How to work smarter, not harder

Of course, it’s important to work hard. But you won’t get far in your career just by trying to work longer hours than your colleagues. The key to success is to work smarter, not harder.

1. The 80:20 principle 

In 1906, an Italian economist called Vilfredo Pareto noticed that 80% of Italian properties were owned by 20% of the population. He went on to discover many more places where this 80:20 ratio appeared, especially in economics and social studies. This gave rise to what we now call the Pareto Principle: 80% percent of your results come from 20% of your efforts.

Does the Pareto Principle feature in your life? Maybe when you get dressed, 80% of the time you choose from just 20% of your clothes. If you start looking for examples, you’ll probably find more than you expect. 

You can also apply the Pareto Principle to your career. Wouldn’t it be good to get 80% of your results from just 20% of your efforts? This can help you work smarter. If you can identify ways to generate 80% of your results from 20% of your efforts, you can greatly improve how efficiently you work. You know to spend less time doing things that don’t produce results and more time doing things that do. Ask yourself how to get to the point where 20% of what you do will deliver the best and most important results.

2. Don’t become obsessed with perfection 

Many people worry about not doing things to a high enough standard. Do you find yourself trying to make sure that everything you do is perfect? You’re probably getting obsessed with perfection and wasting time. You may find your company would be satisfied with ‘80% perfect’.

In business, it’s often a bad idea to aim for perfection. How strong should a bridge be, from a good engineer’s point of view? The answer is: strong enough. There’s no need to make it any stronger and it would waste a lot of time, materials and money.

Don’t make any effort that isn’t going to be valued by your company. The extra effort you need to go from ‘80% perfect’ to ‘100% perfect’ is never worth it. You could end up really struggling with your work to fix tiny details that nobody will even notice. Instead of trying to do more work, try to be more efficient. Try to get to the point where you get 80% of your results from 20% of your energy and efforts. 

3. Make a good ‘to do’ list 

An easy way to organise your day is to make a ‘to do’ list. You can have a list for each day or, if you’re more experienced with ‘to do’ lists, one for each week. Here’s how to make this a great tool for you:

  • Have a ‘to do’ list for each day.
  • Write the list for each day either the previous evening or first thing in the morning before the day’s work has begun. 
  • Keep the list as short as you can or it will be overwhelming. 
  • Include the most important tasks, not just the most urgent ones.  
  • Link the tasks on your list to a larger, overall goal. This gives you some extra motivation.
  • Put the tasks you least want to do at the top of the list, so you tackle them first.  

By aiming to keep the list as short as you can, you will leave out relatively trivial tasks and focus on the ones that really matter. 

4. Make good use of lists

Your ‘to do’ list isn’t just a good way to organise your working day. You can use it in at least three other ways. 

  • When you can’t sleep
    Sometimes, you go to bed but you can’t sleep because your brain won’t settle down. Keep a notebook and pen on the bedside table. Write down all the things you’re thinking about and then lie down again. By getting your thoughts out of your head, you’ll fall asleep more easily. This is also a good way to preserve good ideas you want to remember. 
  • When you can’t concentrate
    You may struggle to concentrate because you’re daydreaming or lost in thought. Grab your notebook and write down whatever was distracting you. This is a good, practical way to clear your head so you can concentrate.
  • When your head is full of ideas
    Sometimes you get into a creative frame of mind and come up with lots of good ideas. Get your notebook and write them all down. This means you won’t forget your ideas later and it helps your mind to settle down.

5. Don’t drown in meetings 

Working life involves a lot of meetings! Project meetings, information meetings, general meetings, customer meetings, sales meetings, planning meetings and so on. During the early part of your career, you get invited to meetings. Later on, you’ll be organising them. 

At the start of your career, you may not have much choice about which meetings you attend. Later on, you may feel you can save time by attending some meetings but not others. After all, some meetings are poorly planned and not very productive. You might also get invited to meetings when there’s really no reason for you to be there. If you’re given a choice, use your judgment and only attend meetings when you have a really good reason to. Be just as careful when you host or organise meetings. Only arrange meetings that are necessary and productive, and only invite people that really need to be there. 

Consider these questions:

  • What is my contribution to this meeting?
    Whenever you get invited to a meeting, ask yourself, “What will happen in this meeting because I’m there? What won’t happen if I don’t go?” If the answers are ‘nothing’  and ‘very little’, consider whether there’s any point in attending. 
  • What will others contribute to this meeting?
    When inviting others, ask yourself, “What will happen in this meeting because this person is present and what would not happen if they didn’t attend?” As before, if the answers are ‘nothing’ and ‘very little’ then there’s probably no point in inviting this particular person. 

