“Work smart, not hard”—we’ve all had an uncle, teacher or boss repeat this popular phrase to you once or twice. We generally have an aversion to hard work, because it’s, well, hard. We’d rather envision success bestowed upon us easily, and gloss over the agonies of effort and failure and small victories offset by large disappointments; but I have a feeling that whoever coined this phrase never accomplished anything in his or her own right. So many factors go into achieving anything—focus, circumstance, goals, luck, etc.—but none of these mean anything without the sheer effort.
Hard work is the cornerstone of accomplishment.
Everything else is built on top of that foundation. If the foundation is shaky, the rest of the structure is weak and doesn’t last. I was speaking with a friend the other day who postulated that we don’t often hear about doing the hard work from people who have ‘made it’ because we tend to subconsciously gloss over the difficult stage of pouring into the foundation without seeing much in the way of return—it can be so trying that we don’t want to remember it; and thus we often miss seeing it as an integral part of the process. But hard work is the common denominator among those who have found success. There is no replacement.
Hard work means constantly working to improve, to make every project better than the last. Hard work means revisiting that concept that didn’t work out and making it into something. Hard work means keeping going when things aren’t going right. Finding what went wrong with a bid, an idea, a project, and figuring out how to avoid that mistake next time. Getting up early to stay on top of things, or not going out so you can stay up late and finish a personal project. Avoiding copying things you’ve seen elsewhere in order to come up with something fresh. Hard work is pushing yourself outside your comfort zone.
Have you ever felt like you’re working hard but nothing comes of it?
I know I have. I’ve done a lot of working hard, and then have become discouraged when I don’t begin seeing results. I’m sure you can relate—scenarios where you give it everything you’ve got, but it simply isn’t working. That brings us back to the adage of working smart. It’s apparent that the idea of replacing the concept of hard work is nonsense, but who says that there has to be a hard/smart dichotomy? When I look back at my own habits, I’ve realized that while I do a lot of working hard, I don’t do enough working smart. Suddenly the question changes from “why aren’t things working out” to “how can I make all this hard work more effective?”
How can I work smarter?
Full disclosure: I’ve struggled with working smart, turning hard work into effective work, and I’m still figuring this out as I go. What’s more, there are always new ways to adapt, and the tactics you used to work smart last year might be different this year. That being said, here are a few things that I’ve found helpful.
Relax wisely. It’s common to mistake being busy for hard work; but while it’s easy to make oneself busy, but it ends up being counterproductive. Working hard isn’t subjecting yourself to drudgery—it’s focused and also acknowledges when a break is necessary and actually makes the time spent working more productive.
Set defined goals. Hard work needs a direction to go in. I had a chance to work with Target a few months back—a client I had long been interested in working with. I was doing work that would be of interest, and I sought out a couple people on a friendly level, showed this work regularly. I’ve interacted with a number of people there but Eventually the opportunity arose to do a couple of pieces for them. That’s one example of a specific goal that I set—a good client that I wanted to work with—and took steps toward, and it eventually came together.
Be friendly. Going back to the previous example—nobody likes a salesman type. Make friends, not connections. Share with others, and people respond. Getting to know someone who may be a potential business connection doesn’t have to be slimy; and realize that not everyone you talk to who may be a potential business connection will be! I’ve known a few people at Target for years, but the opportunity wasn’t right until this project came about.
Don’t be (too much of) a perfectionist. I tend to be detail-oriented and stress over minutiae, and I end up wasting a lot of time by overthinking. Often it’s better to polish something to a reasonable level and put it out there, avoiding this trap, than to agonize over details that don’t end up improving the project substantially. Ship it, don’t overthink it!
Figure out what makes you feel more productive and do more of it. Something like taking a 20-30 minute run when you’re beginning to lose focus is beneficial on a number of levels—it’s healthy physically, but it also lets your mind take a break, and you can come back to the project with fresh energy and. The 30 minutes you spent running would likely have been spent checking social media and foggily staring at the screen anyway—it’s time spent in a way that improves productivity later.
There’s No Magic Bullet.
There’s no formula for success; we can’t just plug in the numbers and find ‘x’. There’s no owner’s manual for life, or any of the meaningful aspects of it. But this is about the closest to a formula as it can get. I’m currently in that stage of pouring in the foundation, figuring out as I go how to do this best and how reach the next level; it can be a long and trying stage, and if you’re reading this, you’re very likely in this stage too. But don’t let up—building anything takes a lot of hard work, a lot of smart work, and a lot of time. So ignore your uncle/boss/teacher and keep working your tail off, making smart decisions—use all the tools in your box!