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Work Smarter, Not Harder

Running a business is a wonderful lesson in ‘working smart’. You can fill your day with as much work as possible, come home, feel exhausted, and say to yourself, “I’m working really hard!” But when you step back and look at the results (both direct and indirect) of your work, you might realize you did a whole bunch of nothing. Or you created new problems while you should have been solving old ones, spent money when you could have been cutting costs, or hooking low-quality clients on a line you have no interest in reeling in.

Dostoyevsky said, “Deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence; they go stark, raving mad.” In his biography by Joseph Frank, there’s a bit (I’ll paraphrase since I can’t find the exact quote) where Dostoyevsky speaks of how the ultimate way to torture a prisoner is to make him do completely meaningless work, like picking up a heavy stone and moving it from one side of a field to another, day in and day out.

Bleak! And yet, if we’re not careful, we do this in our own lives and work. We work just to feel busy. Life begins to feel meaningless and exhausting as a result — if not maddening. Anyone who’s sat in a cubicle and punched numbers into an excel sheet while wondering, “Hasn’t someone invented a robot to do this?” understands how frustrating it can be to be busy without creating anything.

Running a business is obviously a good crash course in ‘working smart’, because all responsibilities fall on you. You have to work smart, because if you spend each day spinning your wheels on a bunch of useless activities, the enterprise will fail. But it extends further than that.

This is an important lesson in all facets of our lives. Sometimes we think ‘just doing’ is the best way to spend our time. We fill our days with activity for its own sake, never taking time to reflect. Without reflection time, we neglect to notice the errors of our ways. We stop pinpointing where we can live smarter, and focus only on ‘living harder’.

If we use all of our energy to work more, we don’t have energy left over to learn how to work smart.

When our days are 100% activity and 0% reflection, we get lost in the current. We get pulled around. We lose control. Finding time and space for introspection, play, study and creative activity is what provides the balance.

Efficiency is not about doing as much as possible as fast as possible, but finding ways to do the essentials more effectively. Mastering this is a path towards freedom; it sounds unbelievable, but there are ways to make a great living just working a few hours a week. Artists, actors and entrepreneurs do it all the time. There’s even a famous best-selling book about it. It’s hard to have that sort-of discipline, since when you run a business you want to focus all your energy on helping it grow. But there are plenty of successful businesses that basically just run on autopilot 80% of the time. The secret always comes down to ‘working smart’ rather than ‘working more’.

This scares us because, when we haven’t spent time reflecting, playing, creating and studying, having so much free time seems odd. It seems meaningless. The irony is that the time spent being exhausted, unhealthy and overworked is far more meaningless, if not outright harmful. When we step back and reflect, we find a new approach to time, work and money, allowing ourselves to master these forces rather than be mastered by them.