6. Know that hard work doesn’t always help 

You won’t get anywhere in your career without hard work. It’s simply unavoidable. But just working hard is not the way to have a successful career. 

There are plenty of people who work hard without achieving much. Others succeed without working particularly hard. It’s also dangerous to think you can achieve anything just by working as many hours as possible. This doesn’t work. We all get 24 hours in a day, no more and no less. You can work very long hours for a while but you’ll have to stop at some point! 

If you want to succeed, don’t aim to spend more hours at work. Instead, keep your hours the same but learn to get more out of them. In other words, learn to be more productive

7. Don’t get stuck in the past

Imagine your boss has given you a job to do. Ask yourself how you can do it in the most efficient way. Most people never bother to ask this question. They just make a start and hope for the best. There are several reasons why people usually don’t think about how to get a job done. 

  • The way it’s always been done
    The fact that a job has always been done in a particular way doesn’t mean it’s the best or only way to do it. If that were true, there would never be any new ideas.
  • The way you’re told to
    Whoever tells you to do something might also tell you how you have to do it. But their way might not be the best way — or at least not the best way for you.  
  • The way you think is best 
    Is the way you think the job should be done necessarily the best way? You might be overlooking some good alternatives.

Whenever you hear, “This is the way we’ve always done it”, see it as an opportunity to come up with something better. There’s probably a smarter method just waiting to be discovered. Also, the fact that something has traditionally been done a certain way is no guarantee that it’s still the best way. If you get into the habit of doing this, you will slowly but surely become more efficient.  

8. Make sure to do the task correctly

Don’t just aim to perform tasks correctly. Aim to perform the correct tasks. This is an important part of working efficiently. 

Let’s say you’re particularly good at baking chocolate cakes. You have perfected your cakes by constantly making small improvements. One day, your brother says he’s going to bring his new girlfriend to meet you and you make one of your cakes to mark the occasion. When your brother and his girlfriend arrive, she sees your beautiful cake. Unfortunately, she’s allergic to chocolate. Is this a successful result? You made a great cake but your brother’s girlfriend couldn’t enjoy it. 

Whatever type of work you’re doing, from time to time consider why you’re doing it. What’s the purpose? What are you trying to achieve? If you know what you’re trying to achieve, you may be able to find a better way to achieve it. Who knows — you could find a way that nobody’s thought of before.

9. Avoid email chaos 

Throughout your career, you will read and write thousands of emails. Emails can be a highly effective way to communicate. Unfortunately, they can also lead to complete chaos.

  • Talk, don’t email
    The best way to communicate with someone is to talk to them face to face. The next best option is a video meeting, then a telephone call, and then — at the bottom of the list — is to send an email. Emails can’t convey mood, energy, tone of voice, facial expression or body language, which is why they’re so easily misunderstood.
  • Don’t copy everyone in
    When you send an email, copy in as few people as possible. The more people you copy in, the more chaos and confusion there is when emails get sent back and forth. 
  • Never email when emotional
    You can write an email when you’re angry — but never send it! Think of emails as public property. The email you send today might end up on the front page of a newspaper tomorrow or get circulated on the internet. Would you be happy with this?
  • ‘Sent’ doesn’t mean ‘read’
    You can never be sure that someone has read an email just because you sent it. Emails disappear, end up in spam folders and get overlooked or forgotten. If you need to be sure your message got through, call the recipient.  
  • Nobody reads long emails
    The longer your email is, the less chance there is that anyone will read or understand it. Always keep your emails short and easy to read. Never include more than three main points.
  • Avoid email arguments
    Never send an email to have an argument or point out someone else’s mistakes. When you attack someone by email, they’ll fight back the same way. You end up with a series of angry messages being sent back and forth, which never achieves anything. If you find yourself in a dispute with someone, talk to them face to face and look for a solution.

10. Keep things simple

You may think the way to impress people is to do things that are difficult or complicated. However, it’s often more impressive if you can find a way to simplify things. It’s true that sometimes you have to analyse reports and figures in detail. However, there is such a thing as thinking too much and being over-analytical. 

When you talk to colleagues, avoid technical jargon and words that most people won’t understand. Keep it simple. In meetings, you’ll often be asked to explain things in a simple way that everyone can follow. This is a good skill to develop. 

It’s true that most trades and industries have their own specialist jargon. But you have to be able to explain things in a way that people outside your industry can understand. 

11. Pay attention to what’s around you

You can learn a lot just by watching how people communicate and the way they relate to one another. You will learn a lot about people by simply paying attention to what is going on around you at work.

Topic: Motivation Mastery