “think is most important is the same work [your] boss thinks is most important. Priorities change from day to day and no one has time to waste working on the wrong things.”
Work only on today’s important tasks. It’s very easy to feel unfocused when you don’t have a priority list. What do you work on first? Similarly, without a priority list, we become reactive, and let others dictate our schedule.
Faye suggested dividing a notepad into quarters and classifying tasks by level of importance: today; next few days; sooner; later. Then write out that day’s tasks on a Post-It note, and keep it in front of you.
It’s also helpful to consider these questions when creating your task list, she said: “What would happen if I didn’t do it? Can the time I’m spending be shortened? Can I delegate it to someone else?”
In Juliet’s School of Possibilities, Laura Vanderkam’s parable about time management, one of the characters regularly mentions two sentences that encapsulate working smarter and serve as a vital reminder: “You are always choosing. Choose well.”