Working Smarter, Not Harder
Here is a popular Zen joke: A Zen student goes to a temple and asks how long it would take to achieve enlightenment were they to join the sanctuary. The Zen Master answers, “10 years.” The student then asks, “What if I study diligently, work especially hard, and double my efforts?” “20 years,” replies the Master.
The expression work smarter, not harder has been so often repeated as to be a mantra of productivity. Underneath the expression lies a wisdom worth acting on. Faced with multiple tasks and priorities, the natural response is to dig in, work harder and get stuff done. But when we concurrently take on too many tasks, we inevitably fall farther behind.
Doubling down on effort seems like the only way out of this dilemma, but results in feelings of being overwhelmed and paralyzed by competing priorities and tasks. The frustration we often feel when drowning in too many tasks, or a highly difficult one, can shut us down and make us less effective than ever.
Working smarter is all about how a leader uses their thinking skills to minimize tasks and avoid unnecessary action so that progress gains speed. Having a strategy about how to tackle the problem or work is always the first step.
Abraham Lincoln gave us this gem: “If I only had an hour to chop down a tree, I would spend the first 45 minutes sharpening my axe.” The smart pathway is always in knowing what will make a task go well without the friction of extra steps.
Knowing what needs to get done and rallying the resources to accomplish the highest priority is the work of a smart leader. When leaders work smart they find ways to complete tasks with efficiency and effectiveness. Working harder is usually trumped by working smarter. The smart money is on you.
I love the quote from Lincoln. It is going into my 'Book of Wisdom' today. One thing I think I've done a good job as a leader has been to teach my direct reports and their teams not to mistake effort for progress and that by working on less stuff, they will get more done. It took me a while to convince them of this. When I took over this team six years ago, I asked all the managers to put together a list of everything they were working on and who was the lead. When I tallied things up, each person had an average of 12 projects or initiatives assigned to them. I taught them an over-simplified version of Little's Law (the more work in progress a system has, the longer it takes to get things done) and how to prioritize work using a Kanban system. Over the next several months, throughput increased and the lead time for new projects decreased. Not surprisingly, many of the team members thanked me and said they were less stressed out or worried about missing deadlines. We're not perfect my any means. Every one in a while, something hits us like stomping on a line of ants in the sand that sends us scattering in all directions. But give us a few hours to let the dust settle, and we're soon lining back up with a plan. Thanks for the great post today!