Work Smarter, Not Harder: Secrets for a Highly Successful Work Ethic

People may find that working smarter and using their time more effectively will produce better work and leave more time for leisure.

Articles published December 6, 2018 by Mike Rice

On average Americans work approximately 40 hours per week. Professionals who have pressing deadlines spend more than 40 hours per week, totaling approximately 50–55 hours per week.[1] Ancient hunter-gathers worked only 15 hours per week. [2] So, why the drastic difference in hours spent on the job? Our ancestors knew how to use their resources and time to worker smarter but not necessarily harder.

Sometimes, people in challenging industries feel there isn’t enough time in the day to finish their workloads, which increases stress. But the answer isn’t to work harder or have longer hours. According to a study published in 2017 by John Pencaval at Stanford University, employees reach a certain point where their work will no longer be productive.

"Research that attempts to quantify the relationship between hours worked and productivity found that employee output falls sharply after a 50-hour work week and falls off a cliff after 55 hours — so much so, that someone who puts in 70 hours produces nothing more with those extra 15 hours,”[3] Pencaval said.

Instead, people may find that working smarter and using their time more effectively will produce better work and leave more time for leisure. Practice these tips to manage your time and work smarter.

1. Don’t stress about time. Instead, focus on results.

Focusing on the project at hand without worrying about the time it will take reduces stress and increases productivity. For example, one can separate a big project into segments to focus their attention on one part at a time, returning to each as needed. Research from Adobe’s Behance platform, an online portfolio that showcases creative work, found that "placing importance on hours and physical presence over action and results leads to a culture of inefficiency (and anxiety)."[4]

Adobe also explains how physical presence can affect daily work duties.

"The pressure of being required to sit at your desk until a certain time creates a factory-like culture that ignores a few basic laws of idea generation and human nature: (1) When the brain is tired, it doesn't work well; (2) Idea generation happens on its own terms; (3) When you feel forced to execute beyond your capacity, you begin to hate what you are doing."

2. Hire smart people.

Business leaders need to hire people who are smart and reliable. A potential candidate should know the role and how to find the answers to challenging projects while also thinking a step further. When hiring, look for someone who can do their job well and be the expert in their field. Hire someone who can give advice. As the CEO and co-founder of Apple Inc., Steve Jobs explained business leaders should let their employees do what they do best.

“It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do,” Jobs said. “We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”[5]

3. Understand the available tools you can leverage.

Technology is a highly-effective tool that allows people to work quicker. Learn about technology options available to you, and consider adopting them for your business. There are viable technology solutions for nearly every business project: customer support, project management, employee communications, appointment scheduling and more. By incorporating these solutions into your business, you can make your life easier and minimize inaccuracies. 

4. Focus on what you can control.

Although there is much you cannot control such as traffic, weather and other’s reactions, there are many things you can control that deserve more of your attention. The more you begin to focus on what you can change, the more productive and the less stressed you will be. For business leaders who like to have more control over daily activities, consider planning your day the night before by jotting down your top priorities. This will keep you more organized, less stressed and will give you a sense of accomplishment once your tasks are complete.

5. A positive mindset yields productive results.

You have probably heard this numerous times, but it cannot be stressed enough. A positive mindset will lead to a better work ethic, healthier habits and a happier life. The more you shift your mind to positive thinking, the more you will actively take an interest in work and daily activities. Having a positive mindset will also allow you to make ethical decisions at work. Leo Widrich, the co-founder of Buffer, said a better attitude leads to a better work environment.

"People with a good attitude take the initiative whenever they can,” Widrich said. “They willingly help a colleague in need; they pick up the slack when someone is off sick, and they make sure that their work is done to the highest standards."[6]

6. Communicate.

It is extremely important to have clear and open communication with co-workers and employees. Strengthening your communication skills will encourage more collaboration.

7. Use team members’ strengths and empower them to make decisions.

Good leaders are known to empower their peers, co-workers and employees. By motivating and inspiring them, you are allowing them to voice their suggestions and take initiative on various projects. This will position you as a leader who is trusting and empowering. Marshall Goldsmith of Harvard Business Review believes empowering employees will lead to success. 

“Your role is to encourage and support the decision-making environment and to give employees the tools and knowledge they need to make and act upon their own decisions,” Goldsmith said. “By doing this, you help your employees reach an empowered state.” [7]

8. Find a suitable routine.

Automate your tasks so they become routine and require less daily decision making. Once your tasks are in order, you simply do them without thinking. President and CEO of The Energy Project Tony Schwartz agrees, according to Harvard Business Review.

"The counterintuitive secret to getting things done is to make them more automatic, so they require less energy," Schwartz said. “It turns out we each have one reservoir of will and discipline, and it gets progressively depleted by any act of conscious self-regulation. In other words, if you spend energy trying to resist a fragrant chocolate chip cookie, you’ll have less energy left over to solve a difficult problem. Will and discipline decline inexorably as the day wears on.”

Schwartz said his go-to routine is to:

  • Have a daily alarm set, so he gets eight hours of sleep.
  • Hit the gym shortly after waking.
  • Start the work day with the most important task, which was decided the night before.
  • Immediately write down any tasks or important thoughts that occur throughout the day.

“Anytime you start to feel frustrated, ask yourself this question: ‘What’s the story I’m telling myself here, and how could I tell a more hopeful and empowering story about this same set of facts?’” Schwartz said.

We thrive on routines because they require less thinking, which allows us to perform our tasks faster. After your routine is mastered, it will gradually become a ritual.

9. Manage and limit multitasking.

Many of us multitask to complete a large amount of work quickly, but multitasking actually does the opposite. In fact, researchers have found the human brain struggles to manage multiple things at once. Our brains concentrate on one thing at a time.  

Neuroscientist Earl Miller believes multitasking won’t solve problems.

"People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves,” Miller said. “The brain is very good at deluding itself."[8]

The bottom line

Practicing these nine highly-effective tips to work smarter will increase productivity, efficiency, positive work results and higher self-esteem while reducing stress. Working harder can mean longer hours, which leads to negativity and a lower quality of work. Fortunately, working smarter allows for more productive work to be completed in a shorter time span and with a better work ethic. So the next time you start feeling stressed with deadlines at work, consider following these nine steps to work smarter.

Are you and your team members working smarter with efficiency and positivity?


[1] https://www.bls.gov/charts/american-time-use/emp-by-ftpt-job-edu-h.htm
[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/24/opinion/the-bushmen-who-had-the-whole-work-life-thing-figured-out.html?mtrref=www.google.com&assetType=opinion
[3] http://ftp.iza.org/dp8129.pdf
[4] https://99u.adobe.com/articles/5718/focus-on-results-not-time
[5] https://www.cnbc.com/2016/09/27/steve-jobs-advice-on-hiring-helps-grow-this-ceos-talent-pool.html
[6] https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/being-effective.htm
[7] https://hbr.org/2010/04/empowering-your-employees-to-e
[8] https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=95256794

About The Author

Mike Rice

Mike Rice, president of Aureon Consulting, is responsible for Consulting’s strategic growth, leadership and business operations. Prior to being appointed President, Mike was the Vice President of Aureon Consulting (previously Midwest Project Partners), and a founding partner of Midwest Tech ... read more

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