Working Hard vs. Working Intelligently

I once enrolled in a tennis camp, run by a character named Jim Phipps.  The camp came with t-shirts that had a clear message in bold lettering:

There is no substitute for hard work.

This statement, a quote of the famous inventor Thomas Edison, is particularly encouraging to believe in when you are working hard.  In the context of a tennis camp, it’s almost an ideal slogan.  It’s a good motivator when you are starting to get tired or bored and you want to push yourself to do just a little bit more.  And it allows you to give yourself a nice pat on the back at the end of a long, hard day.  Unfortunately, as a general rule it is not true.

Four early incandescent light bulbs

Photo by William J. Hammer, 1904, Published 1910. It is ironic that the light bulb is seen as a symbol of creativity; its inventor, Thomas Edison, had a brute-force approach to work that was in many respects the very opposite of a creative approach.

Nikola Tesla, an inventor who worked with Edison, once criticized Thomas Edison on these very grounds [Source], claiming:

His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90% of the labour.

The rejection of Edison’s principle of the necessity of hard work flies in the face of the work ethic in America and in a number of other countries (China included?).  But I have come to realize, time and time again, that the amount one learns in school, the amount of work one accomplishes on the job, and the impact or difference a person makes in the world has a lot less to do with how many hours are put in and a lot more to do with how those hours are used.  I’d like to propose a new mantra:

There is no substitute for intelligent work.

It’s my opinion that the people of the United States of America waste a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, and often have little to show for it.  Ask yourself the question: do you want to work hard?  Or do you actually want results?  I don’t know about you, but I care about results, and while I’m willing to work hard when it is necessary, I staunchly refuse to glorify someone’s work ethic if it’s based on hard work for its own sake.

How to Work Intelligently:

Working intelligently has many different components.  I am going to highlight three of them: focus, creativity, and purposefulness.  Each of these points is subtle and multifaceted, and they are all intertwined in complex ways, but I find them to be useful ways to think about how to work intelligently.

Focus: Being Completely Present:

Focus is one of the most important parts of work.  We’ve all had those days when we sit there attempting to do some dreaded task, say for an hour, but getting next to nothing done as our mind wanders.  At the end of the hour, we realize that only about 25% of the time was spent working, and we have little to show for that other 75% of the time.  We often come out just as tired and stressed as if we had been churning away the whole time, and yet we are left unfulfilled and frustrated with ourselves.

Two Arrows in an Archery Target

Adapted From Photo Contributed by Wikipedia Editor Casito, Licensed under GNU FDL 1.2 or later, CC-SA 3.0

Focus, on the other hand, is immensely satisfying.  After the end of the hour, whether or not we’re finished with our task, we know that we’ve done something.

How can you improve your focus?  Taking regular breaks is well-known to have both mental and physical benefits, and often directly enhances concentration and boosts productivity even in the short-term.  If you find yourself zoning out, it’s probably time to take a break.  Being adequately rested is also important.  You may think that you can stay up late to get more work accomplished, but if you lose sleep because of it, you may pay the price in decreased ability to focus later on.  Since focus rather than availability of hours is more often the limiting factor in productivity, losing sleep to “get more done” often backfires.  And below I will give an even more compelling reason why losing sleep is also detrimental to productivity.

Your general physiological state also affects concentration.  Proper nutrition, proper posture, and being physically active can all aid concentration.  It is for this reason that physical exercises can make outstanding breaks, especially from sedentary computer or office work, or when the nature of the exercises complements the type of physical motions you make during your work.  Lastly, being highly motivated helps a great deal with focus.  Below I talk about purpose; purpose can be a great way to boost your motivation, which can have positive effects on focus.

Creativity: Finding Time-Saving and Work-Eliminating Tricks:

The value of creativity is well-understood by those who possess it, but is often under-appreciated by those who are most in need of it.  In the U.S., this phenomenon manifests itself in many ways, such as the sad manner in which funding for the arts in public education is one of the first areas to get cut when there is a budget shortfall.  I have a personal story that illustrates the potential of creativity to boost productivity, even in a seemingly routine job environment.

A small jazz combo practicing on a stage.

Creative activities like playing in this small, improvisation-focused jazz ensemble provide an important way to cultivate creativity.

My first office job was in the Lancaster County Children and Youth Agency’s fiscal office.  It was what some would see as boring, but I enjoyed it very much.  My work was a temporary job, helping the office get caught up on TANF (Welfare) paperwork.  The job often involved long, repetitive tasks such as alphabetizing huge stacks of papers or entering vast quantities of data into a computer.

