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'Wanted: Skills, Discipline, and Strength of Character'

Work smarter, not just harder

Mar. 30, 2012 | Cindy Lee

It’s not bad to be a “hard worker” – in fact, it seems that’s what many of us have been raised to aspire to become.  In many circles, that’s probably one of the highest compliments we can receive.  Definitely in the work setting, definitely in school… for many, it’s even one of the qualities they’d want called out at the end of their lives.  ”He was a hard worker.”  ”She was always so diligent.”

I have a huge respect for the accomplishments of hard workers, and a deep appreciation for their work ethic.  I am a hard worker, and I was raised to value all that surrounds it, like being fully committed, going above and beyond, passionately fighting for a cause.

However, if I had to choose to focus on working harder or working smarter, I’d choose the latter.  Because it IS possible to overwork, overstudy, over-prepare…  

Working smart does not mean cheating the system.  I would not find any integrity with that.  What I mean is to be smart about how I allocate my time and energy amidst the various things that are important to me… both within the work environment and also beyond the work setting.  After all, why would I not also apply the same hard working ethic to other important areas of my life?  My job is only ONE of the various things that are important to me.

There’s already not enough hours in the day to get things done.  Also a limited ball of energy within me.  If I’m gunning for my overall health and complete sense of integrity with myself, I’d want to get my work done WELL, and then still have enough margin to leave and see my friends, go for a run or a nice swim, cook a healthy meal, enjoy a restful evening with my husband, and get a full night’s sleep.  I certainly don’t want to work overtime on something that I probably won’t finish tonight, rush home with takeout to eat over my laptop, and set my alarm an hour earlier to try and make a bit more progress first thing in the morning.

Honestly, I’ve been there and done that, and I’ve seen it become standard practice for people all around me.  Maybe you see it directly under your nose.  I hope to convince you – for your sake and not mine – that the overtime route gets you FARTHER from where you want to be in life.  I’m pretty sure that your life goals are not based solely on your job.  And if that’s the case, then honoring your work hours and working smarter during those hours can leave you feeling trustworthy and guilt-free when you “leave” work for the day to renew yourself with other activities that are also important to you.  And when you return the next morning, you’ll be energized to work smart that day as well.  And then that week… And then that month…

I won’t venture to prescribe any “rule” for you personally to work smarter vs harder.  You’ll be surprised that you already know what it would take.  Aside from set-hour jobs, many of us (myself included) manage a flexible or unconventional work schedule.  But, here are a few tips that you can try out:

  • Within the work environment:  Define your “work hours” and mentally clock in and OUT at those times — eg, 9am-6pm, 50 hours max/week, prep for 4 hours/day.  Set it based on how much time and energy you also want to spend on other things beyond work that are important to you.  While you’re clocked in, prioritize what you need to do and work hard at it; be focused and intentional, not distractible or chasing every fire drill.  When you clock out, be ready to clock into your next activity.
  • Beyond the work setting:  If you haven’t clearly defined the things that are important to you, take a quick moment and actually list them out.  Eg, physical health, relationships, family, spiritual disciplines, work/career.  Identify them, prioritize them, and be fully committed and present for them — How would you ideally order them, and are you currently living it out that way?  Where do you want to spend more of your time, and what will it take for you to intentionally give more of your mindshare to that area? What else are you thinking about when you’re eating with your significant other, driving your kids to the park, or doing bible study?

These are ways to work smarter AT work and BEYOND work… in life.  What you’re doing is basically setting boundaries for your work to not overtake your other priorities, because it tends to do so if left unchecked.  As you put stronger emphasis on other areas of life and also work hard at those, you expand those boundaries which in turn helps to strengthen your boundary around work.

Again, I’m not saying that working hard is bad.  I’m saying that we’d be smart to spread out the hard work across all areas of our lives, to get closer to what we want to achieve overall in life.  So, try this for two weeks and see if you can begin to change your habits.  Be vigilant about it — WORK HARD at it.  Tweak it as needed, but don’t give up on it.

It definitely won’t be easy, but if you truly give it a fair shot it’s definitely worth it.  See what happens!  Work hard, but work even smarter.