Working Hard or Hardly Working?

Try working smart instead.

Most people equate long hours with working “hard.” This is a huge problem with regards to how we perceive productivity — and to a greater extent, the importance and external validation of someone’s job.

Why?

Well, what does working “hard” even mean? Does it mean a lot of time? A lot of effort? Both? Neither?

We need to correct our dialogue surrounding how we work, because it’s becoming problematic. Most people assume that if you work, say, 12 hours a day, you must be completing a lot of work.

Not only is that fallacious, it can actually be inaccurate. It completely depends on what “work” actually means.

So, let’s define work — not in broad, vague terms, but in a concrete, actionable sense.

Work is about completing tasks — be it projects, campaigns, or individual to-do’s.

Work is not attending meetings and replying to emails.

In fact, that’s sometimes the opposite of work, as these can be distractions that prevent us from actually completing work itself.

Seriously, how many times have you felt you’ve had an overwhelming work day? For many people, that’s likely something that occurs more often than not.

But why?

Well, in any given work day, depending on the nature of your work of course, there are likely a finite amount of things that need to be completed.

That’s not to say work is ever done per se — you can always be pushing the ball forward on whatever it is that you do. But, if you’ve set goals and timelines for yourself, you can stick to those on any given day.

Work is about moving on from one thing to the next — not dwelling around on lingering tasks, making email threads way longer than they need to be, or having meetings about meetings.

Meetings, though, are where you may discuss progress about your work — and email, as pain-staking as it can often be, can perhaps be the same. However, these instances are typically not where work actually gets done.

If you’re working 12+ hour days, your day might consist of some combination of the following:

  • Responding to emails
  • Waiting for responses to emails
  • Scheduling meetings
  • Holding meetings
  • Trying to figure out what happened in meetings
  • Forgetting what happened in meetings

… and so on. Do you see a pattern emerging here?

What about the time where we actually need to, well… work? There are only a certain number of hours required in a day really required to actually get all your real work done. And hint: it’s not 12. It’s probably not 8, either.

Because when you’ve spent, say, 4 hours of your work day on these mundane nuances, now you’ve wasted a significant fraction of your day, well, not actually getting any work done.

Work smart, not hard.

Working smart is all about managing your time at work efficiently. That’s not to say you’re heads down working for every single hour of your work day, but rather, you’re working with time, rather than against it.

Many people perceive their working hours as “Oh no, I only have X hours left to complete N number of tasks!”

This can be overwhelming, and may lead to stress, anxiety, and burnout — and worst of all, apathy.

But, what if you could make time work in your favour? What if time was your friend, not your enemy?

A great way to train yourself into this mindset is the Pomodoro technique. It’s a personal favourite of mine, and I always employ it whenever I have a large amount of work to do (such as writing term papers) during a very short period of time.

The principle is simple: you dedicate your 100%, undivided attention to one task. No multitasking. No distractions.

You do this for a set amount of time — say 20 or 25 minutes.

Put your phone and computer on Do Not Disturb mode, close all your other tabs and apps, and literally focus on one thing.

It could be writing a paragraph for an essay, editing the first minute of a video, or reading 20 pages of an article. Don’t make it too overly ambitious or daunting — you want to be practical here.

In those 20 minutes, you are hyper focused on completing the task at hand, but more importantly, you’re actually motivated — because what awaits you at the end of your focus period is a break.

It’s simply psychology — we are intrinsically motivated to produce better results if we know what the light at the end of the tunnel is.

After you’re done your 20 minute work period, you take a break and do whatever you want — check your phone, watch a YouTube video, reply to messages, etc. You deserve it!

And after that, it’s back to work for another 20 minutes. New task, same deal.

You repeat that cycle 4 times, and after the 4th cycle, you reward yourself with a 15-minute break. This is important psychologically, because the longer break is always lingering in the back of your mind as a pursuit in the “long game”, so to speak.

Each cycle is called a Pomodoro, and over time, you’ll be blown away by how efficient you’ll become. If you complete 40 Pomodoros — that’s 40, concrete, completed tasks — in 1 week, that’s only 16.7 hours of work!

When’s the last time you could really say you completed 40 tasks in a workweek? And better yet, in just 40% of the time in an average workweek?

So, the next time someone tells you that they work hard because they work long hours, don’t just assume that means they’re actually working more than you do. (To be fair, they could absolutely be telling the truth — some jobs may require more concrete work to be done in one given day.)

But just remember that working long hours doesn’t always mean working hard. It’s about managing your time to allow you to do more in less time, and that’s working smart.

It’s time we re-consider our dialogue surrounding long hours and work, because it’s giving off a horribly fallacious misconception that some are actually working more than others.

Our culture is one that seems to idolize and praise such ‘workaholics’ because of their “dedication to their craft” or whatever spin you want to put on it. Why do we do this?

Instead, we should applaud the efforts of those who are able to do more with less — that’s a true professional.