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Working Hard vs Working Smart and the Myth that Young People are Told

Posted by on December 28, 2010

There is a common misconception in the world, especially amongst younger people, that you have to work hard and pay your dues, even if it means being miserable.  For some reason people seem to think that they have to be miserable for the first few years of their work life in order to get to where they want to be; either professionally or personally.  Lots of younger people have this notion that if they work hard that everything will be ok and fall into place for them.  This is the wrong way to go about trying to succeed.  There is a fine line between working hard and working smart.

I used to think this way and the first few jobs I had out of college were horrible.  Everyone used to tell me, “well kid, you have to pay your dues,” to which I would reply, “why?” and the response I always got back was, “you just have to.”  This is the most illogical, useless, counter intuitive and counter productive type of thinking that boxes you in and makes you feel like you are worth nothing.  When I was providing strategy to fortune 100 companies at an agency I used to work at, I used to think, “if I can provide value to these companies through an agency, then why shouldn’t I be able to provide this same type of value to clients on my own?”  That was the day I stopped working hard and decided to work smart.

There are two quotes I want you to think about and remember:

“If it is to be, it’s up to me” (from my mom Ella and my old SAT teacher Ms. Friedman)

“In this day and age it’s not about the experience you have but your ability to learn and your ability to apply what you learn that makes you most valuable” (Gil Yehuda and Rick Fleischman)

Of course we need to look at what the point of either working hard or smart really is.  People who work hard and people who work smart have different measures of success.

Those that work hard usually evaluate success based on inputs such as the number of hours they work and the number of tasks they accomplish in a day or in a week and ultimately seek a large paycheck. Typically hard work means something like 60 or 70 hours a week (sometimes 80 or 90), working at home in the evenings and weekends, and continuously juggling multiple projects in a frantic attempt to get them all done. This is not hard work, this is simply poor management of your time and a clear lack of understanding of your strengths and skills.  Not to mention the inability to balance your work life and your personal life.  I don’t have anything against people that work hard and slave away day to day, it’s just not the type of person I want to be.  There are many successful people in the world who call themselves hard workers, and that they are.

Those that work smart usually evaluate success based on the amount of discretionary time they have to do whatever it is they want to do.  Smart workers don’t focus on inputs they focus on prioritizing in order to achieve the most valuable outputs in the most efficient ways.  Smart workers usually have a much better work-life balance, are entrepreneurs, are able to identify their strengths and weaknesses, and manage time effectively.  For example, a smart worker will realize that they are more productive during a certain time of day and will batch their tasks based on difficulty to match with when they are most productive.  A hard worker, has a long list and just checks off tasks one a time as he goes down the list.

There isn’t a better or worse way to get things done it’s based on preference.  Personally I’m not capable of bulldozing through a long list of tasks, working ridiculous hours, and sacrificing my life for a paycheck, it’s just not me.  I don’t really admire people that make a ton of money and work ridiculous hours (if I want to make a ton of money I can just get two full time jobs and sleep 3 hours a day), I admire people that are successful yet still have discretionary time and a solid work life balance.

I think there are a few key things that can help people work smart (if they so desire)

  • Understand your strengths and weaknesses and try to take on projects that match your strengths while delegating or outsourcing projects or tasks that fall within your “weaknesses” category.  For example I realize that I’m much more of a strategy and idea person but I’m not very organized and tend to work in a bit of zen-like “everything will be ok” way.  My business partner Connie however, is the opposite and her strengths are my weaknesses.  Connie is organized, grounded, and level-sets with me when she needs to.
  • Don’t focus on completing a lot of tasks, focus on completing the most important tasks that will have the greatest impact on whatever it is you are doing.  Prioritize and manage your time effectively, this means understanding when you are most productive, what tasks take you the longest time to complete, etc.  Batch the hardest most tedious tasks with the times you are most productive.
  • Check email only twice a day (and is possible once a day).  I do this at 11am PST and 4pm PST.  I batch my email time and when I’m not checking email I’m actually working on getting things done that need to get done.  The trouble with email is that when you send an email you get one right back and email then becomes this glorified chat messaging program (which it isn’t).  I let people get ahold of me on skype if they really need me but email is only at 11 and 4.
  • Don’t waste emotional currency in return for financial currency.  What I mean here is don’t work at a job that makes you feel miserable just because they are paying you well.  Now, you can’t just up and leave a job that is responsible for your financial security so the smart thing to do here is to start saving and aggressively looking for another job that you can transition to.  Pick up some small side projects on Craigslist (or wherever) just to supplement your income.  When you have enough money to cover your expenses from side projects (or saved up cash), then you can quit.
  • Education is your best friend.  Working smart is all about understanding the big picture.  You need to constantly learn and evolve your skill set, so if you’re a social media consultant you might want to learn about supply chain, CRM, ERP, and some of the other things that make companies run.  Don’t narrow your scope.  You need to be able to adapt and evolve with the times.
  • Don’t be scared to outsource.  I outsource a lot of admin work which was saving me hours a week.  All of my scheduling, calendaring, basic research and information tasks, and some email, is all handled by someone else which allows me to focus my time on the things that really matter.
  • Leverage your resources, your network, and your connections.  You have to understand what and who you have around you should you need help at any given time (or need access to additional resources and/or information)
  • Build for the future while being able to sustain tomorrow.  Let’s say you close a 20k deal for a months worth of work, what do you do with the money you earned?  Some people are overjoyed and decide to go out and splurge but the best thing to do (in my opinion) is to think about and build for the future.  Perhaps allocate 10k into a “hiring fund” which when it reaches a certain amount means you can hire your first employee.  Basically, when you get a paycheck, use what you need to cover expenses and enjoy yourself but don’t forget to build and plan for the future.  You really need to understand what you are trying to build and why.
  • Know when to cut your losses.  We all make mistakes, learn when you have made a mistake and move on.  Don’t invest your time and your resources into a lost cause, there’s no point.  Do what you can to salvage your work and maintain the relationship, understand what went wrong and why, and then move on; making sure this mistake is not repeated in the future.
  • Look for the shortcuts.  This doesn’t mean cut corners in a way that makes your work less valuable or complete.  It means, understanding the regular process that is required to accomplish something and then understanding if that whole process is necessary.  Is there a way to complete the same task with the same quality of work but in a more efficient way?
  • Work hard at working smart!

