Six simple techniques I use to work smarter, not harder

Published November 2, 2015   Posted in How to Think

Over the course of my working life in an office, I learned something quite profound: hard work plays second fiddle to smart work. If you find that you just don’t have enough time during the day to get everything done, then it’s possible that you’re simply way too busy and may want to slow down.  Or, it could indicate that your focus on working hard is sentencing yourself to hours of additional work.

Pinterest: Work smart not hardDitch the idea that you must be ultra-productive, because you don’t. That tends to burn people out over time.

I have found that I am most productive when I follow six very simple techniques to work smart.  I don’t care about working “hard”, being always busy or doing menial tasks for the sake of “doing something”.  Mindless productivity isn’t helpful.

The truth of the matter is I’m either 100% all-in and completing a necessary and measurable work task, or I’m not doing any work at all. I love every minute of it.  Here’s how I do it.

Six techniques I use to work smart, not hard

Over the years, I have mastered these six techniques to keep myself active and productive at work, but not overworked and burned out. The difference has been profound and has fundamentally changed my working career, for the better.

1. I manage expectations

At one point early in my career, I would accept a task and get it done as quickly as possible, no matter the cost.  If I did something wrong or incomplete, I’d wait for someone to point it out and I would proceed to complete the task again, and of course, as quickly as possible.

I soon learned something interesting: the more work I completed, the more work that would come my way.  I was mindlessly and meticulously creating an expectation that I would blindly accept any and all work thrown in my direction, and that quickly created a situation where I felt fatigued, stressed and burned out.

I realized that I was given so much work because I created the expectation that I would simply do anything.  The problem was not in the demands of the job, but in how I managed my perception in the office.  To fix the problem, I began to manage expectations of me much better.

Today, I take my time with each work task.  It might take me 10x as long to do the same task today as it might have years ago, but my stress level is virtually non-existent, I do better and more dependable work and my ability to breath and relax during the day – without the burden of a long list of tasks – helps keep me focused.

The expectation that I want people to have of me is simple: does not over-burden himself, does awesome work and is dependable to complete tasks the right way, the first time. I now leave the part about getting work done as fast as possible to someone else.

2. I take breaks / naps
Taking breaks throughout the day (and yes, even naps!) has been proven to positively effect productivity.  Hell, there are companies like Buffer who are “pro nap” and plainly encourage their staff to rest their brains throughout the day, which helps the mind to process through the happenings of the day and, of course, rest a bit.  Even better, other studies have suggested that naps help the brain to retain information and may even be good for your heart.

related postHow slowing down can take your life to the next level

Sleeping dogTaking breaks and/or naps throughout the day has helped significantly to keep me alert and mentally “there” during the day, especially through the afternoon hours as the work day is drawing to a close.  I am more creative and energized after these breaks and generally feel less like asking myself “is it time to quit, yet?”.  To work smart, regular breaks are essential.

3. I am most productive in blocks of time

By far, I do my best work in particular blocks of time throughout the day, starting from the moment that I sit down in front of my computer in the morning.  In fact, I plan for this.  I like to call these periods of time blocks of productivity.

Usually, my first block of productivity hits me when I begin work in the morning and lasts for a few hours. Like I’ve written about before, both my wife and I get up at the crack of dawn to get our day started early, so by the time that 10am rolls around, my work day is already half over.  I usually get another couple of hours during late morning or early afternoon, and another hour or two in the late afternoon.

I never try to force myself to work in-between blocks of productivity because I work slower, less creative and uninspired.  There’s nothing smart about that.  In fact, I have found that working the traditional 8 to 10-hour days to be one of the most inefficient uses of time possible.  It ignores people’s natural working rhythms.

What am I doing when I’m not engaged with a work-related task?  I’m taking a break.  I’m writing.  I’m working with my camera.  More or less, I am doing things that truly interest me, which helps me to re-engage my work-related tasks much easier.  These are the moments when I recharge the batteries inside me. Works every time.

4. I never accept ambiguous tasks

Perhaps the biggest time-saver that I’ve learned over the years is to never accept a task that I do not completely understand.  In an earlier life, I would gladly accept tasks that were unclear to me and attempt to understand them later.  Worse, sometimes I would choose to meander my way through confusing requirements (or no requirements at all!) without asking for clarification, opting instead to complete the task knowing full well that I was probably doing it wrong and would require re-work.