Even in these seemingly straightforward tasks, I realized that certain key innovations could drastically change the amount of time required to complete a task.  Placing a stack of papers in a slightly different orientation on my desk would often allow me to work as much as 50% faster.  Some tasks I would do while standing.  I remembered a job I had had a few years before, working in Ric’s Bread Bakery.  The then owner, Ric Tribble, was constantly moving things around–often to the frustration of some of the other employees.  He would notice little things: “You can work faster if you hang this implement over here, instead of there.”  I later learned that this mindset, the desire to continually improve, is a key attribute among people who are successful in any type of job, business, or educational context.

On the computer, there was more room for innovation.  I figured out how to write a few VisualBasic Macros to speed up certain spreadsheet tasks.  Soon, I was finishing my work with a free half hour here or hour there; I used this time to teach myself Microsoft Access, which turned out to provide a key life skill, as it was my first exposure to a relational database, something I have used in some form in virtually every job setting after college.  After a few weeks, I had designed an Access Database that had automated many of the tasks I was required to do.  My job went from taking a full 8 hours a day to taking about 2.  What did I do then?  I designed a larger database to run other aspects of the fiscal office, a database they modified and built off of, and continued to use in some form for at least 7 years.

Can Creativity Be Cultivated?

How did I become such an innovator at that first summer job in college?  People often remark that I’m “smart”; while this may be true to a point, it is an overly simplistic label, not a complete answer.  Such labels ignore the ways in which a person has had to work to cultivate creativity.  In my case, I have fidgeted with computers for years (since the age of 5, learning to program at the age of 8), and I’ve also been a serious musician since 4th grade, something that I think was critical in helping me to become more creative as well as helping me to work together with people.  People see my creativity in a job or school setting, but they don’t see how that creativity did not come naturally to me, something my early music teachers will testify to.  Labelling successful people as “smart” is not illuminating or empowering to anyone who wants to develop their skills and achieve similar successes.  As such, I think that such labels represent an error of thinking that is deeply embedded in the culture of our society.  Creativity is something every person can cultivate.

How can you boost your creativity?  Are there any quick and easy ways you can do it, starting right now?  The most straightforward way, backed by solid science, is to make sure you are getting enough sleep.  The Wikipedia Page on Sleep and Creativity cites some interesting scientific studies on this topic.  Another crucial and simple way to boost your creativity is to set aside time for creative thinking.  Before you start a task, take a certain portion of time to think about how you might do it effectively or efficiently.  Then, when you’re halfway through the task, contemplate again, and do so again after completing the task.  For a brief task, your creative reflection could be as short as 15 seconds, whereas for major projects, you might want to dedicate an hour or more.  Sometimes you might even want to experiment with different ways of doing something and test them to see which methods have the best results.

Goldfinch on a Windowsill

Nature, with its endless beauty and constant flux, provides a great way to spark creativity. I never know what's going to land on the windowsill in front of my main work desk.

I have also found from my own personal experience that contact with other people and external stimuli are key factors in creativity.  Some jobs, such as teaching jobs, produce this contact naturally, whereas others (including many office jobs) often require you to seek it out.  As a self-employed person, I often work in coffee shops for this reason: I find my creativity is boosted by the bustling atmosphere, by running into people I know, and by being able to chat with the employees.  Other times, something as simple as looking out the window can provide a source of creativity.  At home, my main work desk faces a window (pictured above) looking out on trees and weedy thickets that are, on many days, full of birds, butterflies, and all sorts of strange and beautiful creatures.  It is sad that many work environments (such as the stereotypical windowless cubicle maze) have the effect of stifling, rather than nurturing creativity.  In many respects, these environments are a product of our culture’s self-destructive mythology that says that windows represents a distraction that will harm productivity, when in reality, the opposite is true, as a wealth of scientific research has shown [Source – PDF].

Lastly, consider taking up some creative hobbies, or just getting more creative with the things you already do in your daily life.  I find that music, dancing, cooking, and gardening are all sources of endless creativity for me, and they’re all things that did not come naturally to me.  Use services like Pandora to discover new music, or try new foods, and then try to cook new foods.  Start new activities and meet new people.  You may find that you start gaining strange and wonderful insights in seemingly unrelated aspects of your life!

Purposefulness: Making Sure Your Work is Accomplishing What it is Supposed To:

Have you ever worked long and hard at some task, only to realize at some point that it was completely unnecessary, or that it needs to be completely re-done?  You might lament: “If only I had known that before I started working.”  In some cases, such minor workplace tragedies are inevitable, but in many cases they are fully preventable.  From my experience, purposefulness is the easiest way to prevent such wasted effort.  When you have a sense of purpose in everything that you do, and when your sense of purpose is in harmony with that of the organization you’re working within, you will find that you often will identify a counter-productive or unnecessary task instantly and effortlessly, the minute it is given to you.  And when acting purposefully, you will also find that the relevant questions of how to do a task properly come naturally to you at the beginning, rather than having to find these questions through trial and error.

Clouds, sky, and a few trees reflecting beautifully in still water

What is the purpose of including this picture taken in Lubbock, Texas, in this post?