I could probably go on and on about this but I’m sure you get the point.  What do you think about working hard vs working smart, is this something that resonates with you?  Do you have any other tips that you would add to this list?

  • Superb advice. If you don't mind, I'm putting a few of the points you make into a book of quotes I'm putting together.

    • jacobmorgan

      sure thing 🙂

  • A really nice piece and chimes with some of the advice in the 4 Hour Work Week.

  • exploding the subconseguence:

    Working Hard
    non workig well
    Working Smart
    non working free

    A proposal for a new constitutional order:
    art 1. The (Italian) Repubblic is a democratic Right State of the Persons (first article similar for all the United Nations members) ….we are working hard……….
    art 2. The Repubblic aknowledges the inviolable human rights and garantees the fundamentali civil freedoms during all the active life:
    1) pro-sumers enterpreneurship
    2) for profit enterpreneurship
    3) non profit enterpreneurship
    4) private life freedom
    ………………………….we are working smart……………………….

  • Yw

    Hmm… Guess i gotta work harder in working smart!
    Nice article!

  • Yes, you are correct. There is a good difference between working hard and smart and always working smart is the key to success. Companies or employers may pressure you with lots of work, but its up to you to work smart and not to take any kind of tension. Which is the most important point.

    You have given some excellent tips for working smart and this will surely help everyone.

  • Love this!

    This is how I've always felt as well. I find it ridiculous when people try to work with brute force (lots of hours), when a little planning/thinking/scheming would save a ton of time in long and short runs.

    I'm relaunching my blog actually on this very topic.

  • I'm printing this up and hanging on the wall by my desk. I think I heard similar advice before but sometimes it takes the right story teller or presented in the right way to sink in.

  • This is golden advise, thanks for sharing

  • Arunshmily

    Awsome message…love to work smart than working hard…thx a

  • i love your article!!!! 

  • Boopathi

    Thanks a lot and it really helped me.. I am going to be a Smart worker.

  • I agree with all the above, It can hard to focus in the information age, and what’s frightening to me is the lack of financial education in our schools. 

  • Anon

    Agreed fully. I found myself pondering the “work hard” ethic only to determine it was totally illogical. I found this blog after searching for similar concepts.

    Currently looking to change careers. Graduated into a horrible employment market with no transferable experiences. I find myself troubled balancing a full time job, home duties, social duties, continued education, and job searching. On frequent occasion it eats into work time and makes me look like a horrible employee who doesnt “work hard” enough. On the contrary I am trying to invest my time into career development outside of my current industry under the belief that the new industry will pay off with much high financial and career progression rewards.

    Sadly I feel it may be all for naught with a boss who is the list plowing type, in an industry full of “work hard” blow hards, as it will inevitably lead to poor references.

    Id love to be self employed, but I am limited by capital. I wonder if I should ignore my motives to develop myself to focus solely on putting up the work hard facade this current employment position demands just to save for the dream day I can escape?

  • Shwetaswami123

    very helpful to me …… write the DLS file……..

  • Agreed fully. I found myself pondering the “work hard” ethic only to
    determine it was totally illogical. I found this blog after searching
    for similar concepts.

  • chubbs

    I so agree to this article..Thanks so much for this

  • Skhanna

    Learn to say No and Stop being a perfectionist.

  • Great post – I really like the “say no” more often, I wrote this piece here and I hope you and your readers enjoy it: 

    It’s a bit like getting to the top of a sand hill. You take a few paces back and then run at it. As you climb, the sand gives way under your feet and every step you take barely gets you higher. Exhausted, eventually you reach the top only to find a group of people there who had climbed up before you. None of them looks the least bit breathless. You ask them their secret and they tell you they used the steps. In your eagerness to climb the top of the hill, you never checked if there was an easier way to get there. 

    Read more here:

  • Patience

    Good article… will read again… will try to apply what I read

  • Harry Patterson

    Your views sound like the myths young people want to believe. Why waste your time working hard when everything can be given to you. Ridiculous.

    Hard workers don’t spend all day checking emails, not cutting losses, and focusing on non-important issues – these are problems that are solved with common sense and not so called “smart work”.

    The reason China is pulling ahead of European countries is because the Chinese put in the hard work to make things happen while everyone else sits on their hands waiting for things to happen the smart way.

    I worked my way from being poor to a rich business owner. Being smart helped but without the hard work I would go no-where fast.

  • Cedric Chang