You Should Stop Trying to "Work Smarter, Not Harder"
May 24, 2016

You Should Stop Trying to "Work Smarter, Not Harder"

by Brian de Haaff

Business mantras are intended to elevate and inspire. And like anything that promises a quick fix, they have been shared and repeated on every social network. Trite, silly, or shocking, most business mantras are ultimately harmless. Others fall into the more troublesome category.

“Work smarter, not harder” is of the more pernicious variety.

I liken this one to a weed that looks suspiciously like a flower. It resembles good advice, but upon closer inspection it makes you a bit uncomfortable. (And maybe even a little itchy.)

This mantra was likely revolutionary in the 1930s, when Allan H. Mogensen introduced the concept of “work simplification,” along with a little thing called a flowchart. But we have come a long way since then. We have new insights into what motivates people to give their best, and how work can be best enjoyed.

Work should be more than a paycheck that puts food on the table. It can challenge you to grow intellectually, enrich your relationships, and add meaning and purpose to life.

That is why the phrase “work smarter, not harder” should be yanked out by the roots of its underlying assumptions. It suggests that work is:

Easy Making your work easier is the wrong end-goal, because it runs counter to our natural instinct to work hard. Challenging work helps us strive toward mastery; easy work leaves us feeling empty. The process of solving tough problems and improving by even the tiniest of increments can be frustrating and sometimes painful. But effort leads to growth.

Predictable While it is good to formulate a plan to improve your productivity, problems will not arrive in a predictable fashion — nor will their solutions. You do not have a crystal ball to anticipate and schedule everything that might occur throughout the workday. (And if you did, work would become a bore!) Work should be a little unpredictable. It keeps things interesting.

Solitary The concept of “work smarter” puts undue focus on quickly completing individual tasks. But if teams work that way, they lose a sense of shared purpose. Collaboration makes it possible to surface ideas, identify problems, and work out solutions. In the process of solving hard problems together, teams build camaraderie — which makes the work even sweeter.

Time-boxed “Figure out how to manage this work more efficiently, then you can leave at 5 p.m.” It is a herculean request in disguise — it also stunts innovation. Rather than getting into a flow and working out a problem to its natural conclusion, you work with one eye on the clock to achieve a mythical work-life balance. You may finish the work on time, but at what cost?

If you follow through with this bad advice, it will take the fun right out of what you do and hide why you do it.

“Work smarter, not harder” infers shortcuts where there are none. It undermines our intrinsic motivation — what drives us to get up and want to tackle new problems every day — and robs us of joy in the process.

Don’t let your end-goal be to “work smarter, not harder.” To succeed: Just keep working harder.

Which business mantras really get under your skin?

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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