How do you achieve this sense of purpose?  It’s really as simple as looking for it and focusing on it.  My advice for becoming more purposeful in your work is to take the following pieces of advice:

  • Set aside time in your workday to contemplate the purpose behind the work that you are doing.
  • Converse with your coworkers about the work that they do.  Also, talk to others you come into contact with who interact somehow with your work or organization (students, customers, clients, vendors, etc.).  This will help you see how your work fits into the big picture of the organization as a whole, and will enhance your sense of purpose.
  • Read job descriptions, mission statements, and other purpose-oriented statements.  Someone took the time to write them; don’t let that time go to waste.
  • Ask questions about where your work comes from and goes to.  If you are assigned work that will be passed off or handed on to someone else (whether office work, a tangible product, or teaching students who will move on to use the class material in later classes), getting a sense of the “before” and “after” will help your work become more purposeful.

Purpose is also intertwined with creativity.  Many types of jobs are open-ended, in that a purpose or goal is specified, but the means of achieving the goal are essentially boundless.  In sales and marketing, the purpose is to connect your business with people who have a need for the products or services that your business can provide.  Discovering a new vehicle for advertising, a new avenue for networking, or finding a new way to relate to people, can often represent a huge breakthrough which yields greater results with less effort.  In education, a new way of looking at a concept may provide a much easier way to teach or learn that concept.  Without considering purpose, you will merely chug away at whatever existing methods have been handed to you.  But when you start thinking about purpose, you set off a creative brainstorming process which often culminates in ways to not just accomplish the tasks at hand, but sometimes, completely eliminates the need to do those tasks in the first place, or helps you discover much more effective ways to do them.

Sustainability and Work Culture in the U.S.:

The culture in the workplace (and also in educational settings) in much of the U.S. often ignores these facts–and I think this results in a major loss of productivity and a massive waste of resources throughout society as a whole.  Since wise use of resources is a fundamental part of sustainability, I think that work culture is an integral part of sustainability.  There are other ways in which work culture and sustainability are related, beyond just the direct question of productivity.  Thinking about purpose often leads one to think more about sustainability, and as sustainability is a purpose, thinking about sustainability also promotes more purposeful work as well.  By tackling issues of workplace culture, individuals, businesses, and organizations will not only become immensely more productive (which has tangible and huge financial benefits) but will also become more sustainable as well.

What Can You Do?

  • Work intelligently yourself, and work at learning how to learn and learning how to work intelligently.  The benefits will be innumerable.
  • When someone labels a person someone as “smart”, point out the way in which the person may have had to work to develop the skills that went into their accomplishments.
  • When someone praises a person as being “hard working”, point out the ways in which the person’s success was a function of their approach and not just the amount of hours they put in, and give examples of how they were working intelligently.
  • If you are in a position of authority, set an example of working intelligently, and work to create incentives for those under your guidance and supervision that promote intelligent work, not just hard work.  Encourage workaholics to take a break or leave work at a reasonable hour, and repeatedly emphasize that you care more about what they get done than how many hours they put in.
  • If you work in an environment with incentives that make it difficult for you to work intelligently, be assertive and work to get better incentives put in place.  Your commitment to being productive will be your largest asset in terms of getting through to people who may at first seem resistant to your ideas.  Do not get discouraged if it seems like an uphill battle.  The U.S. is currently dominated by a culture that glorifies hard work and often ignores intelligent work.  However, the the idea of working intelligently is such a common sense concept that anyone will agree with it if it is presented from the right angle.  Be persistent in your insistence on working intelligently, and those around you will eventually come to see the benefits of this approach.
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4 Responses to Working Hard vs. Working Intelligently

  1. transego says:

    Amazingly helpful information! I’d never given much thought to purposefulness. It makes so much sense that you may be more productive and get more out of your work if you have a clear picture of why you are working and the goal you are trying to achieve. To think that you could work extremely hard without being efficient is a scary thought. Everyone believes hard work pays off, and it’s true to an extent. It seems that working intelligently just pays better.

  2. inkspeare says:

    Loved this post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insight 🙂 I can relate to much of this.

  3. Sylvia says:

    Wow, this is interesting. I was just thinking about the concept of purpose this past week while trying to fulfill an art commission. My assignment was to come up with some ideas for someone who wasn’t sure exactly what they wanted. I’m a very purpose-oriented person and I don’t have a lot of experience coming up with different methods of doing something because in my past experience, if I know how I want something to end up, I always do it right the first time, and I can do it very fast. When I (or in this case, my commissioner) don’t know how I want it to end up, I will agonize over it for hours, knowing that each adjustment I make seems completely meaningless and arbitrary.

  4. Edwin Santos Garcia says:

    Thanks! It will surely help me. God Bless! Keep posting interesting and helpful articles.

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