Working Hard v Working Smart. (Who wins?)

After 4 long years at one of the best universities in Africa, I think I finally have a real grasp on this argument and the merits of both sides. This is one of those debates that is easy to pontificate about, but unless you are pushed well into a corner, it's difficult to know exactly where you stand. When things are easy, it is not as important for your methods to be effective and so there are simply too many outliers in terms of method to find any real patterns.

However, when something is really tough and the pressure is on - that is when your methods and tactics become meaningful. That is when they can give you either a huge advantage, or alternatively, a significant disadvantage. I must preface this as well by stating categorically that I don't believe I have got this right myself, by any stretch of the imagination. However, I want to bring you along on my journey and show you what I believe as well as how I came to that conclusion. This is an evolving theory, a moving target if you will - and as such I welcome your thoughts, from both sides of the fence. Here goes.

I sat.

Slumped in my chair, the bluish light from the computer screen was straining my eyes. I felt weary and lethargic. My head pounded methodically, but out of rhythm. The pain ebbed and flowed, as if it didn't quite know where to be.

Or was that me?

2 hours later...

I sat.

Slumped in my chair, the light from my laptop had now been attacking my retinas for so long I was squinting at the cards which had become my world. Yet, I had no desire to jettison myself from that chair. I sat.

Another 2 hours later...

I sat.

Into my 50th game of solitaire the guilt had risen to a point where I started doubting whether I could ever leave that game. Whether I could ever get out of that chair. My vision was blurred and I had never felt quite so helpless, lost and out of control. A feeling I wasn't used to or, quite frankly, prepared to put up with. Time had lost its grip on me, I was now a slave to the 'Play Again' button. My head was filled with noise. Unadulterated chaos.

My final Financial Accounting exam was tomorrow.

Now, such a sorry state of affairs, as I'm sure you could gather, was not a great place to work from seen as though I had the biggest exam of my life so far the following day. In addition, as an extremely ambitious person I have always strived to cultivate as strong a work ethic as I could possibly stomach. It was always a point of pride with me - yet here I was, playing game after game of solitaire, behaving like a true hypocrit. It wasn't my proudest moment.

Thus, being addicted to personal development as I am, I wanted to figure out:

  1. Why did I feel like that?
  2. How could I stop feeling that? and
  3. What could I put in place to make sure that I didn't feel like that again.

Those are three difficult questions to answer though, because there definitely wouldn't be one causal trigger that could be explained, let alone prevented. It brought up a much deeper discussion. One that probed not into the symptoms of the problem (being my lack of motivation and prolonged lethargy) but rather into the root cause - my guilt.

Why did I feel guilty that I wasn't working hard the night before my exam? If that guilt was not there I would have been doing something I actually enjoyed, not playing the mindless game that is solitaire. Why was the guilt there?

The guilt I believe was rooted in my studying time in the library at Wits University. In order to escape the distractions of home (TV, Internet, Food, etc.) I used to spend my afternoons and evening in the Wits library studying. The whole setup worked really well and the 24-hour library became my second home. In no time, I got to know the general characters who worked there and as such started to internalize the various motivations within.

Many of the people working there did so because simply having people around them motivated them to work harder. It almost felt like you were letting down the 'team' if you sat there and weren't working. Whenever you felt lazy, all you had to do was look at another person across the desk and negative motivation would work it's magic.

'Hey, if he is working - so can I.'

It played very nicely into the competitive academic environment that inevitably fills a 24-hour university library. So for a time, I bought into that culture and would pride myself in how many hours of work I could get done each day. If I stayed in the library from 4 until 8 after a full day of lectures - I would count that as a good day. If not, I would have failed in my mind. High standards were the order of the day.

That's great and all, but of course - as it always does - the novelty wore off. Eventually those long hours stuck in that stuffy room began to get the better of me and slowly but surely I would start to rationalise a few YouTube videos or a little time on Facebook, just to 'give me a break'. Harmless, right?