We all work smarter by knowing the task in front of us.  Today, I insist on completely understanding the task before choosing to begin work, and any and all ambiguous tasks are clarified before I start.  I work in a technical field, and a technical specification document (or “tech spec”, for short) is used to document the requirements of a task – in other words, what the task is about, what needs to be done and what the finished product should look like/do/whatever).

Unless this document exists for each task, I will not work on that task.  I do make exceptions in emergency situations, but it must truly be an emergency and not a “schedule conflict” caused by incompetent management.

5. I prioritize time away from the computer

I hit on this point earlier in the discussion about breaks and naps, but I actually take my break time a little bit more seriously than simply time spent in-between blocks of productivity.  I prioritize time away from my work.  I like to go to the gym mid-morning to workout, which allows me to completely focus on what I’m doing and get into a comfortable “zen state”.  It allows me to truly think about how I feel – about fitness, my health and my life in general.

Weight lifting

I consider this a form of meditation.  Every time I lift a weight, I am completely connected with how it is stressing the muscle. Different angles. Different weights. Changing hand positions. Faster. Slower. Eyes open. Eyes closed.  It all counts.  This is how I get in the moment and zone out by zoning into what I am doing.

When I return to the computer for work, I am completely refreshed.  I am ready to re-engage.  My mind has been cleared and is anxious to start into my work again, which includes quite a bit of creative problem-solving at times.

6. I don’t sweat details

With everything in life, details exist. There is no escaping these little buggers, and you might as well not try. But, I have found that these details have a way of working themselves out, with most things, if you let them. I have learned to let them.

I never worry about things that I cannot control.  And even things that I can control, I pick and choose my battles very carefully – and honestly, I don’t pick many battles.  I believe that the world is a well-oiled machine and possesses the ability to keep on turning with or without any of our involvement, especially in the fine-grained minutia that tends to stress out so many of my fellow Americans. Seriously, it drives some people batty!

Instead, I focus on what really matters in life, like our goal to reach financial independence and retire early. Of living every day as happy and healthy as possible. Of being a loving husband to my wife and “father” to our two adopted dogs.

The price ratio of Apple? Whether or not we’re gonna have one of those rare white Christmas’s in Arizona? The exact schedule of our next vacation? Seriously, I don’t give a shit. These things will work themselves out. Worrying about these topics aren’t my priority. And honestly, they shouldn’t be.

In work and in life, the ability to focus on what is truly important and forget about the details has completely streamlined my life. It accounts for significantly less stress, more work satisfaction and a huge increase in my day-to-day productivity.

And I can’t think of anything smarter than that!

What about you?  What techniques do you use to work smarter, not harder?

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21 responses to “Six simple techniques I use to work smarter, not harder”

  1. Chris Muller says:

    Ahhh, this is just what I needed Steve. I’ve been feeling some burnout lately and this really helps. The points you make are excellent. I think slowing down and taking your time will lead to a much happier work-life balance. One thing we all need to be aware of is those that work around you. I know you probably don’t experience this as much, but at the office I have a ton of people who are workaholics. They work from 7 to 7, then go home and log on to work more. My dad was kind of like this – he worked a ton of hours. And guess what? He’s in his late 60s and still working. It didn’t give him a leg up on retirement. So I’ve tried to remember that, but it’s not always easy when people who are your peers work through their lunches and stay late to kiss some ass. I guess the lesson is that in the grand scheme of things, it’s just a job. It’s nothing more than a means to reach retirement early. Thanks for the Monday morning inspiration, Steve.

  2. Maggie says:

    Accepting ambiguous tasks… this is where I struggle. So much of my job as a researcher is ambiguous tasks… we need to know everything we can on _____. I struggle with the transition time I have to take to turn that vague demand into a concrete task where I know what I’m doing and I can just do it. This is where I struggle with productivity. I need to figure out how to turn the ambiguous into the concrete much more quickly! But thanks for all the other tips. Managing expectations is important as well!

    • Steve says:

      Hi Maggie! Yup, ambiguous tasks was one of the tougher areas for me to manage as well. I was just tired of managers telling me that I didn’t do the task right, or that I left something out, or that it “wasn’t what they were looking for” when they didn’t bother to tell me what they were looking for.

      Wasted work. That ain’t smart!

      As always, thanks for reading!

  3. Steve we seem to have the same work mindset – minus the naps. They are kind of hard to do at the office. At work I’m a big picture guy, and make sure to have a clear picture on the goals of each project while not sweating the small stuff. I also like to take breaks which can be walks outside, getting coffee, etc.

