There Really Is a Difference between Working Smarter vs. Working Harder

Earlier in my management career, I bought into the notion that the best managers (and employees) were those who worked the longest hours. It seems intuitive that someone who gets to work early and stays late and comes in on the weekend must be more valuable and productive than someone who works less “hard.” And, in fact, there may be a correlation between long hours and the commitment one has to his or her work and organization. On the other hand, not only is there no correlation between how many hours someone works and how much value they bring to an organization, in the extreme, putting in very long hours can actually make someone less effective and less valuable. In short, we often mistake how much we work for how hard we work, when a much better measure would be how dedicated and productive we are while working.

I have worked 12 and 13 and 15-hour days in my career. Occasionally there are situations in which a particular task or issue is so time sensitive and so critical to the organization, that it is justifiable, if not necessary, to work an extremely long day or week. However, over time, week in and week out, if someone is working 12 to 15 hour days, he or she is probably lacking in efficiency and/or unable to prioritize effectively. Moreover, as most of us have experienced personally, after a certain point, our ability to do “good” work, to focus, wanes. This is supported by compelling research into the effects on cognition of extended work without breaks. After 10 or more hours in the office, the quality of our work and the clarity of our attention is simply at a lower level than it is earlier in the day. In fact, we begin to make mental errors. We also become less creative and more rote—and that is certainly not good for ourselves or our organization.

Additionally, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find the elusive “work-life balance” when we are working such long hours. By definition, if we are spending that many hours at work, we are not spending those same hours with the people who matter to us outside of work and that will eventually create stress and conflict at home that will distract us at work!

Again, while there are occasions when working a long day or week is necessary, getting more done and doing it well within a reasonable time frame generally leads to better results and a better mental state. As I noted in a previous post about the myth of long hours correlating with productivity, I cite very compelling research that suggests that people who work at very high levels, but for shorter periods of time, likely create higher quality outcomes and more value than those who work long hours, but with diminishing mental focus. In short, identifying which tasks will create the most value for ourselves and those around us, and doing those well, is working “smart” and it is preferable to accomplishing more tasks with mediocre results. Regardless, for many of us, we will never get to a point during the day in which we are “done” with our responsibilities. We simply choose the point at which we leave what isn’t done until tomorrow. If we have prioritized well and done good work, then we can choose a reasonable point to leave the rest for tomorrow—and we will be happier and healthier, both at work and at home.

One last point: shifting to working smarter requires that we give ourselves permission to violate what are long standing organizational norms and socialization. In many workplaces, particularly in the U.S., managers don’t even use all of their vacation time, let alone give themselves permission to work shorter/flexible, but more productive days. It can take a lot of courage to be the one who walks out the door at a reasonable time, but if you are in an organization that actually values quality and productivity over quantity and activity, you will ultimately be rewarded for working smart.

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