How to Work Smarter

  |   Personal Effectiveness Print Friendly and PDF

The other night, we had the first celebration of the month for our “March Birthday Group.” Here’s part of the conversation.

Speaker 1: “What exactly does it mean to ‘work smart?’ How do you do it?”

Speaker 2: “Ask Wally. He writes about that stuff.”

Yes, I do. And I’ve been working on working smarter almost my entire adult life. I learned from dozens of writers and speakers and friends. I tried experiments and kept records. I tried to keep what works and ditch the rest. Here’s my take on how you can work smarter, based on what’s worked for me.

Work on The Most Important Things

You can have too many important things. Two is maximum. One is better.

Pick measurable behaviors that drive important results. Then, keep records so that you don’t fool yourself.

If it’s important, do it first. That means first thing in your day. If you do that, the rest of your day can be filled with all the things that other people want you to do.


Try to carve out large blocks of uninterrupted time to work on the important things. Remove distractions. Hide, if you must. And, do one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is the devil.

Say “No” to Things That Aren’t Most Important

People will ask you to do all kinds of things. If they don’t serve your purpose, say, “No.” Be direct. Don’t sugarcoat it. In the beginning, you may feel awkward, but if you develop the habit of saying, “No,” you’ll become much more productive.

Learn to say “no” to good ideas and intriguing possibilities that distract you from the most important things. This is not natural, so it’s hard. If they’re not “most important,” the response should be “no.”

Reduce Cognitive Load

Save your brain power for your most important things. Use checklists, reminders, and automation to get things done without conscious effort. Learn how to create helpful habits that automate your thinking. Work at getting better at developing those habits.

Leverage Your Strengths and the Strengths of Others

Spend time improving what you do well. That will yield greater improvements than spending a time shoring up weaknesses. Make those weaknesses irrelevant. Stop doing them. Find someone else to do them. Learn to do them “well enough.”

Learn to leverage the other people’s strengths. Learn to ask, “Who can do this well?” Even if you can do a task better than anyone in the world, delegate it if it doesn’t help achieve your most important things.

Take Care of Yourself

You’ll be more productive, especially over the long term, if you take care of yourself. That means taking care of yourself in all ways.

Make sleep a priority. You’ll be tempted to sacrifice sleep to doing just a little more work. Avoid that temptation. Crush it. Instead, sacrifice time spent on other things to sleep. It will pay off in the long run.

Take care of your body. Eat right. You know what that means. If nothing else, stop eating junk. Exercise.

Give yourself recovery time. That may be short breaks during the day. You might even want to take a nap. Recovery time can include a weekend that’s real time off. It certainly includes vacation.

Pay attention to your relationships. Having a circle of people who love you and are concerned for you is one of the greatest sources of happiness. Dig this well before you’re thirsty.

A lot of this is counterintuitive. You will want to work just a little more. You’ll work at the expense of an important relationship because the people who love you will forgive you, until they don’t. But pay attention to it. Take care of yourself and you will be able to work smarter.

Bottom Line

This advice is culled from more than 50 years of working on my personal productivity. Your mileage may vary on this one. You’ll do some things that I don’t do, and you’ll find some of the things that I do really dumb. That’s okay. That’s life.

Work on no more than two important things. Concentrate your work into large blocks of undistracted time. Work on one thing at a time. Learn to say “no,” even to good ideas if they don’t help achieve your most important things. Use productivity tools to reduce cognitive load. Leverage your strength and the strengths of others and take care of yourself

Books That Will Help

The first book I read about effectiveness was Peter Drucker’s classic, The Effective Executive. Today, the language and some examples will seem dated, but the advice is still solid gold.

Many of the ideas and concepts I adopted over the years came from books. Here are five of them.

The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals by Chris McChesney , Sean Covey, et al.

The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande

The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear

Great at Work: The Hidden Habits of Top Performers by Morten T. Hansen

Note: All links to Amazon are affiliate links. If you follow the link and buy a book, I get a small commission.

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