Unfortunately, that kind of thinking has a slippery slope - because the moment you begin to justify those small graces, it opens the door to so much more. Before I knew it, the majority of my library time was spent on my phone and on my iPad - messing about. Which would have been fine if I had been aware of it at the time, but the dangerous thing was that I wasn't. I would walk out of the library each evening having convinced myself that I had put in a good shift. (because let's be frank - I was in there for hours!) In reality though, if someone were to monitor how much of that time was actually spent productively, the feeling would shift dramatically.

I definitely wasn't the only one. Once I gained the self-awareness to see this in myself - I started to see it in so many other people in that library. People who would be spending hours at the desk, but would be forever changing the music playlists on their iPods or procrastinating on their phone or computer. It was truly eye-opening. All of a sudden, the curtain had been lifted and I saw that those people who I had been using to motivate me to work - were not actually the hard-working few I had built up in my mind. It was a facade.

Of course this was but a mere portion of library-goers, I don't want to paint everyone with the same brush, but in reality it was a much bigger proportion than one would think.

Now I don't believe there was anything inherently wrong with the outlook of these people (including me), I think rather that they had simply fallen into the trap of trying to work as hard as they could, without a plan.

A strong work ethic is one of those character traits that has become almost cliched in any CV or job interview - but even so it is one of the most powerful traits to have in the world today. I cannot deny it's leverage. However, when people are merely working hard for the sake of it - that's where I think it becomes a problem.

I've seen it time and time again through my university career - working excessively hard is a badge of honour to be worn with pride. All-nighters and long library sessions are met with admiration by fellow classmates, it's an attitude to strive towards! That's what makes it so addictive, it wins you respect from your peers.

However, I'm willing to bet, that if you were to analyse the per-hour productivity of those crunch time sessions - it would be leaving a lot on the table. Having gone through a bout of time tracking myself, I can vouch for the fact that where I think my time is going is quite often not where it's actually being used. So I wonder in an 8-hour library session, how much is actually aligned with building on knowledge?

That's why I believe hard work, on it's own, is ineffective. Sure you will get there eventually, but you will end up spending much more time than you should of, you would have lost crucial mental bandwidth and cognition and most of all - will probably feel dreadful afterwards. As I can appreciate, having done so myself. Many times.

Working smart however has another connotation altogether. For some reason, the term has developed wings of its own and it now is commonly interchanged with ideas of hacking or of finding shortcuts. I want to make it clear, I do not use it in this sense.

For me, working smart is simply a matter of prioritization. My grandfather always used to say 'First Things First.' and I think that's a great mantra to live by. The most successful people in the world didn't get to be where they were because of raw talent or dumbfound luck. They took the talent and luck they were blessed with and applied it to a project that was important. They applied their energy in the place where it would have the most impact.

That's where the secret lies for me. Where are you placing your energy?

I'm a big proponent of Pareto's Law which states that in almost any endeavor, 80% of the results will be driven by only 20% of the inputs. So the trick is to find what that fulcrum is, in order to gain the most leverage you can from the energy you expend.

Following from this, I believe that working smart is about finding the crucial game-changing steps to take that will provide the most impact - and throwing all your energy into that. 2 hours of concentrated work on the right topic/method can be worth a hell of a lot more than 8 sub-par, procrastination-filled hours. By doing so, you also open up plenty more time to relax, recharge and enjoy the other pleasures of life. It maximises your per-hour output - and your hard work is spent effectively. —

In summary, the Working Hard v Working Smart debate is somewhat of a misnomer.

For me, the goal should be to find the few things that make the greatest impact on what you want to achieve, and consciously apply that work ethic to making those few things happen. Throw everything you have into those identified key priorities. Stay away from the spray-and-pray approach where hard work is a goal, in itself. A careful, considered plan is needed and greater results will surely follow.

I would love to hear your thoughts? What has worked for you in the past?