    PS – Didn’t know you had a sleeve of tats 😉

    • Steve says:

      Hey Fervent! Yeah, napping in the office is a big tougher. I used to just stare into the monitor with my hand on the mouse (because my back was to the hallway) back when I worked in an office. While I never actually “slept”, just the ability to rest my eyes a bit actually did wonders to my productivity as the afternoon dragged on. 🙂

  4. Tawcan says:

    Great tips, getting tasks defined so they’re not ambitious will definitely help job efficiency. Something I do all the time for sure.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for the comment, Tawcan. Getting tasks defined is one of those things that most of us learn along the way…and usually, the hard way! 🙂

  5. Mr. SSC says:

    I’m in the same mode work-wise. I find that when I get assigned a task I want to know what the expectations are, possible timelines, and manage accordingly. In my new position my project keeps morphing and growing just about every week or so. While I reaffirm the new expectations based on the new scope of the project, it can get frustrating while trying to organize. Fortunately, I got a minion, um mentee, to help with the increased project scope. 🙂
    Lastly, I recently went from a window office to an interior office, so I don’t have a window to gaze out of and ponder larger problems. I found that helps work out a solution when I get stuck. Now, I have a calendar reminder set for an empty appointment that reminds me to get outside. When it goes off, I head outside and walk for 20 minutes or so. It helps distress, refocus, and solve problems like the window gazing did, especially when I’m solo.

    • Steve says:

      Hey Mr. SSC – yup, stepping out of the office was always my way to escape the madness when I worked in an office. It’s easy. It’s effective. And sometimes, it’s the only thing that you can actually do for a break.

      And scope creep – the name of the game in corporate America. 🙂

  6. I use several of these techniques. I’m usually fairly productive over a couple spurts in the morning and maybe one short one in the afternoon. On most days, I head to the gym around 11 which really helps me focus and breaks up the monotony of the day. Then, I may do more social things like networking in the afternoon when I don’t feel like thinking too hard.

    • Steve says:

      You and me both! I find that I am, as a whole, more productive in the morning as well. The afternoons are hit or miss, though a nap can definitely help me to summon the courage to continue thinking at least for a little while longer. 🙂

  7. Andrew says:

    I realized that the people I work with who work hard often are the people who are feeling under appreciated and often burn out quickly and look for a new job. The work environment doesn’t reward hard work always like it should. Two places I noticed that working hard and working smart go hand in hand are at the gym and when you are working for yourself.


    • Steve says:

      I definitely agree – working smart, rather than working hard, is a concept that works wonderfully in the gym as well as in the office. I used to suffer from the burn out phenomenon as well…until I realized exactly what I was doing to myself. 🙂

  8. Jim Wang says:

    i found a direct correlation with lifting properly and working properly. When I first started lifting, I was just focused on the reps and counting them up to my target. As I go older, I realized it was the quality of each rep and not the number of reps. This translates to work too, kind of like your “rush to do it and fix it if someone saw something broken.” The goal wasn’t completing as much work as possible, but doing it right the first time and doing good work.

    • Steve says:

      As an avid gym-goer, quality over quantity is definitely a philosophy that I now subscribe to. I used to go into the gym and lift as heavy as I possibly could, but I wasn’t making the progress that I expected, and I wound up screwing up a couple of my joints in the process. Since I found out how to work smart, I don’t have any joint pain what-so-ever and feel better than ever, pretty much every day. It’s wonderful.

  9. So many great lessons in this post, Steve! I’m feeling super inspired. I have got to change my mindset around naps — the few times I’ve taken one during a workday, I’ve felt pretty guilty about it. But of course you’re right that it’s great for the mind and for creativity to get some rest between tasks. And I think my favorite point of all is about not worrying about things you can’t control. I’m bad at that, in a big way. In truth, I’m not a worrier, but I am a planner. I like to think through a million contingencies and be prepared for every eventuality, and it’s totally overkill. It’s not in my nature to back off entirely, and say, “Eh, who cares?” but I can for sure work on thinking about most things less. 🙂

    • Steve says:

      My wife is the exact same way, in fact. She is the one who prefers to plan as much as possible, which is awesome because I am much more of a “fly by the seat of my pants” kind of guy. But luckily, as I’m sure it’s the same in your guy’s case, we have a nice balance between spontaneity and deliberate planning. And I like that arrangement. 🙂

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